Saudi Arabia faults President Barack Obama for demonstrating a lack of leadership in confronting Middle East crises, by which the kingdom means he should have intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war and fully backed the Egyptian coup d'etat. But Obama's real lack of spine was on display when he sent Secretary of State John Kerry on a groveling tour seeking to placate Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Kerry seemingly must have worn out his knee pads in one "allied" capital after another, offering reassurances that the Obama administration won't go too easy on the Iranians in nuclear talks, won't cede much ground to Syria in peace negotiations, won't be too tough on Egypt's military dictators, and won't protest Israel's latest land grab.When in Israel, Kerry faced the embarrassment of new Israeli housing being approved for East Jerusalem and the West Bank. When in Egypt, while praising the Egyptian military for pursuing the right course on democracy, the dictatorship was putting the elected president Mohamed Morsi and his allies on trial for murder.
However, perhaps most humiliating was Kerry's flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he reassured King Abdullah that the United States shared the Saudi goals on Syria, Iran and Egypt and that the only disagreements were on tactics.
The oh-so-polite Kerry even avoiding confronting the Saudi royals over their abominable treatment of women. He laughed off a question about whether Saudi women should be allowed to drive, saying that the debate over women's rights was "best left to Saudi Arabia."
The Saudis took Kerry's measure and soon were briefing American reporters on Obama's weak-kneed foreign policy.
According to a New York Times article, "At the root of much of the Saudis' criticism was the perception that President Obama was uncomfortable with exercising power on the world stage, a gnawing worry for Saudi officials who have become increasingly concerned about the role of their nemesis Iran in Syria and elsewhere in the region."
Yet, if President Obama wished to show off some real muscle, he might have had Secretary Kerry scold the Saudis about their abuse of women and confront the Saudis about their bloody support of radical jihadists who have been deployed across the region wreaking havoc and engaging in terrorism.
Not only did Saudi nationals make up most of the roster of the 9/11 hijackers, inspired by another Saudi, Osama bin Laden, but al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists have long enjoyed the largesse of elements of the Saudi royal family and served essentially as the kingdom's global paramilitary force, whether fighting Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s or destabilizing the Syrian government today.
Deniability on Terror
Though the Saudi government practices deniability in its relationship with these violent extremists, Saudi leaders sense that their immense clout over oil and financial markets -- and thus their ability to disrupt Western economies -- makes them essentially untouchable.
So, they often demonstrate high-handedness even when dealing with U.S. presidents, such as when Prince Bandar bin Sultan -- as Saudi ambassador to the United States during the 9/11 attacks -- got President George W. Bush to let members of the bin Laden family leave U.S. cities on the first flights allowed back into the air, post-9/11, and after only cursory interviews with the FBI.
Now as head of Saudi intelligence, Bandar has been throwing his weight around by expressing his displeasure with Russia and the United States for not joining Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Bandar's arrogance included what sounded like thinly veiled threats about possible terrorism against the Winter Olympics in Russia if President Vladimir Putin didn't bend to Saudi desires on Syria.
According to a diplomatic account of a Bandar-Putin meeting on July 31 in Moscow, Bandar made clear that Saudi Arabia has been pulling the strings on the Chechen militants who have carried out numerous terrorist attacks inside Russia and who could be reined in during the Olympics in Sochi next year if there was a Saudi-Russian agreement on Syria.
A source familiar with the meeting told me that Putin viewed the reference to Sochi as something akin to a Mafia don shaking down a shopkeeper for protection money by saying, "nice little business you got here, I'd hate to see anything happen to it." I'm also told that Putin responded with his own blunt warning to Bandar about holding Saudi Arabia accountable if any Islamic terrorist group does attack the Olympics.
The Obama administration could have shown similar toughness in spurning Saudi Arabia's demands that the United States essentially intervene on its side in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife that is playing out across the region. The Saudis are leading the Sunni contingent of Middle East nations, with Iran anchoring the so-called Shiite crescent which extends through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.
President Obama could have bluntly explained that the United States won't take sides in a sectarian conflict that dates back nearly 1,400 years to the succession struggle after the Prophet Mohammad died in 632. At the Battle of Karbala, the slaughter of Hussein ibn Ali and his household divided the Islamic community into Shiite and Sunni sects.