Obama Must Make Saudi Arabia a Major Priority

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In June 2008, I asked Flynt Leverett — former top Middle East analyst and policy practitioner at the CIA, State Department and George W. Bush’s National Security Council — what he thought the next President of the United States should do “on day one” when it came to the nation’s foreign policy priorities.
I was inspired to do this by the good work of the “On Day One” project sponsored by the UN Foundation‘s Better World Campaign.
Leverett said directly that the first priority should be. . .”getting his relationship with the Saudis off to a good start.”
In my book, Barack Obama gets a “B-” so far for how he has dealt with the Saudis.
Obama should get credit for responding via his first formal press interview with Al Arabiya to former Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki Al-Faisal’s Financial Times article. Prince Turki said in his piece that patience in the Arab world was growing thin with Israel’s flamboyant military actions in Gaza and that the 2002 Arab Peace proposal made by Saudi King Abdullah that would normalize relations between 22 Arab nations and Israel if they reverted back to 1967 borders would be removed from the table if Americans didn’t seriously reengage parties and shove them towards serious negotiations that could yield a viable Palestinian state.
But what Obama doesn’t get points for is the rather shallow process of selecting Ambassadors to represent his interests in US embassies.
The process is still very much underway for all embassies and appointing the general-scholar Karl Eikenberry to head America’s Embassy in Kabul is an example of what is probably a very good choice.
But what we saw in the mismanagement of and eruption over the offer to General Anthony Zinni to head the Embassy in Baghdad (which will now go to former Asst. Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill) was a seemingly casual disregard for Saudi Arabia.
Reportedly, when Zinni was unloading a small portion of his anger about the confusion related to his appointment, National Security Advisor James Jones asked whether he’d “want to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia.”
Zinni could make a great Ambassador to Riyadh. He is respected, has the on the ground experience with major players in the Middle East, and has a good vision of the strategic leaps America needs to make in the Middle East if it wants to have leverage and impact on any of the key issues there.
But Jones’ offer to Zinni of Saudi Arabia was as casual as was Zinni’s appointment to Baghdad falling on to the editing room floor and no one letting Zinni know that he had been cut from the Obama foreign policy movie.
Saudi Arabia should not be approached “casually.” Zinni might have been great there — but the person interacting with King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal must be someone who can interact with this important ally in a way that can manage the US-Saudi relationship with care while also recognizing that the most important opportunity for a “Nixon Goes to China” moment for Obama and his team is making the Arab Peace Initiative offered by King Abdullah in 2002 a reality.
I recently spoke to a leading member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family who stated that they welcome the opportunity down the road for a time when Jews from Israel can travel throughout the region safely and with the protection of law throughout the Arab region — and vice versa. This person said it was time for Israel and the Arabs to grow up and to move along a different track.
Flynt Leverett, my colleague at the New America Foundation who directs the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative, was on the National Security Council staff when George W. Bush became the first US President to utter the word “Palestine” in reference to a future viable, contiguous Palestinian state. Leverett is well regarded in Saudi Arabia and would make a fantastic Ambassadorial appointment.
Another is outgoing ExxonMobil Vice President for Government Affairs Dan Nelson, who was a close friend and supporter of former Senator Chuck Hagel. Nelson once led ExxonMobil’s operations in Saudi Arabia and regularly interacted with all levels of Saudi society but has the respect and trust of the Royal tier of that nation in particular.
Both Dan Nelson and Flynt Leverett would make excellent choices for appointment to Riyadh — and would both help Obama achieve his “change agenda” in the region.
Neither would come off as a casual choice.
So, let’s wait and see who Barack Obama, Jim Jones, and Hillary Clinton finally decide on.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

13 comments on “Obama Must Make Saudi Arabia a Major Priority

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  2. Big Time Patriot says:

    Saudi Arabia is Iran before the revolution.
    Any efforts to placate and buddy up to the present Monarchy will be remembered and held against the U.S. when the monarchy eventually and ineveitably falls.
    For more recent example of supporting an unpopular leader at the wrong time,see Pakistan
    The last thing we need in the middle east is more Kissinger style “Real Politik”…

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  3. Sage says:

    Zinni’s decision to go public with his “irritation” says a lot about Zinni and not much about the process. I think we should reserve judgment on the process as we know little about it.

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  4. Cee says:

    On Zinni…
    Those who have believed that the departured of Dubya from the oval office will mean that Israeli politicians will no longer be able to call up American presidents and tell them what to do should think twice. The story of General Anthony Zinni’s aborted appointment as ambassador to Iraq has received remarkably little attention and it has been attributed to his being a general and his directorship with major military contractor Dyncorp. Neither explanation is plausible as Hillary Clinton certainly knew he was a general when the appointment was discussed and the issue of Dyncorp never came up in the interview process.
    Zinni was offered the position after an interview with Hillary Clinton at the end of January and even received a call from Joe Biden congratulating him on the next day, but the assignment was derailed in the following week. Christopher Hill received the ambassadorship instead of Zinni and Zinni received no explanation why he had been passed over, which reportedly irritated the hell out of him.
    I have been informed by a State Department contact that Zinni was rejected after Clinton came under pressure from some major supporters in New York State who told her that the appointment was unacceptable to Israel because Zinni is perceived as “hostile” to the Jewish state.
    http://www.amconmag.com/blog/2009/02/10/whither-zinni/

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  5. Dan Kervick says:

    The only thing I want to observe about Zinni is that, so far as I can tell, almost everything we know about how Zinni was and was not treated during this process comes from Zinni’s own account to Foreign Policy. Rather than rush out into the media to defend themselves, the Obama administration and the State Department have kept a discreet and professional silence on their hiring deliberations. Now maybe they screwed up and maybe they didn’t. But the fact that they don’t want to engage in media tit-for-tat with Zinni isn’t in itself evidence of a screw-up. It may just be a mature decision to let it drop.
    Steve seems to suggest that Jones offered Zinni the Saudi Arabia post as a seat-of-the pants reaction to Zinni’s phone call. Maybe that’s true, but we don’t know that. It could be that during the week following Zinni’s meeting at the State Department, there were several high level discussions about the best job for Zinni, and that a considered decision had been made to offer the Saudi Arabia job. Maybe Burns was going to inform Zinni about the Christopher Hill decision and offer him the Saudi Arabia job, any Zinni only heard about the job in a strange way because he decided to go over Burns’s head and call his old friend, James Jones. But The NSA doesn’t appoint ambassadors; the State Department does. Maybe Zinni lost track of the fact that he was being considered for a job in the diplomatic branch, not a promotion in the military chain of command.
    We also know almost nothing about the internal reasons for not assigning Zinni to Iraq, or about who inside or outside the administration had the strongest objections.
    I don’t know what the usual procedure is with ambassadorial appointments. But many people didn’t get the jobs they were hoping for, and are irritated about it. That comes with the territory.
    And based on personal experience, it is pretty standard when applying for a job that if a decision has not been made, you don’t get called back until it is made, and that if you start pestering people with calls and phone messages before they have made their decision, you aren’t going to get some sort of blow-by-blow account of the internal deliberations.

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  6. ... says:

    OT but worth reading
    Obama on Nationalization
    http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/

    Reply

  7. JohnH says:

    Leverett for Ambassador to Saudi Arabia? Why not to Iran? Talk about a Nixon to China moment! It would put new facts on the ground (deal with it neocons!) and signal that Uncle Sam is serious about doing business, not war, with Tehran.

    Reply

  8. Linda says:

    Well, I’ll go for optimistically cynical–
    And a Peter Sellers film festival with “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Mouse That Roared.”

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  9. WigWag says:

    Being There with Peter Sellars?
    Fun movie; Enjoy!

    Reply

  10. Steve Clemons says:

    Thanks WigWag — Obama is smart but so too was Jimmy Carter.
    Process is important as is reaching across the aisle — but
    somewhat spineless accomodation or compromise for the
    purpose of compromise is not what principled policy
    pragmatism is about. I hope he learns that lesson soon.
    On Labor, I am not a fan of Ehud Barak. I think he did a lot
    behind the scenes to concoct some of the current tensions as a
    way to break Kadima’s back. He ended up moving much of the
    nation to the right – and Labor’s leader became less attractive to
    the base of the Labor party. Distressing.
    I liked Ami Ayalon before he basically self-destructed
    politically….would have been a different course for Labor and
    the country.
    I have spent a bit of time with one of the Knesset members close
    to Avigdor Lieberman — and we are potentially in for some
    spicy times in our relationship with Israel.
    More later — I have to go to see “Being There” at a “movie night”
    sponsored by “The Week” magazine. Tonight, Bob Schieffer is
    the host and picked his favorite film..and that’s it. For Chris
    Matthews it was “Dave”, and for Senator Lindsey Graham it was
    “7 Days in May”.
    I’m cynically optimistic – sort of like being a progressive realist.
    all best,
    steve

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  11. WigWag says:

    Yes, fine today, thank you. I am saddened by the results (I am a supporter of Labor)but in the fullness of time, hopefully everything will work out for the best. I confess to being a Panglossian, so I’m always optimistic (perhaps naively so).
    As for Zinni, he’s obviously extraordinarily accomplished. He would have been a good Ambassador or he could have reprised the role in the Middle East that Bush and Powell originally gave him.
    There’s no question that he was treated shabbily by the Obama Administration; they just don’t seem to have their act together on the appointments do they?
    All the promises about the soft stuff, (e.g. ethics reform, bipartisanship)seem to be doing Obama more harm than good.
    But at least he’s smart (I thought his press conference performance was excellent even though I know you probably don’t like his Iran comments). So maybe he will eventually learn how to be President.

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  12. Steve Clemons says:

    Thanks WigWag — The Obama team offered Zinni a position and
    then withdrew without telling him. It is the “not telling him” that
    caused the eruption — whether or not he was the right guy for the
    job and able to clear the confirmation process. Obama will not
    offer him Saudi Arabia now (though Jones did) — and I doubt Zinni
    would accept if offered…but we very much need people who know
    the issues and region in these jobs rather than the seemingly
    haphazard way some of these choices are now being made, or
    seemingly being made. Hope you are well….very interesting results
    in Israel today….or exit polls anyway. best, steve

    Reply

  13. WigWag says:

    As an Executive Vice President of DynCorp and as a Board Member, Zinni pocketed almost $1 million in compensation for his services to the Company.
    According to its own website “the Company through its subsidiaries, provides defense and technical services and government outsourced solutions to United States government agencies throughout the U.S. and internationally.” Dyncorp is especially active in the Middle East.
    If Obama selects Zinni it will be another Daschle situation all over again. As far as we know, Zinni paid all his taxes; but like everyone else in government, he cashed in on his connections when he left the Marine Corps. By the way, General Barry McCaffery is another DynCorp executive as is former Admiral Leighton Smith.
    The Board of Directors of this Company is a whose who of executives at Defense Contractors and retired military officers. Other retired military personnel on the Board of DynCorp include: Admiral Joseph W. Prueher (U.S. Navy Retired) and General Peter J. Schoomaker (U.S. Army Retired).
    Most of the company’s business is with DOD.
    Wouldn’t hiring Zinni as Ambassador to Saudi Arablia run afoul of the ethics rules Obama recently announced to such fanfare?

    Reply

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