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Paying Tribute to Yet Another Petro-Tyrant

It’s been a rough week in Middle East policy for the Obama administration, though they don’t seem to realize it.

Consider recent events: Iranian nuclear negotiations are threatened by Republicans and Democrats who want to force through new sanctions, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu looming in the background like your drunk right-wing uncle demanding to give a toast at your wedding. The current Egyptian government—essentially a military junta that Secretary of State Kerry insists is democratic—used some of its American-supplied weaponry to kill at least eighteen protesters and arrested 400 more. In Yemen, the weak, American-backed government succumbed to Houthi rebels, who are widely seen as close to Iran, but are also tangled in battles with Al Qaeda and an on-and-off again relationship with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Finally, the most theatrically embarrassing of recent developments is the administration’s response to the death of the 90-year-old King of Saudi Arabia, Ali Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz. (In my betting pool, I had 92/stroke/in the arms of a German nurse, but what are ya gonna do.) U.S. officials are practically elbowing one another out of the way to pay tribute to their favorite petro-tyrant. Twenty-seven(!) American officials, past and present, are part of the official delegation to Saudi Arabia. Those who missed the plane can submit to an essay competition established by Gen. Martin Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in tribute to “a man of remarkable courage and character.”

The common thread through all of these events is how thoroughly the issue of security has been allowed to capture U.S. foreign policy. The war on terror has now become the hawkish bipartisan consensus just as surely as the Cold Warriorism did in the last century. Both allow for Machiavellian alliances that disregard human rights; both speak of generations-long conflicts as if they were a fait accompli; both allow the American people to languish in a state of perpetual crisis and exception, compromising civil liberties and enriching the defense contractors who are fundamental in preserving this state of affairs. It’s understandable, perhaps, that they’d reuse this recipe. For politicians and commentators alike, there is no observable cost to being too hawkish or too right-wing.

However sclerotic or unstable its Middle Eastern allies, it’s hard not to think that the Obama administration is operating from a position of weakness. It’s pathetic to watch an American official keep a straight face as he extols an unelected king known for imprisoning his daughters, executing “sorcerers,” funding proxy wars across the region, and being among the chief exporters of Salafist terrorist financing and ideology. When the CIA launches a drone strike in Yemen just after its partner government resigns, it’s less a bold, covert strike against a persistent enemy than the flailing act of a clueless giant that has destabilized a once-sovereign nation, killed innocent people, catalyzed corruption, and eroded civil society.

Apparently the U.S. drone program is so effective at destroying Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula that it’s done it several times now. Still they come back, more annoyingly present than ever, like trick candles on a birthday cake. Oh well, launch another missile: can’t quit this one.

Unbelievable though it might be, Yemen is considered the counter-terrorism model—the same playbook that is now being applied to attack the Islamic State. No one seems to mention that there is not a single country—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya — in which terrorism has decreased following U.S. intervention. Instead, our single-minded emphasis on “kinetic strikes,” as well as our propping up of regional dictators and meddling in sectarian conflicts, has proved spectacularly calamitous and an enduring source of terrorist recruitment.

In recent mainstream commentary, the dear departed Saudi king is treated as a kind of soothsayer who foresaw the implosion of the Arab Spring and whose own country’s relative stability was somehow earned, rather than bought with the force of guns, cash, and institutionalized chauvinism. It was this same king who helped to suppress the Arab Spring revolt in Bahrain. There, the United States did nothing, handcuffed again by security obligations with illiberal partners. What could it say when Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and Saudi Arabia is home to a secret drone base?

It’s time for a serious reckoning, where we ask why self-proclaimed realists still claim we need these alliances. (Iran, a true realist would acknowledge, is the Middle Eastern country with which we share the most common interests, if also understandable mistrust and enmity.) The costs of the war on terror have been too great and mostly self-inflicted. We’re not even focused on the right continent: since 9/11, 71 percent of terrorist attacks targeting the U.S. have been executed by Americans or Britons.

Could our fawning allegiance to Saudi Arabia really be as simple, and foolishly myopic, as the need for energy? Now the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, the United States is officially a petro-state. Perhaps it makes sense that it’s developing the human rights record to match.