The death of Saudi Arabia’s king, the collapse of a U.S.-friendly government in Yemen and a problematic relationship with Israel’s leadership are presenting a new set of complications for the Obama administration and its Middle East policy. Not only is the U.S. leader dealing with adversaries in Iran, the Islamic State and al-Qaida, but he is now juggling trouble with traditional allies as well.
President Obama had a prickly relationship with the late Saudi King Abdullah, but paying his respects to successor King Salman this week marked a fresh start.
Leading a high level delegation, Obama traveled to Saudi Arabia at a time when the U.S. is most depending on the kingdom as an island of stability.
The Middle East suddenly has become even more complex, with the collapse of Yemen’s government and the fight against Islamic State militants and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The challenges are reason for the Obama administration to strengthen its ties to the Saudis, who have joined the U.S. in efforts to fight the Islamic State group and AQAP.
Before cutting short a visit to India to head to Saudi Arabia, President Obama again ruled out any major deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East.
“Our efforts to go after terrorist networks inside of Yemen without a occupying U.S. army, but rather by partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government, is the approach that we’re going to need to take. And that continues to be the case. The alternative would be for us to play whack-a-mole every time there is a terrorist actor inside of any given country, to deploy U.S. troops. And that’s not a sustainable strategy,” said Obama.
Finding a sustainable strategy in a quickly changing landscape is turning out to be a challenge for the Obama administration, said analyst Michael O’Hanlon.
“I think part of what they’re trying to do is just hold on - it’s an ugly time in terms of events and many relationships and I don’t think there’s any plausible grand vision that’s pointing in a happier direction even if it works out as theoretically projected,” said O’Hanlon.
And then there is the complex relationship with the closest U.S. ally in the region, Israel, which - like Saudi Arabia - opposes Obama’s efforts to engage Iran in nuclear negotiations and any U.S. moves that could be seen as strengthening Iran.
Benjamin Netanyahu, as Israel’s prime minister, has always been a guest at the White House but won’t be when he visits in March. U.S. lawmakers invited him to Washington without first consulting President Obama, and the U.S. leader has decided not to meet with him.
Former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller said that while political and personal relations are troubled, the relationship as a whole is too big to fail.
“I don’t think, frankly, overall this is going to affect in any galactic way the nature of the relationship,” said Miller.
Adding to tensions in the region was Iran-backed Hezbollah claiming responsibility for a missile attack on an Israeli convoy at the Israel-Lebanon border Wednesday. Israel responded with airstrikes and artillery fire, raising concerns that missteps by either side could cause yet another conflict to escalate - and a potential new headache for the U.S. administration.