Thursday, April 05, 2007

What's a Little Hostile Shiite-Controlled State Created on Your Border Between Friends?

That clever beast known as the Badger offers what is the most plausible explanation of motive for Saudi King Abdullah's recent statement that the US occupation in Iraq was "illegal":

It is true that what boiled over was the Saudi realization that their regional influence was under threat not only from Iran, but now increasingly from Iraq too. The reference to an illegitimate occupation of Iraq was really an attack on an illegitimate regime, and for Abdullah a threatening regime, in Iraq, sponsored by his supposed ally Bush. It had just recently become clear that the Allawi-American scheme for creation of an alternate, and more Sunni-friendly Green-Zone regime was being discontinued. If there was any one development that pushed Abdullah into using unexpectedly harsh language, that was probably it.

Actually, this represents a major sticking point in the efforts by the US to forge the US-Israeli-Sunni Despot alliance that I have been flogging recently - that is, that the Saudis and other Sunni regimes are concerned with Shiite ascendancy in general, whereas the US and Israeli are more focused on Iranian power more discretely.

Even an Iraq that the Bush administration would describe as a victorious end-product of democratic stability would be viewed by Abdullah - and his Sunni cohorts - as a major setback. That's quite a tension. At some point, the Bush administration might be forced to decide whether or not weakening Iran is worth throwing in its lot with the ring of Sunni despots in order to usurp the Shiite regime in Iraq.

No doubt sensing their possible "sacrifice" at the altar of countering Iran, Sistani and other Iraqi Shiite parties are circling the wagons big time. Suddenly, Sistani and Sadr are the best of friends. What a coincidence.

This story is also indicative of the larger structural imbalance to such a US-Israeli-Sunni Despot alliance: there are multifaceted conflicting interests and diverging long term goals. To such an extent that it becomes dubious whether progress is possible on any isolated fronts - especially with respect to such ambitious goals as neutralizing Iranian influence possibly through military action.

In fact, these underlying strategic fissures also provides a distinct color to the recent hoopla surrounding the possible detente vis-a-vis Syria. As Badger correctly points out, the Bush administration and Saudi Arabia aren't necessarily on the same page with respect to dealing with Assad (at least the Cheney wing of the Bush administration):

It is true that the feeling of growing threat from Iran and Iraq has changed the Saudi perspective. The Saudi regime now feels an urgent need for local allies, and given the lack of Arab leadership elsewhere (meaning Egypt), this means taking on the missing Arab-leadership role itself, and that in turn means: Promoting action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine. The Saudis are hoping not only for good PR on the Arab street, but also for an end to their feud with Bashar Assad's administration in Syria, weaning Syria away from Iran and back into the Arab fold (and similarly of course with Hamas). While it isn't clear how the proposed Palestinian negotiations will relate to the possible Syria-Israel talks on Golan and other issues, at least the Saudi-Syrian relationship is friendlier than it has recently been (the two having in effect taken opposite sides in the Israel-Hizbullah war). And this is additionally important because Syria and Saudi Arabia have been rivals for influence in Lebanon. What the Saudis are looking for is authority and problem-solving influence in all of these areas. This is not the same as "turn[ing] the region's attention to combating the threat from Iran".

Condoleezza Rice also wants action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine, so on that point Condoleezza and Abdullah are in apparent agreement. However, this is a question of incremental steps, and the first incremental step that Condoleeza is looking for is gradual de facto recognition of Israel by the Arab regimes in the region generally, so that in any eventual war with Iran, America can be seen as simultaneously on the side of its traditional Arab allies, and on the side of Israel, at the same time. That accounts for the importance of this question of Arab-Israel diplomatic recognition as a first step. The first incremental step for Abdullah is quite different: It is the closing of ranks in the Arab world including Syria and including also Hamas, in order to split both of them from their Iranian relationships and bring them back into the Arab fold. Recognition or otherwise of Israel has nothing to do with it, except in relation to a Palestinian settlement.

To put it another way: From the Saudi point of view, the role of Israel will be as interlocutor in talks aimed at peace and ending the Palestinian occupation. By contrast, from American point of view, Israel is something that needs to be grafted into the Arab world as part of an anti-Iran strategy. For the Saudis, the road will hopefully lead to stability and balance, and it starts and ends with their establishment of their own Arab leadership and influence, including in Palestine. For the Americans, the road leads to confrontation with Iran, and an important way-station is the unification of Israel with the Arab regimes in the same anti-Iran camp. These are two very unrelated, and in many ways contradictory, aims. [...]

But the point is that before you try and walk you should put the shoe on your other foot too. Given the stick-figure approach by the US administration and the media, it is to be expected that public opinion in America will now oscillate between thinking the Saudis are really Bush-allies in his anti-Iran strategy, and the opposite view, namely that they are Bush-opponents in their Palestine strategy and their overtures to the diabolical Hamas and Assad. They are what they are, and the problem for institutional America is that there isn't the cultural or linguistic underpinning to understand, not only what they are, but even (it sometimes seems) that there is such a thing as fully human aspirations and motivations in other cultures, at least not in a depth that would be able to withstand the cartoon-oriented propaganda. And the more the shock-a-minute thriller narrative takes hold, the less it seems to matter, and the more it actually does matter. Because the thinness of understanding creates volatility in public opinion just the same as thin markets foster volatility in financial trading markets, and it is a far more dangerous thing, because central banks cannot clean up after violence.

And to think, we're relying on one of the most incompetent foreign policy teams in American history to try to navigate those choppy waters. That should turn out well. Actually, it already has.

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