Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Balance of Powers Diplomacy in the Middle East

It is commonly accepted that American presidents have alternately conducted foreign policy either by promoting democracy or by practicing balance of powers diplomacy. The name Woodrow Wilson is most often associated with the former. Henry Kissinger is the best-known practitioner of the latter.

Today, David Goldman suggests that we can best understand what is happening in the Middle East by seeing it as a rebalancing of Sunni and Shia powers. He suggests that George W. Bush’s Wilsonian policies destroyed the balance. Prior to the Iraq War Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government had balanced Iranian hegemonic ambitions. After Bush overthrew Saddam and sponsored democratic elections, Iraq became a Shia state, thus upsetting the Sunni-Shia balance. 

At a time when many commentators are gnashing their teeth over the recent events in Saudi Arabia, a little rational thought cannot hurt.

Goldman believes that we can best see the rise of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman within this context:

The ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – with the assistance of the United States and the approval of China – occurs in the context of an effort to restore the regional balance of power, following 15 years of instability due to America’s sponsorship of Shi’ite rule in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government balanced Shi’ite Iran. When the George W. Bush administration overthrew him and imposed majority, that is, sectarian Shi’ite rule in Iraq, the disenfranchised Sunni minority supported non-state actors, namely al-Qaeda and its offshoot ISIS. The regional power balance shifted drastically in favor of Iran, and the Obama administration’s jerry-rigged nuclear deal with the Iran gave it additional power….

Russia, to be sure, wants to restore its status as a world power; the Saudi royal family supports an expansionist brand of Salafist Islam; the Turks imagine themselves the founders of a new caliphate; and Iran wants to establish Shi’ite hegemony. All of these attitudes are relevant, to be sure, but America’s willful destruction of the Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power in the region drew all of these players into a permanent regional war. Whatever the ambitions and illusions of regional players, America’s strategic bumbling in Iraq compelled them to act as they did out of raison d’etat.

Now, after two presidents tilted toward the Shia, unintentionally and intentionally, the current administration is trying to empower Saudi Arabia. In that it is not alone:

After tipping the balance of power towards the Shi’ites, the United States now wants to restore the balance of power by reinforcing Saudi Arabia. So do Moscow and Beijing. If Prince Mohammed bin Salman didn’t exist, Washington would have to invent him. Saudi backing for “non-state actors,” namely terrorists, came in response to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent Sunni insurgencies in Iraq and Syria, but the world’s sufferance for such support had reached a limit. Just as important, the kingdom would run out of money without a drastic reform. As I wrote two years ago, the kingdom’s vast subsidies for an idle population would drain the its treasury within five years. The number of pigs at the trough had to be reduced to keep the kingdom solvent, and that was a primary motivation for the culling of the royals.

As the old saying goes: Follow the money.Thus, Goldman examines the the balance sheet, the Saudi kingdom’s ability to continue to subsidize thousands of idle princes. 

Why did Mohammed bin Salman launch his crackdown against powerful Saudi princes? Apparently, he wanted to bring money back into the kingdom, and to disempower his potential rivals by reducing their bank accounts. Currently, the princes who are sleeping on the floor of the Ritz Carlton ballroom are negotiating their release… or better, trying to buy it it. Goldman notes a fact that I had not seen: that MBS was supported by the United States Treasury Department.

Goldman explains:

His seizure of power earlier this month began by freezing the accounts of prospective adversaries. On Oct. 26, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the formation of a Terrorist Financing Targeting Center in Riyadh. That is an extension of the Treasury’s 700-person Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Department. The Treasury office has a close relationship with CIA. Its Undersecretary during the second Obama Administration, David S. Cohen, moved from Treasury to become Deputy Director of CIA. People familiar with the Treasury operation report that the US Treasury provided the Crown Prince with “technical assistance” in his efforts to seize royal family funds, namely the location of all their accounts. The kingdom is now in negotiations with various royals as well as their bankers over these accounts, reportedly offering some of the princes now imprisoned in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel their freedom in return for a large part of their fortunes. It has also asked banks to turn over accounts to the kingdom. That is a delicate negotiation, because the banks do not want to frighten away high net worth clients by making it easy for the Saudi authorities to expropriate funds.

