Middle East disconnect at the Washington Post

The Washington Post takes time out from urging that the U.S. blow up relations with Saudi Arabia, as retribution for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, to provide a clear-eyed assessment of reality in the Middle East. The Post’s Liz Sly finds that Russia has become the region’s rising power.

Russia has made huge inroads, commercial and diplomatic, throughout the Middle East. The nations that now woo Putin run the gamut — from Qatar to Egypt, from Turkey to Lebanon, from Iraq to Israel, and yes, to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi King Salman chose Moscow over Washington for his first, and so far only, official overseas visit — the first visit ever by a Saudi monarch to Russia. The king’s visit produced an agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia to cut oil production. This agreement has given Russia new weight in world energy markets. And Russian companies have signed billions of dollars’ worth of deals in oil and gas ventures with Saudi Arabia.

No wonder Putin gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman such a hearty public greeting at the summit in Buenos Aires late last month. One can easily imagine how much warmer the relationship would be were the Trump administration to follow the Post’s advice and blow up U.S. relations with the Saudi government.

Sly attributes the rise of Russia in the Middle East to “the vacuum left by the disengagement of the Obama administration and the unpredictability of the Trump one.” Obama’s disengagement was surely a huge factor. Trump’s “unpredictably,” less so, I think. If Middle East leaders focus on Trump’s actions rather than his rhetoric, there is little reason for them to tilt towards Russia. At the same time, it’s too risky for these leaders to ignore entirely Trump’s rhetoric of disengagement.

Some of Trump’s rhetoric might prompt supporters to argue that it’s of no moment that Russia is gaining preeminence in the Middle East. Let the Russians have it, they might say.

Trump himself might have said it. But his actions show he doesn’t want the U.S. to lose business deals with countries like Saudi Arabia. And he wants a coalition of such countries to counteract Iran.

My purpose here isn’t to tout the virtues of engagement in the Middle East, though. The Washington Post believes engagement is important and it is intractably anti-Putin. My purpose is to highlight the disconnect between these positions and the Post’s calls for action that would wreck U.S.-Saudi relations.

It turns out that, for all its criticism of Trump for alleged coziness, if not collusion, with Putin, it’s the president, not the paper, who stands prepared to limit Putin’s influence with a central player in the Middle East.

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