As a candidate for the Oval Office, Donald Trump was not shy about criticizing Saudi Arabia. Contexts change, though, and as President his administration has refrained from unjustified, unnecessary, and provocative statements in this regard.
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest places, is a country that is vital to America’s national interests and strategic concerns. It has been one of the foremost U.S. national security partners for the past eight decades – longer than any other developing nation.
If America is to be “great again,” it can and must be greater in very particular ways. One of which is to be far greater than derogatory and antagonistic rhetoric toward a country central to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who represent nearly a quarter of humanity.
By selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his historic visit, the first official one to any foreign country, President Trump has been prudent to seize an opportunity to turn a new and more positive page towards Arabs and Muslims in the region and beyond. The President’s visit has a chance to begin healing wounds that have been inflicted on Muslims the world over.
A Historic Visit
Selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on this historic visit – when the American President could easily and without controversy have selected any one among numerous other countries – sends a strong message to the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.
The announcement of his visit to the country has already had a powerfully uplifting and relevant symbolic effect. Its impact has been greatest on the Kingdom and its neighbors.
Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time. The visit speaks volumes as to how vital these countries are to the United States. It underscores their critical importance to America’s friends, allies, and the rest of the world.
Dr. Harb took issue with President-elect Trump’s allegations that Syria has no strategic significance for the United States. Beyond the numerous rationales to the contrary that Dr. Harb so effectively provided – his line of reasoning is powerful and persuasive – the following are further considerations.
Taken individually, these phenomena do not equal the force of the zeroed-in strategic perspective that is a feature of Dr. Harb’s essay. Considered collectively, however, it would be hard to argue that, beyond the immediate and dire humanitarian issues that cry out for an effective rescue and relief response, Syria, for so many additional reasons, is not of immense strategic importance.
The classical and modern day country that is, or at least was, Syria – which for the longest time was one of the world’s richest open-air museums and which brims with archaeological treasures – remains at once immense and diverse. Buried in its lands are the relics and remains of those who paved the way before modern peoplehood came to be and whom those with ancestries rooted in the so-called West are the descendants of, including the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Elamites, Nestorian Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans, and many, many more.
In my sixteen visits to Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, one curator of its treasures after another declared that, of the nearly 450 archaeological sites in the country, the number that had been opened was only forty. When the dust of the rebels’ defeat subsides and a sense of normalcy returns to the country, it would seem fair to ask what, therefore, awaits humanity in the gems of insight into human history and heritage that lie beneath Syria’s lands?
With the devastation visited upon Syria these past five years still unfolding, the ensuing losses to knowledge echo the tragically near identical earlier and continuing ones tossed to the winds next door. Indeed, they bear an indelible footprint from the ongoing American-induced chaos – in Rafidain, or historical Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers – in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In one of the first acts accompanying America’s trampling of Iraq’s sovereignty and ending its political independence in 2003, U.S. soldiers, ordered to seize control of the Ministry of Petroleum, sped past the country’s unsurpassed historical museum. In so doing, to the delight of vandals, they left not only the museum, but also the priceless remains of numerous other Iraqi archaeological sites, together with numerous weapons depots, unguarded.
The world’s immediate and lasting response was massive and pervasive disbelief. As if in one voice, many asked: “How could such a powerful America be so mindless of the moral and humanistic obligation to protect one of the world’s richest storehouses of knowledge and understanding related to humankind’s destinies and its earliest achievements and limitations since time immemorial?”
The results of the U.S. Presidential Election last month confounded most American political pundits and many professional pollsters. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton also surprised many observers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). Almost immediately after the result was announced, though, it became clear that leaders from the region were ready to embrace the new President-elect and prepared to quickly adjust to the new political reality.
Within hours, GCC officials congratulated President-elect Trump. They expressed a desire to strengthen the decades-old partnerships between their respective countries and the United States. According to at least one Saudi Arabian news outlet, President-elect Trump conveyed a similar sentiment to King Salman. The two reportedly spoke by telephone within hours of the election results. Each side appears to be fully aware of what lies ahead. All appreciate how difficult it will be to overcome the unprecedented political violence and insidious sectarianism that has convulsed seven of the 22 Arab countries in recent years.
Numerous observers in the GCC countries have expressed hope that President-elect Trump’s administration will adopt a proactive approach to the turmoil in the region. Others are particularly eager to ascertain what, if anything, he may do differently than the Obama administration regarding the threat posed by militant groups like the so-called Islamic State. Just as importantly, there is anticipation that the new President will take seriously the GCC’s deep concerns about Iran’s policies in the Arab world.
