Whatever the reason — a weak and unprincipled president, a tired and fed up population, a broken economy and dysfunctional politics, growing energy independence (the Saudis cite all these and more) — there’s a growing conviction in Riyadh that the United States has run dangerously short of breath when it comes to standing by its allies in the Middle East. Obama wants out. Face-saving deals on issues like Syria and Iran that are designed not to resolve the region’s most dangerous problems, but rather to defer them from exploding until he’s safely out of office are the order of the day — Saudi vital interests be damned … or so they fear.
It must be noted that the breach in trust has become intensely personal. The Saudi dismay with Obama and his chief lieutenants is hard to overstate at this point. Secretary of State John Kerry in particular has become a target of derision. In the days immediately following the Assad regime’s Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, the phone calls between Kerry and senior Saudi leaders apparently ran fast and furious. Proof that Syria had smashed Obama’s red line on chemical weapons was overwhelming, Kerry assured his interlocutors. A U.S. attack to punish the Assad regime was a sure thing. The Saudis were ecstatic, convinced that at long last Obama was prepared to get off the sidelines and decisively shift the conflict’s trajectory in favor of the West and against Iran. Intelligence, war planning and targeting information were allegedly exchanged. Hints abound that the Saudis were ginned up not only to help finance the operation, but to participate actively with planes and bombs of their own. King Abdullah is rumored to have ordered relevant ministries to prepare to go to the Saudi equivalent of DEFCON 2, the level just short of war.
Then, on Aug. 31, the Saudis turned on CNN, expecting to watch President Obama announce the imminent enforcement of his red-line — only to see him flinch by handing the decision off to Congress.