A Conversation with Thomas Lippman

Published: September 10, 2010

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Editor’s Note:

We last talked with Thomas Lippman from the sidelines of the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in Chicago in April where he reflected on the sense of optimism in the air for American-Saudi business partnerships. The conference, he said, was “an important step for the American business community. They certainly, at least since 9/11
but even before that, have been a bit circumspect on doing business with Saudi Arabia. All that is off the table now. This is certainly very healthy, atmospherically, for both sides.” Lippman, former newsman, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Adjunct Scholar and author of several books on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, including “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia,” visited the Kingdom in May working on his next book, “Saudi Arabia on the Edge.” We talked with him this summer to get his perspectives on the developments between America and Saudi Arabia for your consideration today.

Policy Vacuums and Rough Territory
A Conversation with Thomas Lippman

SUSRIS: Let’s start with relations at the top. King Abdullah met at the White House with President Obama at the end of June, following his participation in the Group of Twenty summit in Canada. In a preview of the meeting you wrote in the “RaceForIran” blog, “It is hard to imagine that the White House session will produce any game-changing agreements because while the two countries generally share the same strategic objectives, each wants something that the other is unable or unwilling to deliver.” So what did we get?

Lippman: In that article I mentioned there were occasions where there were real deliverables because the situation required it: either they were going to end the oil embargo, or not; either we were going to send troops there for Desert Storm, or not. In this case, there didn’t seem to be any similar urgent decisions to reach.

SUSRIS: What about Iran?

Lippman: The situation has changed, just in the time since the Abdullah-Obama meeting, in ways that we don’t yet fully understand, simply because General David Petraeus is no longer the Commander of U.S. Central Command. I agree with many specialists in this area who are of the opinion that the only person working for President Obama who was doing serious strategic planning for the Gulf was David Petraeus. The problem with that, of course, is that in our system generals are supposed to execute policy, not make it.

With Petraeus’ abrupt move to Afghanistan to replace General McChrystal, there’s a vacuum that hasn’t yet been filled. There’s a nominee for the position of CentCom Commander but it’s not clear who is doing what, if anything, on advancing the policy on the question of Iran.

New sanctions on Iran are in place. There are some indications they have at least a nuisance impact on the Iranians, but the strategic situation doesn’t appear to be moving at all. I don’t know what options are being considered. I don’t believe that the Saudis secretly want the United States or Israel to undertake military action against the Iranians. There are too many downsides from the Saudi perspective. We’ll have to see how it unfolds, how the American policy vacuum is filled.

SUSRIS: We recently spoke with Dr. Anthony Cordesman about Iran [“Nuclear Reality in the Gulf”] and he cautioned that we’re years away from the necessity – if it ever came to it – of a military strike because of the timelines, the questions of when there would be an actual weapon and delivery system capability.

Lippman: That’s correct and I certainly defer to his superior knowledge of the actual military details. However, I don’t think we can believe the Saudis are content to see the sanctions regime play out. There have been some unusual developments in the area of sanctions. Several global banks have stopped providing financing for Iranian gasoline imports and insurance has been hard to come by, for example, but the Russians have said they’re going to continue to do business. There was the bizarre news about the Educational Testing Service pulling out of Iran because it’s illegal for them to get paid by Iranians. The result is that Iranian students can’t take the English as a foreign language exam they need to get into foreign universities. They are just a couple of examples but none of these things will have a deterrent effect on the Iranians if they are committed to going down the nuclear road. That’s why the Saudis won’t be satisfied with sanctions.

In fact Prince Saud al-Faisal said as much, after a meeting with Hillary Clinton in February. But they don’t have an alternative. They are not offering their own plan. It’s the exact opposite of the situation with the so-called peace process in which the Saudis have laid out a specific plan and have worked to market it. There’s no such plan for Iran.

The Saudis have always equated strategy with acquisition and I don’t see anything different happening now. What’s their strategy? Their strategy is to upgrade their aircraft and improve their missile defenses. That’s not a strategy, that’s acquisition.

SUSRIS: There are not a lot of options for Riyadh or for Washington.

Lippman: That’s correct. In the case of Iran, the incentives to avoid trouble overpower the incentives for making trouble. I got a very clear sense when I was in Riyadh in May that the Saudis understand there’s not much they can do about Iran. They have no upside from a military option. They understand that Iran’s potential to make trouble for them far exceeds their potential to make trouble for Iran. It’s essential for the very life of Saudi Arabia to maintain long-term stability in the oil markets, and war in the Persian Gulf is not the key to stability in the oil markets.

