Pat Buchanan: The rogue royal of Arabia
If Saudi Arabia's crown prince has in mind a war with Iran, President Trump should disabuse him of any notion that America would do his fighting for him.
Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), 32-year-old son of aging and ailing King Salman, is making too many enemies for his own good, or ours. Pledging to Westernize Saudi Arabia, he has antagonized the clerical establishment. Among the 200 Saudis he just had arrested for corruption are 11 princes, the National Guard's head, Riyadh's governor, and famed investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The Saudi tradition of consensus collective rule is being trashed. MBS is said to be pushing for abdication by his father and his early assumption of the throne. He has begun to exhibit familiar traits of an ambitious 21st-century autocrat. Yet his foreign adventures are all proving to be debacles.
The rebels the Saudis backed in Syria's civil war were routed. The war on Houthi rebels in Yemen, of which MBS is architect, is a Saudi Vietnam and a human-rights catastrophe. He persuaded Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE to expel Qatar from the Sunni Arab community for aiding terrorists, but has failed to choke Qatar into submission.
Last week, MBS ordered Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh, where Hariri publicly resigned his office and now appears to be under house arrest. Refusing to recognize the resignation, Lebanon's president is demanding Hariri's return.
Riyadh declared a missiled fired by Houthi rebels at its international airport Iranian-made, smuggled into Yemen by Tehran, and fired with Hezbollah's help. The story seemed far-fetched, but the Saudi foreign minister said the attack may be considered an “act of war” — by Iran. Riyadh ordered home all Saudi nationals in Lebanon and has imposed a virtual starvation blockade — land, sea and air — on Yemen, the poorest of Arab nations, heavily dependent on imports with hundreds of thousands suffering from cholera and millions facing malnutrition.
The U.S. interest is clear: no new Middle East war and a negotiated end to the wars in Yemen and Syria. Hence, the U.S. needs to rein in MBS. Yet on his Asia trip, Trump said, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.” Do they? No one knows how a Saudi Arabia-Iran war would end.
A dozen years ago, the Gulf balance of power shifted to Iran, when George W. Bush's Operation Iraqi Freedom ousted Saddam Hussein, disarmed and disbanded his Sunni-led army and turned Iraq into a Shiite-dominated, Iran-friendly nation. The Saudis may demand a crackdown on Hezbollah, but it is a participant in the Lebanese government and has that country's largest fighting force, hardened and victorious in Syria's civil war. The Israelis could win a war with Hezbollah, but neither appears eager to renew their costly, inconclusive 2006 conflict.
In an all-out war with Iran, Saudi Arabia could not prevail without U.S. support. Should Riyadh fail, the regime would be imperiled. So far out on a limb has MBS gone that it is hard to see how he climbs back without some humiliation that could cost him the throne.
We should tell MBS that if he starts a war in Lebanon or in the Gulf, he is on his own. We alone decide whether the U.S. goes to war again in the Middle East.
Pat Buchanan is the author of “Nixon's White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever.”