The reference to the latter concern is especially Tehran’s support of militant non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as what further assistance it may extend to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It is difficult, of course, at this early stage to ascertain the contours of what may, at some point, become known as the “Trump Doctrine.” Even so, important lessons can be drawn from history.
A seismic change is taking place in the United States while important foreign policy issues confront its ascendant political leadership. From a resurgent Russia to a dangerous Chinese grab of international waters in the South China Sea, and from the troubled Middle East to uncertainties facing Europe, the new Trump administration – as heir to America’s leadership legacy – will have to hit the ground running on January 20, 2017. Among the insanely complicated challenges it will have to untangle and help resolve is the Syrian civil war and tragedy that has caused internal destruction and invited foreign actors to interfere and intervene in the heart of the modern Levant.
Syria the Unimportant?
President-elect Donald Trump made it clear during his improbable presidential campaign that the United States should just cede Syria to Russia and Iran and allow them to help its president destroy whatever opposition he faces. Incorrectly, and ignorantly, he claimed that the trio was fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, to the contrary, the evidence is that the brunt of Russia’s, Iran’s, Lebanon Hezbollah’s, and the Iranian-led Afghan Shia’s military action has been against the moderate opposition.
Candidate Mr. Trump also opined that Syria does not constitute an American strategic interest. This claim has actually been bandied about not only by Obama administration officials. Some Republican politicians and members of the foreign policy community in the American capital also adhere to this view. Neither claim – that Russia and its allies’ attacks have been directed entirely against ISIS and that Syria is of no strategic interest to the United States – was or is true. Mr. Trump’s analyses and assessments are therefore not only perilously flawed; in light of the facts, they are downright dangerous, the exact opposite of accurate, and, as such, constitute serious threats to American and American allies’ national security and related interests.
What Must Come
The first imperative the new administration will have to examine about Syria, come next January, should therefore be Mr. Trump’s claims regarding Syria. Some of the more misleading claims admittedly carry a grain of accuracy and for that reason are seductive, but at the end of the day they are half-baked and hardly the grounds for making sound and effective policy regarding the country. These include the assertion that Syria lacks sufficient hydrocarbon resources to make it a pivotal ring within the international economic chain that American global hegemony cherishes, a perception that is buttressed by the fact that, with the advent of shale oil, the United States’ need for offshore sources of energy has decreased dramatically. A second perception that adds to the confusion is grounded in the fact that, notwithstanding Syria’s having long maintained the peace on Israel’s north-eastern border, and despite its having administered the American-approved Syrian condominium over Lebanon during and after the latter’s civil war, no Damascus government has ever been a pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
The National Council is pleased to present the most recent addition to its Analyses and Assessments series: an essay on “U.S.-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS.” The author, Dr. Imad Harb, is a Non-Resident National Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow.
Dr. Harb has served as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland. Earlier, he worked for seven years as a researcher and analyst in the GCC region. He also served as a Senior Program Officer for Education at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), where, in 2008, he authored a USIP Special Report on “Higher Education and the Future of Iraq.”
The author takes measure of the robust and enduring defense and security relationships between the United States and the GCC countries. In so doing, he takes note of the nature and extent of progress made by the 67-member coalition battling the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Dr. Harb examines the need to plan now, not later, for the reconstruction and stabilization efforts necessary for the territories already liberated – and those yet to be liberated – from ISIS control. In so doing, he identifies the numerous but little reported contributions that GCC countries have made in the fight against ISIS. He also highlights the ongoing challenges to domestic security as well as external deterrence and defense that the region continues to face.
In the process, Dr. Harb acknowledges the ways in which robust GCC-U.S. cooperation is working for the respective partners’ and parties’ collective and mutual as well as individual interests and benefit.
In terms of timing, the atmosphere for producing such an essay could hardly be more receptive. The moment, moreover, could hardly be more propitious. The evidence for both is rooted in the extraordinary array of summit-like meetings of late among the coalition’s principals.
The sheer number of these high-level gatherings has been remarkable. So, too, among the participants has been the seriousness and intensity of their deliberations. Together, these endeavors have hardly been mere academic exercises. To the contrary, they have been the opposite.
Conventional Opinions, Thoughts, Wisdoms
They have exposed the purveyors of so-called informed opinion. They have revealed the quackeries of established thought. They have uncovered what otherwise passes, but should not be allowed to pass unchallenged, as conventional wisdom.
