The fistfuls of military largesse for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, five Gulf emirates and Israel, brought to the Middle East by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, did little to break the ice
It remained rock hard even in sizzling summer temperatures of 45 C degrees, which was too hot to generate the mood in regional capitals for tough strategic decision-making on the issues of interest to the Bush administration. Most of the rulers would have preferred to hold off for kinder weather in the second half of September and wait until the US military commanders in Iraq submit their recommendations.
In any case, the days are past when Middle East rulers waited on tenterhooks for the outcome of debates on Capitol Hill that touched on their fate. Since early 2007, most go their own way, excepting only Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Israel’s Ehud Olmert and, up to a point, Turkey’s Tayyep Erdogan.
The rest are only waiting to hear the answers to four questions:
1. When will US troops pull out of Iraq?
2. What are the figures? How many will leave Iraq and, by definition, how many will stay?
3. At what tempo will the evacuation take place?
4. Who will be left at the head of central government Baghdad? Most Arab rulers profoundly mistrust the incumbent government and parliament and, most of all, the Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki.
They see no reason to agonize over any other American decisions or plans for the Gulf and Middle East because they bear little relevance to events on the ground, especially in the gathering climate of unpredictable volatility in the coming fall and the last winter of the Bush presidency.
Clearly, America’s standing in this region has undergone a tidal change.
Bashing Saudis ahead of diplomatic overture
Its governments are only waiting to see where and when Washington goes on Iraq, before going their separate ways and pursuing their own military, diplomatic, economic and energy strategies, quite apart from the United States.
Since the days of the Cold War, the nations of the region have never turned their backs so determinedly on the United States. They still fully respect America as the pre-eminent military and economic power bar none. But they have also concluded that the Bush Administration has run out of answers for curing the predicaments posed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Kurdistan and Lebanon, and fallen into a state of helpless inability to bring its great strengths and resources to bear in the neediest areas.
What’s more, Arab rulers, especially Saudi King Abdullah, see little difference between the two sides to the debate between the Bush administration and its Democratic and other opponents on plans and policies for addressing the region’s ills.
Most presidential hopefuls, like Hillary Clinton and her team of foreign policy strategists, think in terms of retaining a long-term US military presence in Iraq; Barack Obama appears unable to grasp the region’s complexities.
The ultimate conclusion is that the next president in the Oval Office in Jan. 2009 will be saddled with more or less the same Middle East policy predilections as George W. Bush.
Officials in Riyadh wondered why American policy-makers found it necessary to so harshly condemn Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Iraq, focusing on the large number of Saudi suicide bombers blowing up US soldiers, shortly before two top US officials set out on a major Middle East tour. Since no mention was made of the Saudi terrorists fighting Lebanese soldiers, the Saudis finally deduced that the campaign was designed to pull them away from backing Sunni Muslim insurgents with funds and weapons, so as to compel the Shiites and, if necessary the Kurds, to guarantee the Sunni Muslim community a place in the sun over Iraq’s future.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, loosed the bluntest broadside of all, accusing the Saudis last week of undermining the Iraqi government. On CNN’s Late Edition, the former ambassador to Baghdad said the Saudis were working against Washington’s efforts to stabilize Iraq. He thus placed the oil kingdom for the first time in the same basket of disrupters of US policies as Iran and Syria.
Saudi rebuffs follow
The next day, Monday, July 30, as Rice and Gates were packing their bags for departure, the American diplomat made a lame effort towards repairing the damage. He was quoted as telling reporters at UN headquarters in New York that Saudi Arabia is “a great ally” and friend of the United States.
But then, Khalilzad went on to scold Saudi leaders and urge them to do more to help end Iraq’s sectarian violence. “In terms of Iraq, we would benefit, the Iraqis would benefit, the region would benefit from a more enhanced Saudi cooperation toward stabilizing the situation,” he said.
By then, it was too late. The words were out and no one in Riyadh believed the diplomat had spoken off the cuff.
Past Saudi monarchs Khaled and Fahd – reputed to be the most pro-American of any Saudi ruler – rather than publicly voicing their resentment of American conduct, had their own peculiar ways of signaling displeasure. In March, King Abdullah too cancelled his attendance at a gala White House banquet in his honor. Visiting American dignitaries, of the ranks of secretary of state or defense, have found themselves left to cool their heels in an anteroom for hours after an audience was scheduled to take place.
