The 'Indispensable Nation' Learns It Might Not Be Great-Power-Competitive
Longtime U.S.-client Saudi Arabia is out for "a diversified portfolio of relationships," says a source close to the royals. The China-brokered detente with Iran shows that yesterday's price is not today's price
Edited by Sam Thielman
A MEASURED STEP TO REDUCE HOSTILITIES between Middle Eastern belligerents Saudi Arabia and Iran took shape on Friday. With apologies to the Abraham Accords—and we'll turn to them in a minute—this looks like the most significant detente in the region since Oslo in 1993. And while it might turn out to be the false dawn that Oslo was, the pact was brokered by China, creating a breakout moment for Chinese diplomatic power in the Middle East and stunning a sidelined United States.
Everyone familiar with negotiations between rival powers understands that signing an accord does not trump long-standing patterns of hostility. At the same time, the American shock is justified. The China-brokered detente exposed not only the United States' irrelevance to a reduction of hostilities, but also how the United States couldn't have produced it, as its Middle Eastern strategy for roughly a decade has relied upon Saudi-Iranian hostilities. China has now called into question the basis for that strategy, all while Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman enjoys one of his favorite pastimes: making Joe Biden eat shit.
We've talked before about the U.S. presentation at the Manama Security Conference this past fall, but it's worth returning to in the wake of the Saudi-Iran accord.
Articulated by Colin Kahl, the Pentagon's senior policy official, the American pitch to its longtime Middle Eastern clients concerns, at bottom, weapons purchases. The U.S. wants a limit on Chinese military power in the Middle East, where 35,000 U.S. troops and a substantial number of warships, warplanes, sensors, surveillance infrastructure and so forth remain. Kahl and his colleagues contended that not only is the quality of U.S. weapons hardware superior to its competitors, but that its real value is in its interoperability with what U.S.-aligned nations throughout the Middle East have purchased and fielded. In other words, the U.S. had created a security architecture, one that draws all who buy in into closer diplomatic alignment. [This is called “rent-seeking.” Think of these deals as Software-as-a-Service contracts, but for industrialized killing.—Sam.] This—along with the total abandonment of Palestinian security, freedom and dignity—is the basis for the Abraham Accords: normalization of relations between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, sealed with U.S. arms deals.
The glue in the strategy is that the U.S., Israel and the Gulfies (I presume this is less salient for Morocco) perceive a common enemy. All (again, maybe not Morocco) involved perceive a major threat from Iran, each for their own reasons, and also because Iran ended up the de facto winner of the Iraq War by capitalizing on cascading U.S. mistakes to expand its regional power. Since the brief 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and especially since the Trump administration killed the Iran nuclear deal in 2017, the foundation of the continued U.S. presence in the Middle East has been to hedge against/confront/deter/etc. Iran. (ISIS plays a similar role, but U.S. security officials in my experience tend to see ISIS as an unexpected contingency and Iran as an enduring, attention-focusing threat.) That drove the U.S. to greenlight, facilitate and maintain, however uneasily, the Saudi-UAE-U.S. proxy war in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis, one of the most merciless conflicts on earth.
The Saudi war in Yemen, and the anti-Iran strategy more generally, is the predicate for a lot of weapons sales, not just under Biden, but under Trump and Obama as well. Recall how many times the Obama team emphasized that the Iran nuclear deal supported this approach by taking away a game-changing Iranian weapon—"This isn't the start of some larger diplomatic opening," said Hillary Clinton, even as many on the sub-cabinet level of the Obama administration certainly hoped (in vain) that it might lead to just such an opening.
China opened those relations instead. The Saudis have recently sought to turn down the temperature of its conflict with Iran, which undermines the firmament of a U.S. strategy shaped in substantial part by Saudi security fears. (Recall that Riyadh was fearful of a new wave of regional destabilization after the U.S. assassinated Qassem Soleimani.) Washington was constrained in catering to that impulse, since it has no diplomatic leverage over Tehran, and all the coercive leverage it possesses is devoted to weakening Iran. Meanwhile, China has diplomatic leverage over Iran and is Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner. In a stroke, the deal showcased China as, in Barbara Slavin's words, "a constructive player in a crisis-ridden region" and exposed the United States as being at best incapable of and at worst disinterested in producing a measure of regional detente. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby was left to contend, dubiously, that "our own effective combination of deterrence and diplomacy" deserves partial credit for getting to the detente.
If the Biden team does, as Kirby has rushed to say, "support any effort to deescalate tensions," it might ask itself hard questions about why U.S. strategy couldn't produce such an effort and China's could. Perhaps Great-Power Competition, throughout history, empowers clients to select among patrons. Xi isn't Eisenhower and the Saudi-Iran detente isn't the 1956 Suez Crisis—and this is most certainly not the end of American power in the Middle East—but the dynamic of rising imperial powers undermining the entrenched positions of established ones really ought to be familiar. American Exceptionalism is a blindfold. When you consider yourself an Indispensable Nation, you run the risk of overestimating how great-power competitive you actually are.
FOR A VIEW FROM RIYADH about this (so to speak), I turned to Ali Shihabi. Ali is close to the Saudi royal family and is known to express its dominant viewpoints. I asked him not because I expect to agree with his perspectives, but because journalists need to understand the perspectives of those who drive events. Most of my career is premised on talking with people I personally disagree with, because if I don't, and I seek to cover this stuff, it's malpractice and a sure route to playing myself. It doesn't mean the views of various capitals, let alone MBS', are the whole story, just that they're a part of the story and need to be understood accordingly.
