Saudi Recklessness and the Myth of ‘Withdrawal’

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Hal Brands makes an extremely shaky assertion about recent Saudi recklessness and U.S. involvement in the Middle East:

Much of Saudi Arabia’s recent behavior has been linked to the rise of MBS, who seems driven by a combination of ambition, arrogance and recklessness. Yet it is not a coincidence that Saudi misdeeds have accumulated at a time when the US is widely seen to be drawing down in the Middle East.

The US has backed the Saudis and Emiratis in the war on Yemen from the start. The US has not been “drawing down” in the region, unless one wants to arbitrarily use the height of the Iraq war as the standard by which to measure our level of involvement. It is preposterous to suggest that Saudi misdeeds are the result of a US withdrawal from the region when no such withdrawal has happened, and it is even worse to make this claim when the US is actively aiding the Saudis in the commission of those misdeeds. Brands correctly says that “Saudi conduct since 2015 has been destabilizing in the extreme,” but omits that the US has been an accomplice in the worst of that destabilizing conduct.

Significantly, Brands does not acknowledge US involvement in the war on Yemen, since that would contradict the idea that the US has “pulled back” from the region. The reality is that the US remains deeply complicit in the actions of its clients, and those clients would have great difficulty in waging a war on their neighbor without US assistance. None of this is to deny that the Saudi government has agency. The Saudi government is responsible for its own destructive behavior, and if they have been increasingly aggressive it is partly because that they know that the US won’t penalize them for it. The same Saudi government that lacked US support might still behave recklessly, but it would not be able to do as much or get away with as much as it does now.

Hawkish interventionists are quick to fault US“inaction” or “withdrawal” for the destructive behavior of other states, and they are equally reluctant to acknowledge the damage caused by the US enabling of reckless clients. If the Saudis are behaving recklessly, Brands can’t admit that it is partly because the US has been indulging them and backing them to the hilt. That would explode the claim that the US is withdrawing and it would show that giving regional clients unconditional support is what’s wrong with our policies in this part of the world.

Brands tries to use the example of Saudi recklessness as a reason to reject a reduced US role in the region:

If it retreats from the Middle East, it will lose whatever restraining leverage it once had over allies and competitors alike.

The trouble with this is that the US doesn’t use its leverage to restrain its clients, and instead chooses to become ensnared in the conflicts that they start. If the US wanted to restrain the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, it could have done so at any point in the last three and a half years, but it has not done so. That isn’t because the US is no longer “present and committed.” On the contrary, American defenders of US involvement in the war on Yemen have emphasized the need to continue supporting the coalition to “reassure” them that the US is with them. Both the Obama and Trump administrations indulged the Saudis and Emiratis in their war because they wrongly believed that they would be letting down “allies” if they did not. The ensuing horror of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is the result of this policy of indulgence and support for “allies.”

By any measure, the US is much more entangled in the affairs of the Middle East now than it was forty or fifty years ago. Since 1990, the US has become much more militarily involved in the region, and that involvement has increased significantly during the last 17 years. That involvement has not brought greater stability, nor has it led to imposing greater restraint on US clients. On the contrary, the US has sown chaos in multiple countries through its own interventions and through its support for the meddling and wars of its clients. Would a major reduction in our involvement in the region create a “Middle East even more dangerous than we have now”? That is hard to take seriously when multiple countries in region are still suffering from prolonged wars while the US is so deeply involved and taking sides in these conflicts. Like any other part of the world, the Middle East will have its upheavals and conflicts. Reducing US involvement in the region won’t be a panacea. Even so, it seems very difficult to dispute that the region would be better off if the US stopped taking sides in its wars, stopped arming regional governments to the teeth, and stopped stoking tensions with the rivals of the governments that we arm.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.