Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, subscribed to the philosophy, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” a line attributed to Sun Tzu, the famous sixth-century Chinese military strategist. Mr. Lincoln was also noted for saying, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Donald Trump, soon to be America’s 45th president, would be well advised to heed Mr. Lincoln’s finely-honed and admired philosophy as he contemplates his, and the country’s relationship, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is not America’s enemy. Nor should the U.S. ever allow it to be. While it isn’t a country with which the U.S. shares many values, the two powers, one global and the other regional, do share key strategic interests. Neither country can afford to distance themselves from one another.
Maintaining stability in global oil markets is in the interest of both nations; it helps maintain a stable global economy. Preserving stability in the Middle East, greatly strained at present, is also vitally important for both countries. So, keeping the Kingdom close – making it as close a friend as possible and never an adversary – ought to be a key objective of Mr. Trump’s Middle East policy.
During the campaign, the President-elect had some critical things to say about the Saudis, insisting that the Saudis should pay the United States for protecting the Kingdom and even calling to block Saudi oil imports into the U.S. Of course, attacking the Kingdom certainly plays to popular American sentiment and perceptions of Saudi Arabia’s questionable role in the region and around the world. However, one unavoidable fact of regional stability remains clear: no nation, least of all the U.S., can afford a weak or unstable Saudi Arabia. That would hand al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations, as well as Iran, a major a strategic victory.
Today, the Kingdom faces challenges unlike any it has had to confront in its 84-year history. It has begun its second transformation to a modern nation-state. Having already moved from an almost entirely bedouin, rural collection of tribes to a major economic power thanks to its vast oil resources, it must now find a way to parlay that oil-wealth into a more diversified modern economy. Moreover, it must meet the aspirations, both social and economic, of its growing population while still preserving the essentially traditionally Islamic character of the country. Finally, it faces real and perceived threats to its security from both state (Iran) and non-state actors (al Qaeda and ISIS) alike.
Failure to meet any of these challenges could easily lead to instability or worse – the rise of a populist, radically Islamist movement in the Kingdom. Either outcome would be disastrous for the Kingdom, the region, the Muslim world, and the West.
U.S.-Saudi relations deteriorated under U.S. President Barack Obama. The decline is not irreparable but will require concerted action on the part of both governments to repair. While this should not be difficult, it will require President Trump to demonstrate that he’s committed to strengthening the relationship and stability in the Middle East.
First, as he alluded to frequently in the campaign, Mr. Trump should take a close look at the Iran nuclear accord – not abrogate it, but rather find ways to give it more teeth. One way to do that is to appoint a special envoy for Iran who would be based in Washington, D.C. and report to the President through the Secretary of State. The U.S. has no diplomatic ties to Iran and, therefore, no ambassador to Tehran. The special envoy would be the effective U.S. ambassador for all matters Iranian and be tasked with monitoring enforcement of the accord, i.e., implementation and compliance. In addition, the envoy would be responsible for monitoring Iran’s behavior in the region and around the world, including its support for terrorism. The envoy would also work closely with allied governments, American and foreign intelligence services, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and other international institutions to compile the most comprehensive and inclusive reporting on Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement and its government’s behavior.
Iran should know that the U.S. will not hesitate to call out the Islamic Republic on every violation of the nuclear agreement or unwarranted interference in the affairs of Arab states – no matter how slight. Consequences for Iranian infractions could be immediate appeals to the UN Security Council for a suspension of sanctions relief or, absent a change in Iranian behavior, a re-imposition of U.S. unilateral sanctions or even the introduction of new international sanctions. The envoy could also work to identify potential opportunities for cooperation and interaction with Tehran when Iranian behavior and policies warrant.
Second and of equally vital importance, Mr. Trump should announce a “Trump doctrine” that America will never tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. President Obama never made such a clear and pointed statement, despite being urged to do so by Members of Congress. Such a declaration by Mr. Trump early in his administration would be the surest sign to our friends in the region of our commitment to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It would also signal to the Iranian leadership that pursuing nuclear weapons, whether clandestinely before the termination of the various restriction periods or openly afterwards, will mean confrontation with the U.S. and, ultimately, a failure to achieve its security and economic objectives.
Third, the new president will need to make clear that Saudi Arabia remains a vital ally and integral part of his plans to combat terrorism in the region. The Kingdom already contributes substantially in the fight against al Qaeda and the Islamic State through significant intelligence cooperation. Maintaining Saudi Arabia as a key part of this effort will serve to underscore that the Kingdom’s ultimate security is in America’s interests.
Fourth, the Trump administration must work with the Saudi leadership to end the ongoing civil war in Yemen that is both destroying Yemen and draining the Kingdom’s resources; it is neither winnable nor sustainable. This will require some personal effort the part of Mr. Trump and America’s considerable diplomatic heft. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have made strong efforts to end this war, yet it continues to spiral. Ending it will not only relieve the U.S. and Saudi of enormous costs but also reaffirm America’s preeminent position in the Middle East.
Fifth, the U.S. and the Kingdom must reach a common position on Syria to end the country’s nearly six-year civil war. This may require previously unthinkable compromises by both sides, such as the U.S. taking a more forward-leading military posture in the region and Saudis withdrawing their support from some of the more loathsome opposition groups involved in the conflict. Overall, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia need to be on the same page if this war is to be ended on terms acceptable to both countries.
Lastly, the Kingdom is embarking on a remarkably ambitious reform program, Vision 2030. If successful, it will transform the Kingdom economically, socially, and culturally. The Trump Administration should study the plan carefully, discuss it in detail with the Saudi leadership, and look for ways to support the Saudis in this monumental endeavor. Success for the Kingdom will mean greater prosperity and ultimately greater regional stability. That should be what the U.S. wants for any ally, particularly one as strategic as Saudi Arabia.
Identifying U.S. policy priorities in the Middle East is a challenge in itself. However, as Mr. Trump decides on the long list of issues competing for his attention in the region, he should understand that a stable and secure Saudi Arabia impacts them all, and is in the fundamental national interest of the United States. That will require a strong and vital relationship with the Kingdom and ruling Al Saud family.