Saudi Recklessness and the Myth of ‘Withdrawal’

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Hal Brands makes an extremely shaky assertion about recent Saudi recklessness and U.S. involvement in the Middle East:

Much of Saudi Arabia’s recent behavior has been linked to the rise of MBS, who seems driven by a combination of ambition, arrogance and recklessness. Yet it is not a coincidence that Saudi misdeeds have accumulated at a time when the US is widely seen to be drawing down in the Middle East.

The US has backed the Saudis and Emiratis in the war on Yemen from the start. The US has not been “drawing down” in the region, unless one wants to arbitrarily use the height of the Iraq war as the standard by which to measure our level of involvement. It is preposterous to suggest that Saudi misdeeds are the result of a US withdrawal from the region when no such withdrawal has happened, and it is even worse to make this claim when the US is actively aiding the Saudis in the commission of those misdeeds. Brands correctly says that “Saudi conduct since 2015 has been destabilizing in the extreme,” but omits that the US has been an accomplice in the worst of that destabilizing conduct.

Significantly, Brands does not acknowledge US involvement in the war on Yemen, since that would contradict the idea that the US has “pulled back” from the region. The reality is that the US remains deeply complicit in the actions of its clients, and those clients would have great difficulty in waging a war on their neighbor without US assistance. None of this is to deny that the Saudi government has agency. The Saudi government is responsible for its own destructive behavior, and if they have been increasingly aggressive it is partly because that they know that the US won’t penalize them for it. The same Saudi government that lacked US support might still behave recklessly, but it would not be able to do as much or get away with as much as it does now.

Hawkish interventionists are quick to fault US“inaction” or “withdrawal” for the destructive behavior of other states, and they are equally reluctant to acknowledge the damage caused by the US enabling of reckless clients. If the Saudis are behaving recklessly, Brands can’t admit that it is partly because the US has been indulging them and backing them to the hilt. That would explode the claim that the US is withdrawing and it would show that giving regional clients unconditional support is what’s wrong with our policies in this part of the world.

Brands tries to use the example of Saudi recklessness as a reason to reject a reduced US role in the region:

If it retreats from the Middle East, it will lose whatever restraining leverage it once had over allies and competitors alike.

The trouble with this is that the US doesn’t use its leverage to restrain its clients, and instead chooses to become ensnared in the conflicts that they start. If the US wanted to restrain the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, it could have done so at any point…

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