Obama Must Make Saudi Arabia a Major Priority


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


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