Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shiite cleric produced a predictable explosion of sectarian enmity across the Middle East last week. Less noticed — and perhaps less excusable — was the narrow, partisan and more or less sectarian reactions it prompted in Washington.
Republicans, led by their presidential candidates, rushed to excuse or even defend the Saudis’ reckless and brutal killing of a sheik whose crime was speaking up for the country’s oppressed Shiite minority. “Our response should be to stand with our allies,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). “A strong relationship with Saudi Arabia would allow us to say you shouldn’t be executing people for the types of crimes they committed,” pronounced Jeb Bush.
The Obama administration was meanwhile leaning toward Shiite Iran, which furiously denounced the execution and allowed militants to sack the Saudi E mbassy in Tehran. The State Department carefully refrained from blaming the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the violence and adopted a neutral position on the bilateral dispute — an extraordinary stance given the decades of U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia and enmity with the Islamic Republic.
It quickly became clear that the White House’s overwhelming priority boiled down to avoiding any words or action that would disrupt the ongoing implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal. That was of a piece with its last-minute retreat on Dec. 30 from imposing sanctions on Tehran for missile launches that violated a U.N. Security Council resolution and a promise to waive new congressional restrictions on visas for foreigners who visited Iran.
In short, if Republicans were “swooning for Saudi Arabia,” as columnist Peter Beinart put it for the Atlantic, then Obama and his foreign policy team were in a “tilt toward Tehran,” as Josh Rogin and Eli Lake documented for Bloomberg.
Both positions were stunningly blinkered. Republicans were encouraging a Saudi regime that has appeared to come almost unhinged since 80-year-old King Salman took the throne a year ago and installed his 30-year-old son, Mohammed, as defense minister. At the expense of the war against the Islamic State, from which it has withdrawn its warplanes, the Saudis have launched a bloody and unwinnable military adventure in Yemen and moved to suppress all domestic dissent — especially that from liberal intellectuals and bloggers seeking modest political reforms.
In an interview with the Economist last week, Mohammed bin Salman promised painful economic restructuring but offered no prospect of political or religious change in a country where women still cannot drive and a blogger calling for fresh interpretations of Islam was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. “Standing with” such allies could mean diving with them over a political cliff.
The Obama administration, of course, has hardly abandoned the Saudi rulers; since the Iran deal, it has been heaping Riyadh with fresh weapons. But Republicans are probably right in arguing that Obama’s feckless accommodation of Iran is spurring Saudi belligerence, thereby making the sectarian fight worse.
The embarrassing retreat from imposing missile sanctions was particularly damaging. The administration first accused Tehran of violating a U.N. Security Council resolution linked to the nuclear deal by testing long-range missiles, then pulled back a relatively mild set of financial penalties on companies and individuals hours after notifying Congress they were coming. Officials called the delay “technical” — but 11 days later, the sanctions have still not been issued. The resulting message, true or not, is that Washington lacks the will to punish Iran for clear violations.
What’s missing from the Republican rhetoric and Obama’s maneuvering is any sense of fundamental and long-term U.S. interests in the Middle East or how they might be pursued amid the sectarian maelstrom. Rather than picking among Sunni or Shiite dictators, Americans should be asking what needs to change in the region for stabilization and modernization to be possible — and what forces might advance it.
If the bloodletting is to end, minorities — whether Sunni or Shiite, Christian or Kurd — must gain basic rights. That means supporting proponents of peaceful reform among Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and Sunnis in Iraq — and demanding that their governments accommodate them before they receive more U.S. arms. It means abandoning the impractical and immoral position that reconstituting Iraq and Syria takes precedence over allowing a Kurdish homeland. And it means removing the vicious regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose crimes against humanity are responsible for much of the chaos.
Like the Kurds, secular liberals across the region are natural U.S. allies — especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco. Yet both the Obama administration and its Republican opponents often disregard them, while catering to strongmen like Cairo’s Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who imprisons and kills them.
The tumult over the Saudi executions revealed a Middle East that desperately needs a steadying outside force. But the reaction in Washington suggested that U.S. help is not on the way.