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Stop ‘Reassuring’ Reckless Clients in the Middle East

The U.S. can afford to end support of clients who behave abhorrently and use the weapons we provided to commit atrocities.

The Biden administration is at risk of repeating one of the most significant mistakes of Obama’s presidency by seeking to “reassure” reckless clients of continued U.S. support. In the last few weeks, Biden has tiptoed around reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran to avoid antagonizing the Israelis and Saudis; he has been careful to stress U.S. support for protecting Saudi Arabia, and has fallen far short of treating the Saudi kingdom as a “pariah.” Even last week’s illegal airstrike on Iraqi militias in Syria seems to have been ordered in part to signal to regional clients that the U.S. is not that eager to negotiate with Iran.

It appears that “America is back” to subordinating its own interests to those of its clients. Catering to these clients’ wishes did not prevent them from trying to derail the nuclear deal in 2015, and “reassuring” Saudi Arabia and the UAE led to the disastrous decision to support the war on Yemen. Indulging them further now will not make diplomacy with Iran any easier, and it will hamstring everything else Biden wants to do in the region.

While the president has taken some encouraging and welcome actions, including the announcement of the end of U.S. support for Saudi coalition “offensive operations” in Yemen and the release of the declassified report that identifies Mohammed bin Salman as the one responsible for approving Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, there is so far no sign that Biden intends to make major changes to U.S. relationships with its clients in the Middle East. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, the U.S. is not looking to “rupture” the relationship with the Saudis, but only to “recalibrate” it. It seems that the recalibration will be minor. It seems as if the other relationships won’t even be recalibrated.

One of the key problems with U.S.-client relationships is that American leaders convince themselves our government must go out of its way to keep clients happy or it risks losing them. Because these states are routinely and wrongly identified as “allies” in D.C. foreign policy debates, they are afforded a level of respect and deference that they don’t deserve and that make no sense given their relatively limited utility to the United States. This puts the U.S. in the absurd position of taking only those actions that clients support while putting the U.S. on the hook for bailing the clients out whenever they engage in reckless behavior. These clients have been allowed to wield remarkable influence in our foreign policy debates when their importance to U.S. security is minimal, and the result is that our government often acts as if the U.S. is the client and the clients are the senior partners in the relationship.

The decision not to penalize the Saudi crown prince for the assassination our government believes he ordered illustrates what is wrong with this approach. The U.S. publicly accused the crown prince of being responsible for a heinous murder, but then for the dubious reason of protecting the U.S.-Saudi relationship it took no action against him. This reflects the excessive fear that many in Washington feel against using the tremendous leverage that the U.S. has with its clients. Instead of holding Mohammed bin Salman accountable for something horrible we all know he did, we pretend that the Saudi relationship is so incredibly important that protecting it overrides other considerations. If our government is unwilling to impose penalties on just one high-ranking member of the government, what are the odds that it will ever cut off support to the government as a whole? Following the illegal airstrike in Syria, the president said that the U.S. was telling Iran that it can’t act with impunity. The message Biden has sent to the Saudis is that they can.

One flaw with this thinking is that the Saudi relationship is not that important anymore. Our leaders treat these relationships as ends in themselves instead of means of advancing U.S. interests, and the result is that the clients assume they can get away with anything and never have to fear losing U.S. backing. In any patron-client relationship, it is the client that should always be more worried about losing support than the other way around. The U.S. does not really need the Saudis at all, and it certainly needs them less than they need U.S. backing. Their government should be the one bending over backwards to reassure Washington. Given their recent record, the Biden administration ought to be making it difficult for them to do that. Instead, the crown prince isn’t even getting a slap on the wrist, and he will conclude from this that there are no limits to what he can do.

Saudi Arabia has increasingly become a liability for the United States. Our enabling of their reckless behavior has been a disaster for Yemen and the rest of the region, and Mohammed bin Salman has been the driving force behind that behavior. The crown prince’s crimes aren’t limited to ordering the murder of one prominent critic, but the backlash to that killing has created a political opening in Washington to penalize him for that crime and all the others he has committed since first entering government in 2015. Instead of using that opening to put significant pressure on Riyadh, Biden seems content with making a few symbolic gestures and leaving it at that.

The Biden administration also seems to be letting its concern for regional clients’ preferences get in the way of salvaging the nuclear deal with Iran. It is common knowledge that Israel and Saudi Arabia do not want the U.S. to rejoin the agreement. The disturbing thing is that the Biden administration seems to be trying to placate them before taking any meaningful action to fulfill U.S. commitments. News reports have been full of references to the Biden administration’s efforts to “assuage” the Israeli government’s concerns, as if a government led by Netanyahu will ever be satisfied by anything besides relentless hostility towards Iran. Biden’s long history of supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship should make it easier for him to break with Israel on this issue, but in practice it has meant that he and his officials have been more attentive to their bad faith complaints.

Leverage that is never used is no longer really leverage. The U.S. could withhold all military assistance and weapons from these clients to pressure them into making different policy choices more in line with U.S. interests, but there is tremendous resistance in Washington even to threatening to do this because of the fear that the U.S. will then lose influence. The client governments can see how this works and they have learned how to influence the debate in Washington to their advantage by encouraging this fear among American leaders. The new fad of framing every issue as part of “great power competition” has made it even easier for clients to frighten American leaders into giving them whatever they want. All that they need to do to get most American critics to quiet down is intimate that they might move closer to Russia or China, no matter how unrealistic that might be.

One of the consequences of this upside-down dynamic is that the client governments have an enormous sense of entitlement that U.S. policies are supposed to serve their interests, and they react furiously when their preferences are opposed. The Intercept reported recently that the UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef al Otaiba, shouted at Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna over the latter’s efforts to organize congressional opposition to U.S. support for the war on Yemen:

“I was just taken away,” Khanna said. “It led me to think that there’s a real arrogance, a real sense of entitlement, a sense that he thought himself so powerful that he could act that way. And I’ve never really seen that before.”

For the record, the ambassador denies Khanna’s account, but I trust Rep. Khanna over the representative of a government that has been credibly accused of war crimes and the torture of detainees. It is easy to believe that an ambassador as influential and plugged-in to the Washington political scene as Otaiba would think that he can get away with berating elected American representatives. He had grown accustomed to his government getting everything it wanted from the U.S., and Khanna’s work on opposing the Saudi coalition’s war was one of the few times that there had been significant resistance.

America’s Middle East clients are not that valuable to us, and our government’s support for them has little or nothing to do with keeping America secure. The U.S. can afford to reduce or end that support when clients behave abhorrently and use the weapons Washington has provided them to commit atrocities. If the U.S. is going to end its militarized role in the region, it needs to start by reassessing and downgrading these client relationships.