Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and Defining Moments

Barack Obama was forced to reconsider US foreign policy in the Middle East in 2011

William B. Quandt has been a prominent voice in American foreign policy in the Middle East for over 30 years. Serving in the National Security Council under the Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter administrations, he was front and center in the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and he is an expert on Palestine, Algeria, Israel, and Egypt.

Today he is an author, professor and member of the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a regular participant in discussions on US policy in the Middle East.

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The Majalla: Is there a sense that when the going gets tough with an ally, Obama is willing to throw them under the bus?

Well, I know that is a view that particularly the Saudis have expressed, and I understand why particularly the disappearance of the Mubarak regime has preoccupied them. But in all honesty Mubarak was going to go, and the question was always, “What comes next?” So, as far as abandoning Mubarak, it is not as if we gratuitously tried to make his life more miserable by pulling the plug on him before he was already in very deep trouble. I would say that if Egypt is the test case, I don’t agree that Mubarak was abandoned. I don’t think he had a realistic prospect of passing on power to his chosen successor, and we then could all say that nothing is going to change and it would always be the same under a father-to-son transition.

This was not the way it would work, and when the Americans tried to steer it towards Omar Suleiman, I think the Saudis would have been perfectly content with that outcome, it wouldn’t have been a destabilizing outcome on the international scene, but it wasn’t going to work domestically in Egypt. So I’d say what happened in Egypt was destined to happen regardless of what the US tried to do, and I don’t accept the criticism that we abandoned Mubarak is quite accurate.

With Ali Abdullah Saleh [in Yemen], we tried to support the GCC in a soft transition. I don’t know whether it has worked yet, but I think there we have not been working at cross purposes with the Saudis. So again, if that is supposed to be the example of abandoning a long-standing ally, I think we have been very gentle and willing to take the time to get an agreed transition. I think we do accept that Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and therefore they get the first call on how these things should be dealt with. Syria is going to be a harder case. The Saudi position is more ambiguous; they have had a time when they got along well with Assad, but no longer, the same as us. I don’t think any of us is very confident of where this is going next.

[inset_left]“With Ali Abdullah Saleh, we tried to support the GCC in a soft transition . . . ”[/inset_left]If there is going to be a parting of the ways in how the Americans and how the Saudis appreciate the new post-Arab-Spring Middle East, I fear it will be over what do you do with these new regimes that are more heavily influenced by their own Islamic political parties, including now the Salafis in Egypt. This could put us and the Saudis on rather different sides of an ideological debate over the role of Islam in politics. We have come to terms with Islamic movements in some places, but it is going to be more of a challenge in Egypt if the Islamic movement there says the peace treaty with Israel ought to go, and the special relationship with the US ought to go, and women shouldn’t participate in political life.

The other thing that strikes me as being a potential issue in the US-Saudi relationship is Iran. If the Saudis begin to doubt that the US is effectively handling that issue, then you have a strategic problem. I’m not sure we have the channels to keep this dialogue going in a serious and sophisticated way. We have transitions going on in Saudi Arabia, we’ve got people on our side who are not very knowledgeable about the Arab World, who are more preoccupied with domestic politics. I think at a time like this you need some very effective strategic communications going on.

Q: What is your assessment of President Obama’s response to the Arab Spring?

Dr. William Quandt

They (the Obama administration) didn’t anticipate that this would happen. The Middle East looked like a frozen landscape for a long time, and when Obama came to power he was more prepared to deal with the Middle East as he thought it was. He talked about engaging with various regimes and reviving the peace process—and the democracy promotion theme that had been prominent for a brief period under George W. Bush was not a top priority for him. It was a return to a more realist-based model of how the United States would deal with the Middle East; less transformative, less interventionist, more diplomacy. So I think it is fair to say they didn’t anticipate this. Nor did many other people anticipate this.


