October 26, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 424

America's Self-Inflicted Foreign Policy Collateral Damage

October 26, 2022 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 424

Assuming nuclear war is averted – a big "if" – the United States has done rather well out of the Russia-Ukraine War. While one hesitates to predict the outcome of an ongoing, long, and grinding conflict, Russia has paid a heavy price at the hands of a Ukraine empowered by the bravery of its own soldiers and an ocean of, mostly American, arms and money. Despite failing to actually deter Russia's attack, the Biden Administration's use of its financial power, both to punish and to reward, has been impressive. While much of the world has been ambivalent about the conflict, the United States and its closest allies have embraced the cause of Ukraine.

Even though American leadership is often confused and arrogant, and the United States is beset with myriad internal problems, the ability of the United States to project raw power through a combination of weapons and military power, hegemony over the global financial system, and influence on multilateral institutions is still very real. All three of these elements of national power have been on graphic display in the Ukraine War.

But there is a challenge when everything is seen through the lens of one issue. Recently, President Zelensky bitterly lambasted Israel for not providing him with the latest Israeli missile defense to use against Russian (and Iran-facilitated) airstrikes. It is, of course, completely understandable that someone involved in a brutal war would be so insistent. For the United States to see bilateral relations so narrowly seems to be reckless and American decision-making today driven by the Russia-Ukraine Conflict will have unforeseen consequences elsewhere now and in the near future.

Washington tried to ease sanctions on bitter anti-American regimes in Venezuela and Iran in the hopes that this would translate into more energy on the global market and hurt Russia. Rewarding the dictators Maduro and Khamenei was considered acceptable "collateral damage" in the struggle against Moscow. Washington's concerns about human rights in those countries also seemed to matter less if somehow their oil production could lower energy prices.

One part of the anti-Russia effort is, of course, expanding NATO with the addition of Finland and Sweden. Here we have seen the abasement of NATO to appease Turkey, which needs to sign off on Sweden's entry into the alliance. The West needs Turkey and Turkey knows it. Erdoğan sells attack drones to Ukraine but also is helpful to Russia in various ways. Turkey has doubled its imports of Russian oil in 2022. Turkey has also been for years very helpful to Iran, Russia's ally, in evading Western sanctions. Ankara's state-owned BOTAS pipeline company recently reached an agreement with the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) to increase gas imports. The two countries are sometimes competitors, for example in the Caucasus, but have also found ways to collaborate on money and energy. Both countries embrace a national rhetoric that is deeply anti-Western and anti-American, of course.

Turkey knowing that it is desperately needed on Ukraine emboldens it on other issues, from Libya to Greece to Syria to Armenia to internal repression and demagoguery carried out by Erdoğan in hopes of remaining in power.

If America has decided to tread carefully with Turkey because of Ukraine, Washington seems to want to go in the opposite direction, to be openly aggressive and obnoxious, when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Incredibly, the Biden Administration sought to portray something that Saudi-led OPEC has always done – try to maintain oil prices higher rather than lower for the sake of OPEC members' bottom line – as a pro-Russian action.

Incredibly, we have seen the Biden Administration baiting Saudi Arabia almost from the beginning (and even before the Administration came to power) in 2021 followed by a brief, painfully awkward, effort at reconciliation in 2022 due to the global energy crisis. Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia was preceded by a vitriolic anti-Saudi screed in the Washington Post and by the ridiculous controversy over whether the president would shake hands or even meet with the Saudi crown prince.

The reconciliation was a very brief one and we are now back to Biden threatening the Saudis with consequences as a result of OPEC price stabilization policies of long standing. Not surprisingly, the Saudis (and others) in the region feel that Washington, especially under the Democrats, cannot be trusted and will look to diversify their relationships and their security connections with other powers. America does not "give" Saudi Arabia anything, it sells weapons and protection to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia in turn has been historically helpful to the United States on a host of regional issues, large and small, for years.

In an ironic twist for a Democratic Administration that came in boasting about how it would be so different from the idiosyncratic and personalized policies of the larger-than-life Trump, America's confrontation with Saudi Arabia seems deeply personal, vindictive, and short-sighted, just the type of language critics liked to use about former President Trump. We seem to be on the verge of future punitive steps by Washington against the Saudis which the Saudis cannot and will not accept supinely without responding. This is the same DC crowd that crowed "diplomacy is back!" in February 2021 at the State Department.

Saudi Arabia's Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih recently stated that Washington and Riyadh have too many shared interests and that they will get over their "unwarranted" spat over oil prices and that seems to be the kingdom's clear intention. Saudi investments in the U.S. are massive and include over $130 billion in U.S. treasury bills and bonds. If escalation does come, it seems that it will be from an imperial Washington that somehow feels empowered and entitled only a year after an embarrassing debacle in Afghanistan.

Absent a nuclear confrontation, there will be life, and diplomacy, after the war in Ukraine ends. Coddling anti-Western Erdoğan and alienating American ally Saudi Arabia are reckless moves that hurt American interests. A narrowly Ukraine-obsessed Washington is making decisions worldwide that could ultimately prove very costly in other conflicts and bilateral relationships for years to come.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

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