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The Bizarre Need to Take Sides and Our Foreign Policy Debates

Paul Pillar makes [1] the case against taking either side in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry:

It would be just as much of a mistake for the United States to tilt in favor of Iran in this conflict as it is to tilt in favor of Saudi Arabia. Taking either side in this rivalry, as with many other international rivalries, entails several disadvantages for the United States.

There is a strong bias against neutrality in our foreign policy debates. Not taking sides in this or that conflict is rarely taken seriously as an appropriate response. Instead of asking whether the U.S. should even take a side, it is taken for granted that the U.S. “must” choose one or the other, and the main debate concerns only how much and what kind of support to provide. This is a recurring problem in debating the proper response to conflicts inside countries as well as rivalries between them. One reason for this is that U.S. interests and the interests of another state or faction within a state are conflated from the beginning, and this is done to make it much more difficult to recognize that the U.S. doesn’t actually have interests in the conflict or rivalry in question. Hawks often “adopt” a faction or government and then fault the U.S. for “failing” to do enough to help “our” side. Refusing to take a side is portrayed as “abdication” of “leadership” or otherwise pilloried as too passive, and the bias in favor of action in our debates helps to make it harder to advocate against taking sides.

Today’s Fareed Zakaria column [2] shows how difficult it is for most pundits to do this. Even when arguing for steering clear of regional sectarian rivalry, Zakaria can’t avoid endorsing U.S. support for the Saudis:

In general, the United States should support Saudi Arabia in resisting Iran’s encroachments in the region, but it should not take sides in the broader sectarian struggle.

But it is not possible to support an overtly sectarian Saudi government in its preoccupation with opposing Iranian influence without being pulled into the “broader sectarian struggle,” in no small part because the Saudis define their resistance to Iran’s supposed “encroachments” in terms of religious sect. The Saudis falsely claim that their war on Yemen is aimed at “resisting Iran’s encroachments,” and the U.S. has been supporting their campaign from the start, and in so doing it is helping to fuel sectarian hatreds in Yemen and beyond. Zakaria correctly recognizes the pitfalls of being pulled into sectarian conflicts in the region, but won’t acknowledge that the U.S. is caught up in them because of the support it provides to sectarian governments. He specifically mentions the growing sectarianism in Yemen, but doesn’t make the connection with U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention there. Despite explicitly saying that the U.S. shouldn’t take sides in “someone else’s civil war,” he approves of doing just that by accepting that the U.S. should keep supporting the Saudis.

One of the most common arguments for siding with the Saudis in their hostility towards Iran is that they are our “ally,” and therefore the U.S. should automatically support the position of its “ally.” This overlooks that the U.S. has no treaty obligations to the kingdom, and ignores that the so-called “ally” does virtually nothing for us. The U.S. cannot expect and does not receive the sort of automatic support and cooperation from so-called “allies” that many hawks expect the U.S. to provide to them, but it is often assumed that the U.S. would be “abandoning” the so-called “ally” if it chose not to take their side against a regional rival. For some reason, many Americans forget that the relationship with an “ally” exists to advance our interests and not so that our government can indulge theirs in its vendettas and obsessions. When U.S. interests are no longer served by such a relationship (if they ever were), the U.S. doesn’t need and shouldn’t want to keep it the way it is.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "The Bizarre Need to Take Sides and Our Foreign Policy Debates"

#1 Comment By Prof. Woland On January 8, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

But when you live your life with a Manichean Worldview–then you have to pick a side.. because it is always good vs. evil…

#2 Comment By Ian G. On January 8, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

I pull my hair out when seemingly reasonable people like Zakaria don’t even bother asking why Saudi Arabia is our “ally”. From a cold realist position, why do we cafe if we keep Saudi oil flowing when we could always turn the Iranian spigots on? From a liberal interventionist position, Saudi Arabia has a far worse record than Iran of foreign aggression, sponsorship of terrorism, and human rights violations at home. If we have to be someone’s ally over there, we should be Iran’s.

That being said, I agree that we should not take sides in a spat between regional rivals, especially when an ancient theological blood feud is at the heart of the spat.

#3 Comment By jamie On January 8, 2016 @ 3:19 pm

From a cold realist position, why do we cafe if we keep Saudi oil flowing when we could always turn the Iranian spigots on?

Saudi Arabia allows us access to their oil resources on our terms, and to be more specific, Saudi Arabia does us the very kind favor of denominating all of her oil transactions in dollars, requiring every other country on Earth to maintain huge reserves of dollars and US debt. If Iran was in the driver’s seat they would never sustain the petrodollar.

There’s also very little question of Saudi regime’s oil resources falling in the hands of populist or democratic elements that might use oil to overtly embarrass or destabilize the United States — the Saudi’s bleed us dry, but subtlety and in a way that US voters are unlikely to punish their leaders for.

#4 Comment By collin On January 8, 2016 @ 5:16 pm

Jamie, Is this still true in 2015? Might have years ago but oil is below $40/barrel and investors are (too fast?) running to the dollar. And the biggest importer of Mid East oil is China and they are having trouble whether to keep the fixed dollar exchange rate or all the market to devalue.

There’s also very little question of Saudi regime’s oil resources falling in the hands of populist or democratic elements that might use oil to overtly embarrass or destabilize the United States

#5 Comment By Jon Lester On January 8, 2016 @ 7:13 pm

American neutrality might be the very thing needed to keep the conflict contained, and now would be a good time to disabuse that 30-year-old deputy crown price of the notion that we’ll be there for him no matter how audacious and emboldened he becomes. I don’t really expect a rational mindset to prevail, of course, but in my mind, that would be true “leadership” on our part.

#6 Comment By jamie On January 8, 2016 @ 9:23 pm

Jamie, Is this still true in 2015? Might have years ago but oil is below $40/barrel and investors are (too fast?) running to the dollar.

I’m not sure of the degree to which the “petrodollar system” is responsible for the relative stability of the dollar, its status in international reserves, or how much our ability to finance our debt relies on petrodollar float, but I’m pretty sure no president really wants to find out. Particularly when the alternative is supporting the Saudis in a war that has approximately zero domestic political relevance, like Yemen; or, say, favoring the KSA over Iran, a state that, even under the best circumstances, is deeply unpopular in the US. Turning from Saudi Arabia is all downside.

Doing the “right thing” in international relations is worth about, I would say, twenty-five cents at the pump and 500 basis points. Any more than that and we Vote the Bums Out, morality be damned.

And a lot of developments are changing that, but I’m not sure we’re there yet. $40 a barrel is cheap; but oil in the mid-century was $20 a barrel in inflation-adjusted terms, and hovered in the $30s in the 1990s.