At a recent Med 2 conference in Rome, Boris Johnson, the irascible former Mayor of London and Britain’s new foreign secretary, steered the conversation to what he saw as the root causes of some of the Middle East’s trials and tribulations. Its leaders, Johnson remarked, never seem to miss an opportunity to plunge their people into violence, economic destitution, and sectarian conflict. If only Arab leaders exhibited some military leadership, then perhaps the violence currently roiling that region could be brought down to a lower temperature.
“There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives,” the foreign secretary told the conference. “And the tragedy, for me — and that’s why you have these proxy wars being fought the whole time in that area — is that there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves.” Johnson concluded on a depressing note: “That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.”
Boris Johnson, despite a lot of the criticism that has been levied against him over the last two months, was getting at a critical point that many people in Washington prefer to either ignore or pretend doesn’t exist: The Middle East’s regional powers, Iran and America’s strongest allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, contribute to the instability by playing power politics and bankrolling proxy groups often laced with sectarian vehemence and a sense of religious superiority.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office quickly came out with a statement distancing her government from Johnson’s remarks, causing a rift within the top ranks of the British government.
But there is a lesson we should all take from this story: challenging conventional wisdom and objectively assessing a friend’s behavior in public is more likely to get you into trouble than earn you a pat on the back from your bosses. An integral characteristic of being an effective international diplomat, after all, is a steel trap; controversial deals hardly get done when the people negotiating them express their anger outside the negotiating room or use the press to air their grievances —undermining the very negotiating process that they hope to sustain. Johnson therefore erred in hitting Riyadh in public rather than taking his concerns directly to the royals in private. On the substance of his remarks, however, Johnson was more right than wrong, whether Washington and London care to admit it or not.
America’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia is one of the more enduring in the Middle East. The bilateral relationship between Washington and Riyadh was first consummated in the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud; if both countries can get good returns on their investment, then a relationship can last for generations. But just because the United States has held such an extensive alliance with the Saudis for so long doesn’t mean that the Saudis are right all the time. Indeed, if there is any phrase that can accurately describe Saudi foreign policy since the death of King Abdullah in 2015, it is “overtly aggressive.”
For U.S. policymakers — like policymakers in the U.K. — certain bottom-line questions can no longer be carpeted over. Is Saudi behavior over the last two years helping or hurting the region’s stability? Is a bombing campaign against the Houthis in Yemen actually smoothing the process for a negotiated solution or hardening the combatants’ resolve and causing too many unnecessary civilian casualties? Would the delivery of man-portable air defense missiles to opposition units in Syria put enough pressure on the Assad regime to negotiate a settlement? Or would it cause the Iranians, the Russians, and the region’s Shia militias to up-the-ante even more?
In short: Are the Saudis part of the problem, and if so, how can the United States encourage Riyadh to act as a more constructive player?
There are certainly some in the U.S. government asking precisely these kinds of questions. The State Department remains in the process of reviewing the entire U.S. military aid package to the Saudis due to the numerous cases of civilian causalities in Yemen, and has already decided to suspend the sale of smart bombs to the coalition in response to a litany of civilian casualties documented by the U.N. However, with the exception of a bureaucratic review process that is two-months old, the foreign-policy bureaucracy in Washington doesn’t seem to be especially concerned with reassessing or improving the U.S.-Saudi relationship — if anything, the signing of the Iran nuclear deal has persuaded foreign policy analysts in Washington that more arms exports to Riyadh is a way to save the relationship.
Johnson’s comments about the Saudis were uncomfortable for a lot of politicians in his government. They are causing his prime minister grief and have provided the Labour Party with more ammunition to rail against Theresa May’s administration. It was definitely unwise for him to say these kinds of things in public at a time when everyone’s phone has a camera and recorder attached.
But perhaps U.S. officials can take another lesson from Johnson’s kerfuffle. Sometimes being a valuable friend means asking difficult questions and telling partners they aren’t doing themselves any favors. U.S. foreign policy officials should be less of an autopilot and more of a skeptic.