SUSRIS: Can we talk about the connections between the U.S. and the Kingdom in the different sectors? You and I were at the U.S. Business Opportunities Forum in Chicago and there was a tremendous sense of optimism about the relationship. But when we look at the government to government connections, at least the public face, beyond kind words at press conferences, does it seem to you that Washington and Riyadh are often out of synch, compared to the state of business to business ties?

Lippman: I think there are reasons for that. One is that the Saudis are, it may sound a little harsh, but I think the Saudis are frustrated at their own inability to deliver. There are numerous examples of this. They failed in their attempt to reunite the Palestinians, and they haven’t accomplished much with the Syrian connection. It’s hard to be optimistic. Meanwhile, despite the supposed freeze, the building of the settlements goes on. And bulldozing of Palestinian houses goes on. So the Saudis are quite frustrated by that. On the American side, I’m sorry to say we’re witnessing a competence vacuum at the upper reaches of the Obama Administration as I already noted. They are swimming around and around in the same teacup and not getting anywhere. They don’t seem to have any new ideas.

SUSRIS: What do you make about a recent press report questioning Saudi stability?

Lippman: I don’t believe it. I have talked to many people in the past year about these things. And that’s a lot of people including people inside and outside the Arab world many who have insights as deep as you can into Saudi Arabia. They all agree that the position of the house of Saud now is stronger than it was seven or eight years ago and not facing any real challenge. King Abdullah has done a remarkable job in shepherding the Kingdom through a lot of rough territory.

One of the phenomena that people now understand is that many of the so-called reforms that have been presented by Abdullah, since going back even before he actually became king, have had the effect of strengthening the regime. Among them are the allegiance law overseeing succession and the demonstration, in many ways, that when decisions have to be made, the al-Saud will make them and not the Ulema.

SUSRIS: A couple of quick points. Relations with Iraq and resumption of air travel from the Kingdom to Iraq?

Lippman: I have not yet discerned the political significance of the resumption of civilian air traffic between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I’m sure that’s welcome to the Iraqis, I’m sure it’s welcome to the Americans, but it’s not the state airline that did it, and the flight was to Basra not Baghdad. I don’t know what that tells us, if anything. A certain lack of clarity is characteristic about these things.

SUSRIS: Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Lippman: As far as I know everybody here is completely in the dark. But there has to be some Saudi role-playing in this dance that is going on between Pakistan and the Karzai government? The Saudis are profoundly interested in that. But what are they doing? I truly don’t know. That’s going to be a hard one to pick out of the weeds.

SUSRIS: Leadership issues? Always a good parlor game. The Economist recently talked about Saudi Arabia and leadership prospects. They were not upbeat about Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef.

Lippman: I thought the Economist piece, overall, was an excellent distillation of the conventional wisdom. Regarding Prince Nayef, he is fulfilling the role of an Interior Minister. You can’t necessarily count on that role carrying over to other leadership roles.

As far as leadership in the House of Saud I would say that what was true yesterday, was true last week, and it was true last year: you have elderly men who aren’t going to get younger at the top. There are a certain number of people younger than them, and the list about who might come along always begins with Prince Salman. The subject is less important now than it would have been in the past because Saudi Arabia now has a more functional set of institutions that will manage transitions.

The King is the decider, and the King can get rid of people, and the King can set policy. But I think in some ways it might be more like a transition in the American model now, in the sense that functions of government, policies in place, will play out as they would have otherwise. This or that initiative directed by this or that Inter-ministerial team is going to continue. Nobody is going to cancel things like that. The long-term oil policy has evolved over many years, and is not going to be jettisoned by this or that personality or anybody else.

It may matter to individual Saudi citizens the extent to which the Mutaween are in their face, or to what extent the criminal court system is upgraded. But in terms of regime stability and long-term strategic arrangements, I think it matters less than it might have in the past.

SUSRIS: Tell us about your next book.

Lippman: It tries to examine the future of Saudi Arabia — what is the country going to look like a generation from now? It’s about three quarters done and will be out next year.

About Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a senior adjunct scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. His career in journalism at the Washington Post included four years as the Washington Post’s Middle East bureau chief, three years as the Post’s oil and energy reporter and a decade as the newspaper’s national security and diplomatic correspondent, he traveled extensively to Saudi Arabia. He is the author of “Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East,” “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia,” ” Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy,” ” Understanding Islam, and Egypt After Nasser”. A writer and journalist specializing in U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs, he lives in Washington, DC.

Biography


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