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Mysteries in the Persian Gulf

by Jim Hoagland
The Wash­ing­ton Post

The Unit­ed States has no peer in world affairs in under­stand­ing and respond­ing to an urgent chal­lenge paint­ed in black and white. Ger­man invaders, Sovi­et cos­mo­nauts and Japan­ese exporters learned this les­son the hard way in the last cen­tu­ry.

Grays, how­ev­er, dis­ori­ent Amer­i­can pres­i­dents and leg­is­la­tors as well as the pub­lic. Com­plex sit­u­a­tions such as the Balka­ns seem to con­firm the Churchillian the­o­ry that Amer­i­cans will always do the right thing after try­ing all oth­er alter­na­tives. Add the words “yes, but” to a descrip­tion of good guys and bad guys in a for­eign show­down and our minds wan­der.

This part­ly — but only part­ly — explains the dif­fi­cul­ties U.S. gov­ern­ments have in craft­ing coher­ent and effec­tive poli­cies to deal with the Per­sian Gulf coun­tries, which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­sti­tute an eco­nom­ic life­line and a moral quag­mire for Amer­i­cans.

To pro­tect Amer­i­ca’s oil life­line from the gulf, pres­i­dents from Franklin D. Roo­sevelt to George W. Bush have struck implic­it Faus­t­ian bar­gains. Amer­i­can sup­port for democ­ra­cy and human rights in Sau­di Ara­bia, Qatar and even in Iraq has ranged from nonex­is­tent to tepid.

Access to the oil, and to the kings, emirs and oth­er lead­ers who con­trol it, has not pro­duced great insight into the pol­i­tics of a region that has con­stant­ly sur­prised Wash­ing­ton. The Arab rulers of the gulf are an insu­lar lot. But Amer­i­cans have a habit of shut­ting out things they do not want to see — if those things con­flict with pre­de­ter­mined poli­cies, needs and opin­ions.

There was the “senior offi­cial” who told reporters that Sau­di Ara­bia would nev­er embar­go oil to world mar­kets as Riyadh was prepar­ing to do just that in 1973. Remem­ber Bush the elder’s woo­ing of Sad­dam Hus­sein as a bul­wark of mod­ernism in the region? Or Jim­my Carter’s describ­ing Iran as “an island of sta­bil­i­ty” short­ly before mobs chased the shah from Tehran?

Wash­ing­ton will­ing­ly blinds itself to keep the gulf bar­gain afloat: The State Depart­ment for­bade its diplo­mats to have con­tact with the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion in Iran as the 1979 rev­o­lu­tion took shape and in Iraq before and dur­ing the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War. The same arrange­ment came into effect in Sau­di Ara­bia in 1988 when the Saud­is forced the with­draw­al of Hume Horan as ambas­sador after Horan met with unap­proved Sau­di cit­i­zens.

This is the gulf’s great puz­zle: How is it that the Unit­ed States is so deeply com­mit­ted mil­i­tar­i­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly in a region that it under­stands so shal­low­ly? Or is the com­mit­ment so deep pre­cise­ly because the under­stand­ing is so shal­low?

Wash­ing­ton’s spies were sur­prised when Sau­di Ara­bi­a’s intel­li­gence chief sud­den­ly resigned last week (appar­ent­ly for fam­i­ly health rea­sons). Diplo­mats here were per­plexed by a series of unusu­al­ly omi­nous and high-pro­file pub­lic warn­ings of a region­al explo­sion made by the nor­mal­ly somber for­eign min­is­ter, Saud al-Faisal.

But the biggest and most unpleas­ant shock came when Sau­di Defense Min­is­ter Prince Sul­tan can­celed the annu­al August U.S.-Saudi joint mil­i­tary exer­cise only hours before it was to begin with­out expla­na­tion. A Pen­ta­gon spokesman declined com­ment, telling me the infor­ma­tion was clas­si­fied. Infor­ma­tion on such exer­cis­es with oth­er nations is rou­tine­ly pub­li­cized by the Pen­ta­gon.

Krem­li­nol­o­gy was also a high­ly imper­fect art. But self-knowl­edge and a com­mit­ment to change kept Amer­i­can poli­cies and goals steady through­out the Cold War. The Unit­ed States does not per­mit itself such a moral com­pass east of Suez. The cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion and its pre­de­ces­sors have been unable to artic­u­late any­thing beyond the sta­tus quo for the lands on the Arab side of the gulf.

In the past three decades war, rev­o­lu­tion, assas­si­na­tion and ver­tig­i­nous eco­nom­ic boom-and-bust cycles have reshaped that region and caught U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers flat­foot­ed at each turn. Exag­ger­at­ed fears of the effect of polit­i­cal change — par­tic­u­lar­ly of the rise of influ­ence of Shi­ite minori­ties in Arab coun­tries — blink­er offi­cial Wash­ing­ton.

Human rights and democ­ra­cy have spread exten­sive­ly if not uni­form­ly through the world since the end of the Cold War — ‑except in the Arab World. Amer­i­ca’s timid­i­ty in address­ing this sit­u­a­tion is a fac­tor in per­pet­u­at­ing it.

Imme­di­ate needs trump clar­i­ty and long-term com­mit­ment. In the obscu­ri­ty of the moral con­ces­sions sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly made in the Per­sian Gulf to pre­serve an unpreserv­able sta­tus quo, Wash­ing­ton wears a col­or that does not suit its tal­ents — gray.