Tunisia turned out to be the easy case; we ended up supporting what happened and had a very realistic understanding of the limits of the Ben Ali regime. We may have been surprised by the way in which the Arab Spring unfolded in Tunisia, but certainly were not surprised about the depth of alienation, and there was no rear-guard action to support Ben Ali, and we ended up on the right side of that one, even though strategically Tunisia is not that big an issue for the United States.

[inset_left]“Strategically Tunisia is not that big an issue for the United States . . .” [/inset_left]But by the time things moved to Egypt—and Egypt is a much bigger deal for American strategy in the Middle East—there were benchmarks, and so when you saw the same kind of large-scale peaceful mobilization, I think it didn’t take too long before the American establishment, including the secretary of state and the president, realized that Mubarak had to go.

Where they fell behind the curve and where I think they deserve to be criticized was thinking that the change in Egypt could be managed to be fairly limited. That is, if Mubarak and [his son] Gamal were pushed aside or agreed to leave, there could be a soft transition to someone like Omar Suleiman. Certainly they felt that that would be a good outcome; it would reassure the Israelis, and wouldn’t constitute revolutionary change, but it would satisfy the demands of the protestors to get rid of the Mubaraks.

I think that was a misreading of what most Egyptians wanted. I don’t think it was a wise decision to try to steer things in that direction and it looked silly when Secretary Clinton went public to say Mubarak needed to stay on to oversee the transition. It looked at that point as if we were fighting a rearguard action. My understanding is at a certain point Obama decided to cut loose from this position and sent a message to the Egyptian military saying the US would support them in moving against Mubarak and Omar Suleiman.

I think Obama understood that you couldn’t micromanage the transition in Egypt and make it an American-friendly outcome with someone like Omar Suleiman in charge. The US was slow in recognizing the depth and need for change—that on the whole was not an impressive performance—but ended up accepting the outcome.

The one link they worked hard to keep intact was the US-Egyptian military relationship. I can tell you there were times when there were high-level conversations multiple times a day, not so much between the White House and State Department and the Egyptian authorities, but with the Pentagon, and the Pentagon became the channel through which they dealt with the new Egypt. That may or may not be good, but no-one denies the military’s importance still in Egypt; their attitude toward our diplomacy is pretty critical, but they say military-to-military relationships are fine.

So, the US has preserved something and keeping that link in today’s Egypt is significant. But the US has not managed to position itself to be important in Egypt as it enters a very complicated transition to a new era in which the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom the US has no significant relationship, is going to have a bigger voice.

[inset_left]“I think Obama understood that you couldn’t micromanage the transition in Egypt and make it an American-friendly outcome with someone like Omar Suleiman . . .”[/inset_left]The US is going to have to begin talking to Islamist movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, whether we like it or not. They have been very selective about whom they have contacts with, but I think the US cannot conduct normal relations with Egypt without having a different mindset towards how we deal with the Islamist reality. The US will have to be reasonably modest in its expectations. Egypt is going to be a sensitive and delicate case and I’m not sure the US has a lot of real expertise for understanding the new Egypt.

The Arab Spring is such a complicated phenomenon. The manifestations of it in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain are all quite different, and they really force you to think about the tension between American interests and American values. In places like Bahrain, America simply accepts that its interests require that it allows things to be done that it may not be terribly happy with, but that’s the way it goes. In Syria, the US simply doesn’t know what to do. The regime is problematic and they want to see it changed, but they don’t know much about the opposition, they don’t have much influence, and nobody wants another military intervention. So for a lot of people watching what is happening in Syria, there is a lot of frustration, but not a clear sense of what to do. So, you can say that the US is not demonstrating brilliant leadership, but in all honesty, I don’t know who is. Everybody is wringing their hands, calling for change, sanctions, and this and that, but if it doesn’t work, we may find that we’re dealing with a regime like Saddam Hussein in the 1990s: everybody senses that it’s not going to last forever, but it hangs on despite the sanctions. Ten years can be a long time, and the US has not been very creative at thinking through alternatives to the binary outcome of either ‘Assad stays’ or ‘Assad goes.’

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