Like elements of the mujahideen, which benefited from U.S. financial and military support during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and then later turned on the West in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIS achieved scale and consequence through Saudi support, only to now pose a grave threat to the kingdom and the region. It’s this concern about blowback that has motivated Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to encourage restraint in arming Syrian rebels. President Obama has so far heeded these warnings.
John McCain’s desire to help rebel forces toss off a brutal dictator and fight for a more just and inclusive Syria is admirable. But as has been proven repeatedly in the Middle East, ousting strongmen doesn’t necessarily produce more favorable successor governments.
What do you suppose is the likelihood that US soldiers will at some point be deployed to protect the Saudi oil fields and refineries from ISIS? This 2003 Atlantic piece by Robert Baer, a former CIA agent in the Middle East, is, of course, dated, but it’s hard to imagine that the problems he identifies with the Saudi royal family have been satisfactorily resolved. I once had a conversation with a former senior US diplomat to Saudi Arabia, who told me the problem the US faces is that every alternative to rule by the House of Saud is worse, usually much worse.