As such, they have helped mightily to counter many of the cynics. Among these were the perennial pessimists. Counted among them were those professional naysayers who had never regarded the GCC-U.S. relationship as a serious alliance or even a credible geopolitical arrangement to begin with.
Dr. Harb’s essay therefore refutes the many who had seemed resigned to believe that whatever the parties to such international leadership summits might agree to – in terms of how best to wage the war against ISIS – is likely to be too little and too late.
In the process, the essay’s author underscores how numerous analytical factors are frequently missed or receive insufficient attention in American commentary regarding the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.
In this, one might ask, “Is there nothing new under the sun?” What’s new and exciting is that, yes, there is.
This has arguably been and remains the case with regard to the anti-ISIS campaign’s efforts to come to grips with ISIS’ roots and rise. And it continues, too, to be the case in the battle to free the territories that ISIS has captured.
Aims and Aspirations
In any rational effort to comprehend how ISIS came into being and what is a driving force for many of its members, it would seem unquestionable that one should, and would, focus foremost on first factors, on causal realities.
With this as context, metaphorically speaking, would the phenomenon of there being a “Made in the United States” label in the eyes of so many ISIS’ victims ordinarily be viewed as a commonplace occurrence?
No, researchers and writers would ordinarily regard something of this nature, context, and dimension as no everyday experience but, rather, a reality and insight of profound importance and relevance.
Yet an insight as significant as this, key as it is to one’s knowledge and understanding of the roots, formation, and evolution of ISIS, is frequently overlooked, forgotten, or ignored.
So, too, for many commentators, is the otherwise seemingly inexplicable reason for how and why so many U.S. government policies, positions, actions, and even attitudes have severely damaged key American foreign policy objectives in Arabia and the Gulf, one of the world’s most vital regions.
“Of what objectives is one talking about,” would be a legitimate question. The answer: the maintenance of security and stability, something so basic to any people’s existence and prospects for future development and prosperity – which is arguably just as legitimate – that it could hardly be clearer and more straightforward.
Included among the decisions with the gravest negative consequences was the George W. Bush Administration’s rejection of the United States’ GCC allies counsel not to attack Iraq.
That the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq caused the deaths and maiming for life of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands more Iraqis and other Arabs, there can be no doubt.
That one group of human beings could and would attack and murder another group of human beings who are not in the process of mounting an imminent attack begs the simplest and therefore the most profound of questions: “Why?”
Truths and Consequences
If this and the mainly American policies, positions, actions, and attitudes towards Palestine from the very beginning fail to provide insight into the raison d’etre and staying power of ISIS, insofar as its leaders and rank and file members from the beginning have been and remain so anti-American, then what would?
In the process of killing a country – of destroying a nation and a people that had not attacked the United States or posed any grave danger to U.S. interests – America cannot say it didn’t know what might happen.
America did know. Its Arab and especially its GCC friends, allies, and strategic partners in the build-up to the invasion and occupation repeatedly said, “Don’t do it; don’t do it; don’t do it – you don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll be in over your heads and not know how to get out.”
Prior to the American-led attack against Iraq, this writer participated in separate meetings with two quite different GCC foreign ministers in their respective countries who reiterated this message. The ministers spoke to members of delegations of American leaders for whom it was my privilege to lead to the GCC region’s countries on fact-finding missions up to the day in March 2003 when the invasion began.
But speak the truth as often and as forcefully as these and many another Arab leaders did, it was all for naught.
Did not the military action that the United States commenced in 2003 unleash the torrents of carnage that continue to this day? And if not, what did?
Does it require a rear view mirror or a replay of the recordings from years past to underscore that the present challenges which the United States’ GCC allies cautioned against more than a decade ago are – surprise, surprise – also the ones that a robust and enduring GCC-U.S. partnership are working to solve?
This latter question is but one among numerous others that Dr. Harb’s essay seeks to address.
Dr. John Duke Anthony Founding President and CEO National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Washington, DC
Much has been said about the supposedly troubled relations between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Many in Washington have gone out of their way to paint the relationship as weakening in a way and to a degree not previously envisioned. The “evidence”: some cite a desire on the part of the Obama Administration to shift its focus to East Asia to counter Chinese adventurism.
Others point to something else. They cite the brokering by the United States of a nuclear deal with Iran. From this perspective, the latter will purportedly pave the way to a full return of American-Iranian relations but only – and some would claim obviously – at the expense of the GCC.
Still others note the United States’ lukewarm attitude regarding the Syrian quagmire, and/or what appears to be a hands-off approach toward pressing concerns elsewhere, whether elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf or in the wider Middle East.
