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.