A New York Times editorial on the U.S.-Saudi relationship earlier this week contained this baffling assertion:
But it has not been American practice to give allies a free pass when they’re destabilizing the region [bold mine-DL], and Saudi policies, both domestic and foreign, have become increasingly aggressive under Crown Prince Mohammed.
If this has not been the common American practice in the past, it will come as news to the people in Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, among other places destabilized by the actions of our allies and clients. In 2006, the Bush administration gave Israel carte blanche as it bombed Lebanon for weeks, and the U.S. did much the same during multiple campaigns in Gaza. When U.S. allies agitated for military intervention in Libya in 2011, the U.S. under Obama did more than give them a free pass. The Obama administration joined the intervention and helped to topple a government that posed no threat to us or our allies. When regional allies and clients wanted to start meddling in Syria by arming opposition forces, the U.S. aided and supported them as they stoked the conflict. It is hard to think of examples where the U.S. has not given allies and clients a free pass for their destabilizing behavior. More often, the U.S. has encouraged that behavior and engaged in it along with them.
The most glaring example of giving our clients a free pass has come in Yemen, of course, and U.S. support for the Saudi-led war there has been unstinting since the spring of 2015. Obama’s desire to “reassure” the Saudis became the official excuse for enabling an atrocious war, and that involved repeatedly giving the coalition a free pass for their war crimes and helping them to conceal those crimes for years. Obama was not personally flattered by the Saudis, nor was he mesmerized by foreign authoritarian leaders as Trump often seems to be, but he still endorsed and enabled a disastrous war in the most consequential error of his presidency. He also set the record for presiding over the most arms sales to the kingdom during his eight years in office. Trump may be more susceptible to Saudi influence, but in practice Obama was just as ready to support them to the hilt.
None of this started with Trump, who has simply adopted the worst policies he inherited from Obama and made them even worse. The pattern of indulging allies and clients in their abuses and destabilizing policies goes back long before these examples. These are just the most recent instances of looking the other way or actively aiding and abetting these governments in their destructive acts. One reason why the Saudi-led coalition has received so little criticism or opposition from Washington is that our political leaders take it for granted that our government should automatically back so-called “allies.” Then once our government has made itself complicit in their excesses and crimes, there is reluctance to call attention to those excesses and crimes. It is encouraging that there is some significant resistance to this policy in Congress now, but it has taken the creation of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis to generate it.
The conventional D.C. wisdom in the closing years of Obama’s presidency was that Obama had neglected U.S. clients and been too solicitous of Iran. Trump has embraced that false view and applied it with a vengeance. If we hope to oppose the misguided indulgence of clients such as the Saudis, it isn’t enough to fault Trump for sucking up to Salman and his son. As awful as that is, it is just a symptom of the noxious relationship with the Saudis. We have to remember that most of our political leaders mistakenly consider them to be our “allies,” and they also make the mistake of thinking that this requires us to provide uncritical support for whatever they want to do. The first step in rejecting these views is to stop calling them our ally and to start emphasizing that our interests and theirs increasingly diverge. Then perhaps there will be greater willingness to call out their abuses and to withdraw U.S. support from their reckless policies.