In the latest instance, the Saudi monarch did not bother with subtleties; he prevaricated in the face of his American visitors’ wishes, when not openly rebuffing them.
1. They were given no chance to meet the pro-American Prince Bandar bin Sultan, national security adviser and architect of the abortive partnership against Iran launched earlier this year by the US and Saudi Arabia. Bandar was kept well hidden until they left.
The American officials had to make do with intelligence chief Prince Moqrin bin Abdelaziz.
2. Another high-up, who by every rule of diplomatic etiquette should have been on hand to welcome Defense Secretary Gates, was conspicuously absent too. Defense minister Crown Prince Sultan was away in Cairo on the day the two US secretaries arrived in Jeddah and returned home hours after their departure.
Again, Gates had to be satisfied with the defense minister’s assistant, Prince Khaled bin Sultan and air force chief, Gen. Muhammed Ayish.
Prince Bandar missing, defense minister Sultan absent
3. While Rice and Gates were in Riyadh, the Accordance Front, the main Sunni Muslim political bloc, pulled all its six ministers out of the Maliki government in Baghdad. It is highly unlikely that they would have taken this step without at least tacit approval from their backers in Riyadh.
4. The two American officials failed to extract a clear Saudi answer on any of the pressing issues they raised, whether Iran, Iraq, or Palestine. Heavy strings were attached to any cooperation with Washington on these issues. For instance, the king was willing to send a delegation to Baghdad for steps to reopen a Saudi embassy, but he refused to set a date for this gesture and insisted the mission would deal strictly with bilateral Saudi-Iraqi business. Rice and Gates were therefore denied any sort of breakthrough to announce after their Jeddah talks.
They found the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors with more than one bee in their bonnet.
The manner and timing of the announcement unveiling a pledge of $20 billion dollars worth of military aid for Saudi Arabia and five Gulf nations did not go down well in any of the oil-rich capitals. It is not that they don’t want American arms, but the timing seemed pointless if the purpose was to counteract Iran’s menace to its neighbors.
A high-placed United Arab Emirates source confided to DEBKA-Net-Weekly that even if the financial terms of the huge transactions are processed at double speed, delivery of the arms cannot take place before 2010 at the earliest, too late to change the fact that by then Iran will be armed with a nuclear bomb.
“If Washington means to prepare us for the nuclear era in the Gulf region, it’s no good selling us weapons systems which have no relevance in the face of a nuclear-armed enemy,” the source complained.
A military source in the Gulf had another bone to pick:
“Washington may be sending the USS Enterprise Strike Group to the Persian Gulf. It has not yet arrived. The other two American carriers, Nimitz and Stennis, have gone to take part in an exercise far away in the Pacific.”
(See separate article in this issue on big US Valiant Shield Exercise beginning Aug. 6.)
“So where does that leave us?” asked the Gulf military official. “Vice President Dick Cheney and Robert Gates promised us three American air carriers to protect us plus naval, marine and air forces. Now there are none.”
The Gulf is left without a single US carrier
Persian Gulf governments are therefore increasingly skeptical that American pledges to strengthen their security against the Iranian threat will be matched by military action.
Gordon Brown’s first talks as British prime minister with George Bush on July 28, just before Rice and Gates set out on their Middle East tour, was another complicating factor.
After their Camp David meeting, the two Atlantic leaders presented the media with a united front – especially on Iraq. But the leaks from those talks swirling around the Middle East and Gulf portray a different picture.
Our sources disclose that the British premier is reported to have given the US president pretty short notice of no more than two months, before he pulls the British army out of Iraq next October.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that, while this information has been slow to come out in Washington and London, the penny has dropped with a loud clang in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.
It was not the only jangling sound which reverberated around the region in the background of the Camp David encounter: Forty-five of the most prominent tribal leaders of southern Iraq gathered to declare the foundation of an autonomous entity, a step no less momentous than al Qaeda’s proclamation in 2005 of an Islamic state in central and western Iraq.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly 308 presaged this development on July 6 under the title: Basra is Poised to Secede from Iraq under Saudi Protection.)
The high points of the declaration of the southern Iraqi autonomous region are laid out in the next article.