Saudi Arabia is not merely forging an anti-terrorism alliance with the United States. It has also worked to improve its relations with China and Russia:

… as M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote in Asia Times Nov. 18, Saudi Arabia went out of its way to reaffirm its friendship with China. China’s commentary “specifically praised the Saudi leadership on two counts. First, it upheld the authenticity of MbS’ desire to shift toward moderate Islam – ‘Saudi wants to be less bound by religion… Although Saudi strengthens its soft power by exporting Wahhabism, it leads to the spread of extremism, seriously damaging Saudi’s international image. Hence Riyadh wants to change’,” Bhadrakumar observed.

We have reported the diplomatic initiatives directed by Saudi Arabia toward Israel and vice versa. Clearly, it is one of the more important strategic realignments in the region. And it has been supported the Saudi grand mufti.

Goldman writes:

…  MbS has opened relations with Israel. For Saudi Salafists, this is not as odd as it seems. As Burnahettin Duran wrote Nov. 19 in Turkey’s Daily Sabah, “MbS laid the groundwork for Riyadh’s cooperation with Israel, which was recently endorsed by the Saudi grand mufti, who said that it was not permissible to fight against Israel, identified Hamas as a terrorist organization and issued a fatwa to declare that cooperating with the Israeli military against Hamas was permissible. To be clear, it should not come as a huge surprise to anybody that Salafism, an apolitical movement that promotes obedience to rulers under any circumstances, would endorse fighting with Israel. The same people could, with equal ease, legitimize a type of moderate Islam flavored secular Arab nationalism.”

As opposed to many squeamish observers, Goldman downplays the chance of war with Iran:

Israel, to be sure, will not risk its own people to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work, but the skill and experience of the Jewish state could help the kingdom enormously in the event of war with Iran. That is very unlikely. Iran has no air force, and its Russian air defense cannot defend soft targets such as electric generating plants. With a vast arsenal of highly accurate Chinese-built medium-range missiles and a very large air force, Saudi Arabia could destroy the Iranian economy in a few days of war.

Goldman predicts that Russia and especially China will attempt to tamp down Iranian ambitions by having them participate in Xi Jinping’s rather ambitions One Belt, One Road project. He looks at this with guarded optimism:

China and Russia will try to persuade Iran to abandon its grandiose plans to repopulate parts of Syria with Shi’ite settlers, and concentrate on restoring its property through participation in the One Belt, One Road infrastructure project. Whether Iran will agree to do so is unclear, but the Chinese carrot is balanced by the Saudi (and Israeli) stick. If Iran attempts to emplace a permanent military presence in Syria it will have to fight Israel, and I do not think Iran wants to take that risk just now.

In the best case, a new balance of power will emerge in the Middle East, freezing out the Sunni non-state actors as well as Iran’s marauding Revolutionary Guard Corps, and allowing the countries of the region to attend to their economic future.


trigger warning said...

Hm. With all these detentions and clawbacks, I expect economic stress in Monaco and Belgravia.

Jack Fisher said...

"If Prince Mohammed bin Salman didn’t exist, Washington would have to invent him." Even in jest, this is the most insightful comment in the article.

James said...

I've said this other places and possibly here, but I'll say it again. This article is missing a key element to this situation, Solemeini. He is charismatic, somewhat gifted and very ambitious. He is the greatest danger to the Mullahs in Tehran. He's established a power base outside of Iran (Hezbollah, the Shiite militias, and Quds) and has done the heavy lifting on the "Land Bridge" project and mow has nowhere to really go except home at the head of an army to become the next Shah. The Mullahs and their religious regime are intensely disliked in Iran. Expect a call from Iran (whether legit or made up) for Solemeini to come home and deliver the country from the Mullahs.