Having done his darndest in The Hague, Barack Obama is taking his “cast of 100s” caravan to the sands of the Saudis.
Riyadh may seem a strange place to end a European tour, but Mr. Obama often does the unexpected. What he does not do when travelling, however, is deal directly with the really bad stuff.
Mr. Obama’s ineffectual response to the Crimean crisis is of a piece with his handling of Syria and Iran.
Even at The Hague, as tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border, he sought to divert attention from the calamity on Europe’s frontier. Instead, he asserted that Russia’s aggression was a sign of weakness, and Moscow would sooner or later come to its senses.
Then Mr. Obama had the other world leaders in attendance join him in a game of make-believe—a simulation of a nuclear crisis.
But foreign relations aren’t fun and games. And Mr. Obama isn’t having much success in distracting the world’s attention from the glaring failures of his foreign doctrine. Even on the home front, approval of his foreign policy is well below 40 percent—lower even than his wildly unpopular economic and health care policies.
Mr. Obama’s ineffectual response to the Crimean crisis is of a piece with his handling of Syria and Iran. These are the two most problematic regimes in the Middle East, and Moscow acts as big brother to both.
Obama was counting on Putin’s cooperation to help wind down the civil war in Syria and defuse the confrontation over the Iranian nuclear program. That cooperation never materialized.
Now, with Russian troops occupying Crimea and threatening others in the Baltics, the prospects for U.S.-Russian cooperation looker shakier than a James Bond martini.
Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only nation to have found heavy going in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, despite holding home field advantage, has tripped over some bumps as well.
It backed the wrong horses in the Syrian Civil War. Then, when they failed to topple Assad, those horses fell to fighting each other—opening the gate to a host of Al Qaeda look-alikes to make mischief from Damascus to Western Iraq.
The Saudis are also at odds with their neighbor Qatar, which has bankrolled the most radical Islamist rebel groups in Syria as well the Muslim Brotherhood—a threat to every kingdom in the Gulf. And then there’s a host of internal conflicts in Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen, all of which create headaches for the Saudi regime.
Complicating matters further, a changing of the guard may well be underway within Royal House of Saud. Prince Bandar, the leader with whom the West is most familiar, increasingly appears to be on the outs.
But don’t expect President Obama and King Abdullah spend time commiserating over their common troubles. The Saudis have come to regard Mr. Obama is seen as an ineffective, disinterested, and disengaged ally.
Last December, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and director of intelligence, said that Mr. Obama’s “indecision” in the Middle East had created “an issue of confidence.” As a result, he noted, there has been a loss of credibility with American allies throughout the region.
Given these perceptions, the most Mr. Obama can hope to achieve on his jaunt to Riyadh is restore some of the lost confidence with a commitment to shore up the security situation for both nations.
For example, the president could offer to help Riyadh upgrade its ballistic missile defenses and to deploy Patriot batteries to neutralize Iran’s missile threat. Both leaders could agree to boost intelligence and naval cooperation to cripple Iranian arms shipments to its client groups, which include the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who threaten the Saudis as well as the Yeminis.
But don’t look for Mr. Obama return from Riyadh with any kind of agreement that will make a significant improvement to the region’s highly hazardous landscape.
After all, it’s taken six years of temporizing and dithering to bring the Middle East to its current state of chaotic hostility. That can’t be fixed in just couple of hours in the palace of King Abdullah.