When an allied leader openly criticizes the American president, you know the relationship is in trouble. And these days that’s exactly what President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is doing. When recently asked about perceptions of U.S. leadership in the Arab world, el-Sisi responded carefully: “difficult questions.”
Joined to Egypt’s flirtations with Russia, el-Sisi’s message isn’t hard to translate. So what’s the issue? Well, while it’s easy to blame U.S. restrictions on arms supplies for the rancor, the truth is more complicated. Ultimately, el-Sisi is furious about a deeper problem: the administration’s lack of interest in the rot of political Islam. Believing, rightly, that ISIS and other Islamist terrorists are empowered by an irredeemable form of Salafi extremism, el-Sisi wants the U.S. to openly identify and confront this rot.
And absent American leadership, el-Sisi is filling the vacuum. Recent Egyptian air strikes against ISIS in Libya are just one example. Meanwhile, however, by failing to support Egyptian efforts to seize the initiative on counter-terrorism, 44 has failed to restrain el-Sisi’s political authoritarianism. As a result, human rights in Egypt are suffering, and opportunities for counter-terrorism success are being neglected.
Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate is America’s most reliable intelligence partner in the Middle East. Across the region, its officers are recruiting agents to infiltrate ISIS and other terrorist groups. These efforts save American lives and inform American policymakers. And as the service of Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh proves, Jordan has the rare courage to act overtly and aggressively. Yet today, the administration is failing this crucial ally. Desperate for new means to defend its territory and confront ISIS, Jordan wants American drones. While it has congressional support in this endeavor, 44 hasn’t authorized action. When the Wall Street Journal asked why, the White House “referred questions to the State Department.” The lack of interest is defining: 44 just can’t be bothered. One understands why Jordan doubts America’s reliability as an ally.
Although it remains deeply repressive, Saudi Arabia also remains a critical American ally. Above all, Saudi Arabia is the physical and psychological home to Islam. This grants the Saudis great influence over the development of political Islam. And while the House of Saud has done much harm via its support for Wahhabi extremists, in recent years, facing al-Qaeda’s attempts to overthrow it, it has taken a tougher line against terrorists (in contrast to Qatar, which throws money at Western capitals and jihadists alike).
To be sure, this doesn’t make Saudi Arabia a natural, ideals-based ally. But it does make Saudi Arabia indispensable. Unfortunately, however, there’s a growing risk that the Saudis may increase their support for Sunni extremists. That’s because Saudi Arabia makes foreign policy through the prism of its existential struggle with Iran. With Iran advancing across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is increasingly tempted to flirt with proxy groups — including al-Qaeda — to counter Iranian power. While that’s a despicable reflex, it’s one that America has to face up to.
The risk is simple. Unless 44 shows the Saudis that he’ll challenge Iran — for example, on its efforts to turn Iraq into its new dominion — and that he’s serious about preventing the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Saudis may consider a new deal with Salafi jihadists.
Yes, America is often ill-served by our Middle Eastern allies. Their political dysfunction is both an undeniable human tragedy and a strategic nightmare. Yet reality is reality and must be confronted. At present, with 44 a bystander to chaos, the chaos is only metastasizing. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs are now caught between ISIS and Iran. And tens of thousands have already lost their lives.
Without American leadership, things will likely get worse. Indeed, catalyzed by looming nuclear proliferation, this political chaos threatens the future of the entire world.