Tensions between the United States and some of its traditional Arab allies, most notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been intensifying rapidly. These strains may prove to be containable, but they are raising troubling though unwarranted doubts about vital strategic partnerships.
Most dramatic have been forthright statements by prominent Saudi officials and commentators, implying that US policy is rewarding its enemies and punishing its friends. There has even been open talk of expanding Saudi Arabia’s strategic partnerships to other global players, to make up for perceived American deficiencies.
Saudi discontent appears to have boiled over regarding Syria and Iran, although a number of other issues have also generated dissatisfaction. The prospect, however remote, of an Iranian-American rapprochement, even a limited one, is a nightmare scenario for Riyadh.
The Saudis were thoroughly taken aback by the reversal of President Barack Obama’s declared decision to launch limited military action against Syrian chemical weapons targets. They had hoped that this, along with aid for the moderate opposition, would prove decisive in the Syrian conflict.
An uncharitable reading of the US acceptance of Russia’s proposal for voluntary Syrian chemical weapons disarmament is that dictators around the world can draw a clear lesson: they can actually regain some measure of diplomatic engagement by dumping sarin gas on defenceless villagers – provided they then renounce such weapons.
Americans, of course, see things entirely differently. US public opinion and policy are now wary of any suggestion that America should use force in a Middle Eastern dispute.
Therefore, when the new Iranian president appears to be offering serious negotiations on the nuclear issue, Americans naturally want to explore the possibility.
Much the same logic applies to Syria. The US “red line” was always about chemical weapons. If the regime’s stockpiles can be disposed of without the use of force, so much the better.
A similar disconnect in perceptions informs the tension between Egypt and the US. After some initial hesitation, the Obama administration backed the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
This alarmed the Saudis, but the US correctly insisted that it needed to be on “the right side of history” by respecting the will of the Egyptian people.
But then, this year, there was also great popular support for the expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi from the presidency. This raises the question of how the United States could be so sympathetic to Egyptian public opinion with regard to Mr Mubarak’s ejection from office, but so uninterested in it when it came to Mr Morsi.
Like democracy, the “right side of history” cannot be reduced to simply one election.
Though Mr Morsi was elected, there was no mechanism in place to remove him from office, no matter how badly he was abusing power. So Egyptians created their own ad hoc version of what is known in America as the “recall petition”, by which voters in some states can in effect fire sitting state governors and legislators.
Everyone agrees that the improvised Egyptian method was far from ideal, but the majority apparently felt – and still thinks – that it had no choice.
Again, the American perspective is very different. US law prohibits foreign aid to any government installed by a coup. What happened in Egypt was unique but some of its features did seem, to many Americans, to fit a facile definition of a coup.
Americans are essentially insisting that democratic forms, particularly elections, are as important as, if not more important than, strong public opinion. That is why many Americans also fail to recognise why Mr Morsi’s misrule required such drastic action.
So, some US aid and military cooperation programmes have been cut or suspended. But Egyptians are currently experiencing such a surge of hyper-nationalism that they don’t care about this, or even celebrate the negative American response. Both those reactions – American and Egyptian alike – are highly unhelpful.
The US aid cuts seem to back up the conspiracy theories that say Washington actively promoted the Muslim Brotherhood. And if Egyptians think they can really do without the Americans in the long run, they are underestimating the difficulties ahead.
Saudi Arabia and the US need each other even more. The current Iranian charm offensive is enticing but may well prove entirely cosmetic. The tragedy in Syria is only exacerbated by the lack of a coordinated response between the United States and its Arab allies.
Worst of all, as a constellation of instinctively pro-western Arab states begins to consolidate itself based on an axis that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several other key Arab countries, this Arab trend finds itself incongruously at odds with its natural US partner.
John Kerry’s trip to the region beginning in Cairo, and positive comments acknowledging that Egypt is a “partner” to the US and that its impact on the region is “profoundly important”, are a crucial step in the right direction.
One can certainly hope, and perhaps even expect, that the US and its traditional Arab allies will soon realise that they both lack plausible alternatives and are confronting a set of mutual challenges and opportunities in which they have complementary interests.
The strategic partnership at stake here is based on national interests that have not changed. This isn’t merely about oil, money, military cooperation or spare parts, but the strategic future of the Middle East.
Calling into question, let alone casting aside, such a vital strategic partnership because of limited disagreements or sudden misperceptions would be a catastrophic folly on both sides.