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By Micah Halpern

Monday May 19, 2008


George Bush participated in the festivities and was himself feted on his trip to the Middle East in honor of Israel's anniversary. And while that component of his visit was important, it was not the focal point of the trip.

The most important discussion George Bush made on this diplomatic mission to the Middle East was with Saudi Arabia. And it was also the most demeaning.

The president of the United States, the most powerful country in the world, attempted to persuade the King of Saudi Arabia, the most oil rich country in the world, to increase oil production for US consumption. And the king turned the president down. And this wasn't the first time it happened. Only eight months ago the president made the same visit to the king with the same request and received the same negative response. O.K, so this time it was not an outright "no." This time a promise was made to increase oil production for the United States by 300,000 barrels a day - but in diplomatic-speak, that is worse than a "no," that is a "dis." It means "I can do it if I want do, but I don't, so I won't."

Why did Saudi Arabia turn down this request by the United States?

Because they could. And because it makes the Saudis feel very good and very powerful to turn down the United States. And because Saudi Arabia knows that they will suffer no repercussions for having turned down a heartfelt plea from the most powerful country in the free world.

In diplomatic terms, this was a botched job. It proved, once again, just how little the policy wonks of the United States understand the Middle East. The United States, in the person of President George Bush, threw diplomacy aside and begged. And when he was laughed at for begging, he scuttled out leaving gifts behind. Good gifts. Great gifts. Valuable gifts. Gifts that will elevate the status of Saudi Arabia in Middle East circles. Gifts that will change the status of the Region.

The United States approached Saudi Arabia from a position of weakness, it was, in the eyes of the Arab Middle East, an act of humiliation and degradation. By repeating his request to the Saudi king, Bush telegraphed to the Arab world just how needy the strongest country in the world is.

The entire situation could, and should, have been conducted differently. As opposed to putting forth his request while in the Region, the United States could have continued the discussion from home field. It is an ages old rule in the history of diplomacy in the Middle East - power sits with the host. And as opposed to rewarding the Saudi Kingdom with gifts following the refusal of the Saudi Kingdom to aid the United States, those gifts should have been held back either as rewards for complying with the request and significantly expanding oil production for the United States, or held back and denied entirely.

And what are those gifts:
Gift # 1: On the Friday following the turn down the White House announced that the United States will help Saudi Arabia develop atomic energy.

Gift # 2: The United States has signed a very expansive military arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The US will be selling some of the most sophisticated and most advanced weapons in the US arsenal to the Saudis - this deal includes new planes and technology.

Israel, not surprisingly, has issued a formal request to torpedo the deal because these new weapons would significantly threaten Israel's qualitative advantage in the region. This time it was the United States who said "no" and the US will go through with the deal.

What could have been important fulcrums for leveraging power have turned into fool's gifts. What incentive do other countries have for assisting the United States when gifts are lavishly dispensed anyway? All countries create foreign policy and act in their own best interest. Saudi Arabia is no exception, neither is the United States. The point is that until now the United States had tremendous leverage when urging other countries to help out. Bribes worked, arm twisting worked. Dangling enticing carrots from the Oval Office packs far more power than standing hat in hand in another country's front yard.

So what if the world accused the United States of offering bribes? The United States can handle that. In many parts of the world, that ability inspires respect and commands fear. That is how successful US foreign policy has often been determined. In the words of Machiavelli, "It is better to be feared than loved."

And in the words of Alexander Pope,"... fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

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4 June 2017 12:14 PM in Columns

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