WASHINGTON — When Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) recently gave a speech challenging the United States’ long-standing indulgent relationship with Saudi Arabia, he did it in New York, where experimentation and radical thinking are more common than in stodgy D.C.
But the nation’s capital was listening closely. And some of its most influential players liked what they heard.
Murphy later told The Huffington Post that many of his fellow lawmakers have for some time been privately expressing the criticisms he made of Saudi Arabia — namely, that it has encouraged the spread of a fundamentalist, intolerant strain of Islamic thought, and that the war it is fighting with U.S. support in Yemen has achieved little besides giving al Qaeda more room to flourish.
“For whatever reason, even Congress, without these personal relationships [with Saudi officials], hasn’t been willing to say some of the things that I’ve been saying publicly over the last week,” Murphy told the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” But, he said, none of his colleagues in the Senate have told him anything that suggests they disagreed with his speech.
Asked if he had received any pushback from Saudi representatives in the U.S., Murphy said he had not spoken to any of them in person since the address.
“I’m sure there are those in the embassy who aren’t happy with it,” the senator said.
Go to the 31:00 mark to hear Murphy’s full interview with HuffPost on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Murphy’s remarks might seem startling, given how close the U.S. has been to the kingdom and how often the Saudis have helped achieve American goals across the Middle East. But recent shifting attitudes in Washington have made this the right moment for Murphy to announce his skepticism of the Saudis — and he’s framed his argument in a way that makes it difficult to challenge.
Two current Obama administration officials, and one who recently departed, have praised Murphy’s address in separate conversations with HuffPost, each one saying they are glad an influential figure is publicly asking questions about the U.S.-Saudi bond.
Such thinking has become popular in Washington over the past few years as the administration has prioritized the goal of a nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s top competitor for influence in the Middle East.
The Saudis did not publicly criticize the negotiations between the U.S., other world powers and Iran — which is one reason the Obama administration was able to finalize and win congressional approval for a deal that experts say will strongly limit Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. But Saudi figures did repeatedly point out some of the same examples of Iranian interference in the region that critics of the deal cited to argue against it. And Saudi Arabia, like the United Arab Emirates and other U.S.-friendly Arab monarchies, also suggested that President Barack Obama was paying too little attention to Iranian misbehavior in his pursuit of a deal — implying that the diplomatic victory and security benefits would come at too high a cost.
To celebrants of the U.S.-Iran deal — a group that includes the Obama administration and most of Washington’s foreign-policy community — that kind of argument isn’t in vogue right now.
For many officials and public figures who welcome the Iran deal, the Saudis’ protestations make the kingdom look at best outdated — unable to grasp the value of a future where diplomacy is possible with a long-vilified, historically important country — and at worst selfish, desperate to keep U.S. support flowing to only one side of the proxy war that Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting for decades. The Obama administration has tried to assuage the concerns of Saudi Arabia and its other partners in the Muslim world, but it’s done so primarily by providing various kinds of military support — arms sales, backing for the Yemen campaign — which makes the kingdom look even less friendly in a climate where all the focus is on a new peace with Iran.
So even though outside observers are also expressing concern about Iran in contexts beyond the nuclear deal, cheerleaders of the deal have tended to dismiss the issue as an unfashionable Saudi obsession. (It doesn’t help that Israel, the other important U.S. foreign partner critical of the deal, has lately seen its stock fall in Washington due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tensions with Obama.)
Saudi Arabia’s own resistance to change has only reinforced that unfavorable impression. Long known as a notorious human rights violator, the country remains harsh in a world where brutality is increasingly hard to hide. It has drawn condemnation by targeting well-known Saudi reformers like Raif Badawi and attorney Waleed Abu al-Khair, and it executed more people last year than it has in any year since 1995. Its slowness to develop sectors of its economy beyond the oil business, something it says it is now working hard on, has left many young Saudis without viable paths to a future — at least, a future not funded by government coffers that might not always be full. In April, after the first hurdle to the Iran deal was cleared, Obama told The New York Times that the Sunni Arab monarchies should focus on the internal threat posed by frustrated youth more than the external boogeyman of Iran. That comment still rankles Gulf officials.
At the same time, the kingdom’s traditions have left it open to unfortunate charges — most strikingly, the accusation that it resembles the self-styled Islamic State militant group. That claim has become popular on social media and in Iranian propaganda, and has even made its way into the Times. Hussein Ibish, a prominent scholar at the Saudi-backed Arab Gulf States Institute, wrote about the comparison in November, calling it “a false equation [with] troubling echoes.”
Though the kingdom does not engage in Islamic State practices like sex slavery, massacres of religious minorities or major international terror plots, “the problem for Saudi Arabia is …read more