Last Wednesday, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah opened the Arab summit in Riyadh with a speech in which he issued a call for Arab unity, and sharply criticized the United States’ “illegitimate foreign occupation” of Iraq. While the Saudis have previously criticized U.S. efforts in Iraq, the language of Wednesday’s speech was noticeably direct in condemning the American presence, and is indicative of the growing regional dimensions of the Iraq conflict as the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.
It requires no great insight to deduce that the power vacuum created by the removal of Saddam Hussein has worked to further Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions. In contrast to the 1990s which featured Iranian overtures for a regional collective security agreement and bilateral talks with the Saudis, Tehran has recently pursued an aggressive foreign policy marked by its nuclear weapons program, support for Shiite factions within Iraq, interference in Lebanon, and widespread diplomatic intransigence. As Thomas Friedman astutely observes, when America leaves a vacuum, others step in to fill it with their own plans.
In light of this challenge from the north, it is no wonder that the Saudis have responded by denouncing the American presence in Iraq and proposing an unworkable Palestinian peace plan in an attempt to shore up support and influence among the Sunni Middle-East. Regrettably, as the major actors around the Gulf posture themselves to best take advantage of the ongoing chaos in Iraq, they perpetuate and exacerbate existing sectarian tensions.
In turn, these heightened tensions create impetus for greater foreign support of the Shiite and Sunni factions in Iraq. This is a cycle of intervention with dire consequences, both for the success of democracy in Iraq as well as for broader regional stability.
The United States must act expeditiously to shore up regional cooperation in the effort to stabilize Iraq, and it must do so with leverage. Such leverage, however, requires a strong U.S. diplomatic commitment toward resolving the major political issues that plague the future of Middle-East. This has been a commitment that the Bush administration has been unwilling to make, and Condoleezza Rice’s recent trips to the region are unlikely to atone for five years of American neglect.
In a seminal 1986 work, Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter posited that, “few political moments pose such agonizing choices and
responsibilities, ethical as well as political [as the transition from authoritarian government].” Both the president and Congress need to be willing to make those agonizing choices and commit the United States whole heartedly to a winning strategy for Iraq and the region, or get out and bear the moral and political consequences of a misguided and thoroughly mismanaged effort. As politicians in Washington work to cover themselves politically, the struggle for power in the “new” Middle-East is well upon us.