With that out of the way, Shihabi described this as a concerted Saudi move away from the U.S. orbit. "While Saudi cannot replace the U.S. with an identical partner to provide a security umbrella, it can partially replace the U.S. umbrella with a diversified portfolio of relationships that bring different things to the table, not necessarily hard power on the ground," he said. Shihabi noted that China is not only a facilitator of the Saudi-Iran detente but also a signatory, meaning it has "put its prestige on the table and would lose face if the Iranians don't meet their promises." A "win-win for Saudi," he called it: "Either the Iranians behave or they screw up their critical relationship with China."
So I asked Shihabi about how it looks to Riyadh for the U.S. to array its strategy around being an arms dealer for the anti-Iran coalition. "The U.S. as an arms supplier has become unreliable and will be gradually replaced with the U.K., France, China and others," he answered. Shihabi acknowledged that the U.S.' enduring "large military presence in the Gulf…still plays a deterrent role," although, he added, "one that is not seen as 100 percent dependable." When I asked if the U.S. argument at Manama was compelling, he replied, "not when ammunition and spare parts are held up."
You or I might have quite different views on how reliable the U.S. has proven as an arms supplier to Riyadh! But Great Power Competition means, to a security importer like Saudi Arabia, that yesterday's price is definitely not today's price. Again, this is not the end of American power in the Middle East. But it is an opportunity to ask why the strategy most recently articulated by NSC Mideast Coordinator Brett McGurk hasn't produced the kind of deescalation it claims to promote.
The State Department has yet to respond to my questions about whether the U.S. intends to go all out to leverage detente into peace in Yemen, I don't expect a reply, but a major Yemen peace initiative strikes me as a way to get a virtuous cycle going—albeit one that would require a thorough rethink about whether the diplomatic and economic foundations of U.S. strategy in the Middle East stand in the way of one, particularly in an declared environment of Great Power Competition. Kirby may be right that the U.S. helped lead to this moment, but not in the way he means.
PETER MAASS WROTE A BLOCKBUSTER story about Chris Miller, Trump's final, never-confirmed defense secretary, and his forever-wars journey from Green Beret in Afghanistan to January 6. Maass' piece is fantastic and I wish I had written it, especially considering that REIGN OF TERROR begins with Miller's blatant falsehoods about Trump imminently pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Accordingly, I feel a bit uncharitable in critiquing it. It's a legitimate achievement for Maass to produce a piece this good about a difficult subject—Maass first met Miller in Afghanistan 21 years ago—but at times I felt that it didn't put sufficient scrutiny on why the lessons Miller drew from the wars were MAGA lessons, as if they were inevitable. Obviously I've heard veterans articulate these sorts of perspectives since long before MAGA coalesced, and am not denying either their reality or their very real War on Terror lineage, since that's kind of my whole thing. But many other veterans disillusioned with the wars didn't, say, choose to serve Donald Trump; and some of them developed far more thorough critiques of U.S. foreign policy.
The dissonance between Trump's (Afghanistan-deal-excepted) perpetuation/escalations of the forever wars and the antiwar posture Miller adopted needs exploring, too. I came away from the piece unsure whether Miller was a useful dupe at the top of the Pentagon or was an active ally of fellows like MAGA commissar Kash Patel, his chief of staff. "Complete misappreciation of these people" is an under-explained quote from Miller, whom Maass variously presents as motivated by trying to finish off al-Qaeda and end the wars outright. A spec-ops veteran who got through the past 20 years and still thinks, as defense secretary, there's a knockout blow to be landed in the War on Terror is crying out for additional stress to be placed on his perspective. All that kind gets kind of lost in the sauce here, as does Miller's specific culpability for the Pentagon non-response to January 6—though, in fairness to Maass, the January 6 Committee left that issue much less clear than Maj. Gen. William Walker did.
Maass doesn't let Miller off the hook. He lets Paul "A Failure in Generalship" Yingling rip about Miller: "He has spun a narrative for himself that justifies his actions on J6. He was in over his head in a political world that to this day he doesn’t understand." But Maass appears conflicted about apportioning blame:
Yet I hesitate to ignite the tinder around Miller. If we drop a match at his feet and walk away with a sense of satisfaction about the justice we think we’ve delivered, we have not changed or even recognized the political culture that gave us the forever wars and everything that flowed from them, including January 6. At some point in the future, we’ll just have more of what we’ve already endured, and perhaps it will be a variant of militarism and racism that’s more potent still.
I see where Maass is coming from, but there's a difference between burning Miller at the stake and identifying his specific culpability on January 6, including for the inaction of his subordinates. The latter, I would contend, is exactly what challenges the political culture of the forever wars and everything that flows from them, since it contextualizes Miller's in/actions within that lineage. But this is perhaps a question of emphasis.
Listen to me, I sound like a hater, all about a great piece that I mean to engage with, not tear down. "Miller’s anger is real, but his target is poorly chosen, which is the story of America after 9/11," Maass writes, and that's the heart of it. Anyway, my criticisms aside, this is a piece worth sitting with.
GHASSAN AL-SHARBI has left Guantanamo Bay, where now 31 men remain.
ARAB NEWS has a lovely ode to Iraqi literary culture.
STEPHEN SEMLER produces what I cannot: great data visualizations of arms sales under Trump and Biden.
IF YOU'RE ON STATEN ISLAND on Wednesday, March 29, the day after WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1 is released, come to JHU Comics, where I'll be signing from 3:30pm to 7pm. I'll probably bring REIGN OF TERROR paperbacks, and maybe my few remaining hardcover comps, to sell and sign as well. Come hang out! Shouts to Craig and Gore for inviting me and making this happen. I'll have some more announcements soon about other signings I've got lined up around the city—and if you've got a comic store reasonably nearby, I will gladly sign there.