The End of Saudi Arabia’s Illusion

The missiles that struck last weekend in Saudi Arabia did not just destroy oil tanks. They also dealt the final blow to a doctrine that has been fading for years: the belief that the United States maintains a security umbrella able to protect the oil-rich Persian Gulf states from their enemies — and, especially, from Iran.

President Trump’s miscalculations helped get us here. But the current Gulf crisis is not just about this administration and the pitfalls of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The United States has been disengaging from the Middle East since the catastrophe of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Now that shale has made America so much less dependent on the Middle East’s oil, it is hard to imagine any American president risking significant blood and treasure to defend Saudi Arabia.

For decades, the leaders of the Gulf seemed to believe their close ties with the United States (and the billions of dollars spent on American weapons) made them almost invulnerable. They regularly urged American diplomats and generals to get tougher with their Iranian neighbor or even to “cut off the head of the snake,” as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah put it in 2008 in encouraging the United States to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. Saudi confidence was bolstered by memories of the 1991 Gulf war, when an American-led military coalition reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

But the faith in American power always blinked away some inconvenient facts. Iran’s population and military strength dwarf those of the Gulf countries, and the United States is nearly 10,000 miles away. In any conceivable war, the Gulf’s cities would be among the first targets. And unlike Iran, those cities are intensely vulnerable: A single bomb could shatter the status of Dubai as a safe hub for trade, transport and tourism.

Now the nightmare appears to be coming true. On Saturday, several volleys of Iranian missiles eluded the Saudis’ expensive American-supplied defenses, neatly puncturing oil storage tanks and facilities at two of the kingdom’s most important sites and causing global oil prices to spike. The damage was limited, but its message was not: Iran could strike the Gulf’s economic lifeline at any time.

The political follow-up has been equally chilling to Riyadh. Mr. Trump, reluctant to be drawn into a war that could damage his election prospects, responded with his usual blend of bluster and bargaining. Even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the strikes “an act of war,” the administration has thrown the decision on a response into the Saudis’ court. They are reluctant to accept that responsibility.

It is still too early to say what will come of all this. If the provocations do not spin into open war — which would almost surely force the United States to get involved — Iran is likely to emerge stronger in any subsequent diplomacy, whether with the Trump administration or its neighbors across the Gulf.

The American commitment to protect the Gulf monarchies has its roots in 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s first king, Abdelaziz ibn Saud. It grew stronger during the Cold War, when presidents from Harry Truman through George Bush believed protecting Saudi Arabia’s oil fields was essential to fighting Communism.

The relationship has been tested — first by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, then by the belief among Gulf leaders that President Barack Obama abandoned them during the Arab uprisings of 2011.

But it seemed to get back on track with Mr. Trump’s election. The Saudis and Emiratis initially believed he would be a tougher guardian than Mr. Obama. They were delighted when he withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed heavy sanctions.

More recently, though, Gulf leaders have become uneasy about the mismatch between Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and his actions. In June, he threatened Iran with “obliteration” after it shot down an unmanned American drone, and then backed away from a planned retaliation at the last minute. His decision to fire John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, has strengthened a belief that Mr. Trump does not want war. But many feared he would stumble into one.

The Emiratis now appear to be wondering if they can rely on this president. After a series of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, they pointedly refused to blame Tehran, and then quietly sent a diplomatic delegation to Iran. They also pulled most of their troops out of the war in Yemen.

Will the Saudis respond in the same way? They have been waging a ruinous proxy war in Yemen since 2015, with the goal of teaching Iran a lesson. The lesson now seems to be flowing in the other direction. The Houthi militia in Yemen,  which is allied with Iran, took responsibility for the missiles that struck Saudi Arabia last week. No one seems to take that claim seriously, but the Houthis have been firing drones and missiles at Saudi Arabia with rising frequency. The Saudis may have to recognize that only diplomacy will bring that war to an end.

Mr. Trump could yet fulfill the Gulf countries’ hopes that he can batter and humble Iran. But at this point, it seems more likely that his fecklessness will provide them with a very different, and perhaps more enduring legacy: the recognition that they must learn to manage Iran without American help.

Robert F. Worth, a former New York Times correspondent, is the author of A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS.

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