And yet, the reality is that, in contrast, the nature and extent of political coordination and military cooperation between Washington and Gulf capitals have seen a robustness that proves the exact opposite.
When the Arab uprisings began in 2010, the future of the Middle East looked more uncertain than usual. In the midst of the turmoil, Saudi Arabia was forced to strengthen and clarify its foreign policy. Since then, the Kingdom has structured its foreign policy leadership and its vision for its future around unity, stability, and responsibility.
The unity that Saudi Arabia advocates, and the vision it promotes, is the unity of the Arab Gulf. In the past few years, the Kingdom has made great efforts to prioritize the oneness of the Gulf’s Arab countries and their shared interests over small and transient differences. In the struggle to restore the legitimate government to power in Yemen, the Kingdom has forged a coalition of the GCC countries and likeminded Arab and non-Arab countries to achieve that aim. The purpose has been to prevent the usurpers of power, the Houthis and the forces of the deposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from forcing themselves on the Yemeni people.
As sectarian violence deepens rifts and breaks apart homes and communities across the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s call for unity has become more urgent than ever. Iraq and Syria are among the countries following the same heartbreaking narrative: citizens with the same shared history, religion, and homeland continue to be torn apart by radical groups exploiting sectarian religious and ethnic divisions for their own gain. Groups like ISIS, the Shi‘i militias in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah, and the Houthis use religious extremism in order to gain loyalty by providing the young a militant identity, a sense of belonging, and a vision for which to fight. But the unity of radicalism is an illusion; it cannot exist without an enemy. It reaches not toward harmony but toward domination and control. ISIS is a symptom of the disease of anarchy in Syria and Iraq.
But the unity of radicalism is an illusion; it cannot exist without an enemy. It reaches not toward harmony but toward domination and control.
Russia has now added to this bloody scene air strikes aimed at Syria’s moderate opposition, which is fighting ISIS and Bashar al-Assad alike. This is a most unwelcome addition to an already combustible situation. Russian representatives state they are there to fight the terrorists. Alas, together with the United States Moscow is ignoring the father of all terrorists in Syria – Assad. In Baghdad, the legacy of Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian rule disenfranchised the Sunni Iraqis and allowed ISIS to take advantage of the resultant vacuum to establish rule in Mosul and other parts of Iraq. Fix Damascus and Baghdad, and ISIS will wither away.
Fighting sectarianism is far from easy. Sectarianism thrives on the enmity of others. The kingdom asked fellow Islamic countries in 2012 to build a center that will research and help dismantle sectarian ideologies while promoting intersectarian dialogue. But there is only so much that can be done for countries like Iraq and Syria, where sectarianism has become and remains a valuable political currency. The desire for unity cannot come from the outside alone; it must also come from within.
Context and history are necessary to understand Saudi Arabia’s decision earlier this month to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. After the storming of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran – a response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shi‘i leader Nimr al-Nimr on January 2 – Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the cutting of ties. In doing so, he noted that Iran’s aggression is “a violation of all agreements and international conventions” and called it part of an effort by Iran to “destabilize” the region. “We are determined not to allow Iran to undermine our security,” he said.
A sentiment echoing the same tone and spirit while underscoring this Saudi Arabian position of sovereignty and agency in the face of international conflict, and which could just as well have been directed at the recent American media barbs thrown at the kingdom, was conveyed more than two years ago. In an op-ed for the New York Times on December 17, 2013, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz Al Sa‘ud explained,
Saudi Arabia has enormous responsibilities within the region, as the cradle of Islam, and one of the world’s most significant political powers. We have global responsibilities – economic and political – as the world’s de facto central banker for energy. And we have a humanitarian responsibility to do what we can to end the suffering in Syria. We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners.
The flood of media attacks against Saudi Arabia since the executions has been nonstop. For example, the Iranian policymaker Seyed Hossein Mousavian published an article titled “14 Reasons Why Saudi Arabia is a Failed Mideast Power.” And the New York Times printed an op-ed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that provided his view, containing unproven statements, of what transpired and the issues involved.
Because there has yet to appear a different perspective on these matters except for the op-ed by Foreign Minister al-Jubeir in today’s New York Times, this writer, an American who has visited the kingdom often over the past 46 years, is moved to also contribute to the national dialogue on these matters.
He writes as though he were in the shoes of an observer in Riyadh. What such an observer might argue in reply to the media campaign against their country would likely include the following and should be read as quotations.