- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Saudi Arabia’s surprising decision to support Egypt’s military leaders in their bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has split the Arab world in two.

The unequivocal Saudi move to back Egypt’s secular military rulers who toppled the Muslim government in a coup has left the Obama administration without a clear policy in a Middle East war that threatens our long alliance with the Saudi kingdom.

From the beginning of the Egyptian crisis that is fast turning into a religious civil war, the Obama administration has been caught flat-footed and confused in its response, taking contradictory positions throughout the course of the conflict. As the White House seems incapable of deciding what its policy should be and struggles over whether to end its $1.3 billion-a-year military aid to its Egyptian ally, Saudi rulers swiftly acted to make the issue moot.

The Saudis flatly announced Monday that any retaliatory withdrawal of military aid by the United States or any other Western countries would be covered by the Saudi government. Calling its Egyptian neighbor “our second homeland,” the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said the Arab kingdom would do whatever it takes to make sure Egypt is not destabilized by foreign repercussions. “Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will provide a helping hand to Egypt,” the prince said.

Before the fiery riots that led to the overthrow of the Muslim government headed by President Mohammed Morsi, the escalating crisis was seen as a battle between a Muslim theocracy and a more secular-leaning segment of Egypt’s younger population.

Since the crackdown, when Mr. Morsi was deposed and placed under house arrest, it’s become clearer that the battle has really been between Mr. Morsi’s repressive Muslim movement that had terrorists within its ranks and moderate Egyptians who want more economic and religious freedom. This view was bluntly voiced Friday in a foreign-policy address by aging Saudi King Abdullah, who praised the Egyptian military’s crackdown and accused the pro-Morsi protesters of “terrorism, extremism and sedition.”

Several days later, the military arrested the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that toppled the autocratic presidency of Hosni Mubarak. State television showed Mohammed Badie being driven away to prison Monday night.

As the emerging civil war in Egypt turned more and more chaotic by the day, the Saudis’ unexpected embrace of Egypt’s military leadership — dividing the Muslim world — has added a whole new dimension to the crisis.

On one side are the Saudis, joined by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. On the other, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s government, are Qatar, Turkey, Iran, the despotic regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, and Arab terrorist groups in nearly a half-dozen Arab countries.

Veteran Middle East analysts see the Saudi move as a dangerous high-wire act fraught with political and security risks. “This is an enormous gamble for the king,” says Christopher Davidson, professor of Middle East history at Durham University in England. “Saudi Arabia is putting itself in direct confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has broad regional sympathy across the region.”

Potentially more troublesome is the Saudis’ decision to cross swords with the Obama administration as the White House and State Department dithers and delays over what to do next.

Is the long alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia now in danger because of the foreign-policy incompetence of the West Wing and new, untested Secretary of State John Kerry?

The Saudi decision to side with Egypt’s military, even at the risk of wounding U.S. relations, betrays how much they fear the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist elements running the largest and most powerful Arab country in the region.

“It’s not about expansionism. The Saudis are doing these things out of fear, rather than greed,” Gamal Soltan, a political-science professor at the American University of Cairo told The Washington Post.

Meantime, don’t look for any coherent policy response from Mr. Kerry, whose bungled performance in his first big foreign-policy test has been an international embarrassment.

Since Egypt’s military arrested Mr. Morsi and took over his government, the Obama administration has waffled over whether a coup had taken place. At one point, Mr. Kerry told the press in Pakistan that the military was merely “restoring democracy.” When that remark sparked an uproar from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Kerry backed away from his remark, calling for all sides “to get back to a new normal” — whatever that is.

The administration’s Keystone Kops-style handling of the crisis, stumbling from one mixed message to another, has drawn condemnation and ridicule across the foreign-policy community. Efforts to navigate its way through the violent military crackdown were “complicated by what many Egyptians see as mixed and confusing messages coming from Washington, exacerbating already high anti-American sentiment and threatening broader U.S. goals in the region,” the Associated Press reported last week.

This regionwide crisis called for skillful statecraft and experienced presidential leadership, both of which have been AWOL in Washington ever since the bloodshed in Egypt began.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

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