Tony Badran

Don’t let the posy fool you

If Operation Decisive Storm says anything, it’s that the Saudis have lost all confidence in the Obama administration

Members of the Saudi border guard pose for pictures on Ashiq island, in Jizan Province near the Yemen border on 1 April 2015. (AFP/STR)

As the coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis in Yemen last week, observers were left bewildered by the position of the Obama administration. Here was the US simultaneously providing air support to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, as well as logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition targeting Iranian-backed militias in Yemen. If there ever was an example that captured the incoherence of the White House’s regional policy, certainly this was it.


To be sure, over the past four years, many of the US president’s seemingly-incomprehensible policy choices in Syria were attributed to incoherence or incompetence. But it is now increasingly acknowledged that, in fact, Obama’s decisions emanated from a clear strategic vision: reconfiguring the regional order and aligning with Iran.


However, some were quick to seize on the administration’s support for the Saudi-led campaign to dismiss the argument of Obama’s alignment with Iran. How could the president be pro-Iran if he’s backing a war against one of their assets? But a closer reading shows that the US position in Yemen is entirely consistent with Obama’s vision of the regional order.


The regional players are operating on this assumption. If Operation Decisive Storm says anything, it’s that the Saudis have lost all confidence in the Obama administration—a suspicion driven precisely by the White House’s obvious tilt toward Tehran. Therefore, the Saudi move in Yemen was as much a message to Obama as it was to Iran. Important details of the Saudi-US interaction underscore this point. 


In a recent article, prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi reported that the Saudis went to the White House to inform it of their intent to interfere in Yemen militarily, along with a coalition of nations, “with or without you.” Khashoggi then added that the “Americans may have procrastinated and requested time,” which he interpreted as a sign that the US thought the Saudis were bluffing. In reality, the Saudis deliberately kept the Americans in the dark about the exact details of the operation because they didn’t trust that the White House wouldn’t share this information with Iran, giving it advance warning. As a result, the US learned of the start of the operation a mere hour before coalition jets began striking their targets.


The US then provided limited logistical support to the Saudis, along with relatively tepid and conditional rhetorical support. This afforded the White House the ability to dismiss critics and claim—much like it did with Israel—that it still had its traditional allies’ back, even as it degraded them and elevated the Iranians. 


In truth, there was no mistaking the US message to the Saudis—that in the end, “all sides” will have to be brought “around the negotiating table.” This is a message the White House has been impressing on Riyadh for over a year: in the end, you have to sit down with the Iranians and reach an understanding. Sure enough, the White House has put out this exact message through reliable media conduits. In effect, the administration legitimized Iranian “interests” in Yemen, much as it had done in Syria, Iraq, and of course Lebanon.


This position follows from Obama’s broader vision of a new regional security framework, one based on a concert system of states. Accordingly, Iran would not be contained, but welcomed as a principal stakeholder. The US role is no longer to back traditional allies. Instead, it’s now to chaperone Iran into the head chair of the old American regional order. As for the old allies, the US role now is to hold their hands and reassure them that everything will be fine; that this is all in their best interests. 


The US stance over the Saudi intervention is in sharp contrast with how the White House is dealing with Iran in Iraq. There, the US is directly intervening with serious firepower to ensure that the Iranians and their Iraqi assets have all the support they need to bring the Sunni provinces under control. There is no comparison to be made between the scale of US support to the Iranian campaign in Iraq versus its support to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Hence, speculation that the administration might now pivot “to confront Iran more forcefully over its support for militant groups,” is off the mark. The US is directly backing the Iranian assets to win in Iraq, while paying lip service to the Saudis, with an envisioned endgame of a negotiated settlement with Iran.


Maybe the White House thought it could sell its position on Yemen as “standing with our allies,” but nobody is buying. Washington’s old regional allies have moved on beyond Obama, and are now waiting him out. As Khashoggi put it: “Saudi Arabia no longer cares if the [American] silence [in the face of Iranian expansion] is a passing weakness of a president whose term ends in two years, or if it is… a grand bargain [with Iran].” For his part, Obama is betting that the Saudis will ultimately have to negotiate with Iran. So he’s willing to call their bluff, while giving them nominal support.


The US president is not being incoherent. It took states in the region a while to figure it out, but he is pursuing a regional realignment that traditional allies now see clearly. Predictably, they are rebelling. And he continues to ignore them in return.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


Members of the Saudi border guard pose for pictures on Ashiq island, in Jizan Province near the Yemen border on 1 April 2015. (AFP/STR)

If Operation Decisive Storm says anything, it’s that the Saudis have lost all confidence in the Obama administration."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    So it took Badran several years of insulting President Obama (incompetence, incoherence...) before he understood that this was a competent, coherent, and far-reaching policy? What is incomprehensible to me is on whose squandered payroll Badran is. Let me help you, Tony, because you still don't understand: The Saudi shouldering of the Yemeni issue is not because they lost confidence in Obama; It is indeed the point of the Obama policy to force leeches and crybabies like the Saudis to finally grow up and stop hiding under Uncle Sam's skirt, even as they doctrinally are America's number one enemy. There is no lost love between the two. There are no shared values or principles. The only thing they shared for half a century is oil. Now that oil is no longer a priority for America, Obama has cut off the umbilical cord. He no longer needs the Saudis, but the Saudis, in their incompetence, desperately need the Americans. What Obama has done is open the door, kick the Saudis out, and tell them "go get a life." And the Saudis seem to have gotten the message. Not only they are beginning to welcome Saudi (not American) body bags from Yemen, but with time, they will reduce their funding of terrorist Islamic organizations around the world, close the thousands of madrassas, and evolve up the primate chain... all good things from a western perspective. Thank you, Mr. Obama. Good luck, Tony.

    April 6, 2015

  • rex.brynen

    What an odd piece. There is nothing inconsistent with supporting friendly governments in Iraq and Yemen, which is that all the US has done. The notion that the US should automatically do the opposite of Iran--even when the US and Iran have partially aligned interests--is strategic nonsense, and the only "observers" who have been bewildered are the more ideologically-driven pundits. (Also, let's not overstate the Iranian role in Yemen--much of recent Houthi success has been due to the support they receive from ex-President Saleh.)

    April 4, 2015

  • Beiruti

    Badran is way to linear and does not catch the historical precedents. This is not the first time for the US to negotiate with an adversary while still enafed in confrontation with it. Don't you remember Viet Nam?? While the US engaged in arms reduction talks, ie, the nuclear test ban treaty, we were fighting the Soviet backed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in South East Asia. This is no different. So, Tony, stop breathing so hard and calm down. Accept that the President knows what he's doing. And the idea that Netanyahu should weigh in on the framework agreement and impose conditions and requirements to his "approval" is absolutely insane!! Since when do members of congress have to take a green light from a foreign potentate before they can agree to a measure taken by their own government. And worse, when Congressional approval is not even required!!

    April 4, 2015