Saudi Arabia isn’t a very lovable country, especially if you work at the Washington Post. When the Saudi oil refinery at Abqaiq was attacked by more than 20 drones over the weekend, Post opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig tweeted “Who gives a rat’s ass if [S]audi [A]rabia was attacked?” While Administration officials pointed the finger at Iran, the same cycle that we previously saw with the previous mining of tankers resurfaced: Trump and company blame Iran, Iran offers an empty and unconvincing denial, Trump’s opponents fear war is coming. However after this escalation, Bruenig’s question deserves answering, because even people who hate Trump, his decision to pull of the nuclear deal with Iran, and Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman should care greatly that Saudi Arabia was attacked.
Whether Iran itself or its Houthi proxies conducted this attack is not particularly relevant. Iran keeps poking the hornet’s nest because so far it has gotten away with it. While some of America’s allies have heeded Washington’s call for an increased naval presence in the region to prevent minings and seizures, Tehran has not faced any direct consequences for those actions. Neither did it face consequences when it shot down a U.S. drone.
Contrary to accusations of being either a warmonger or a confused idiot who is going to stumble into a war, there is a perfectly rationale explanation for what Trump is trying to do with Iran. He is trying to pull off a good cop-bad cop strategy to try to get Tehran back to the table for a more encompassing deal. He puts crippling sanctions in place, while also floating the idea of giving Tehran a $15 billion loan. It hasn’t worked because for the good cop-bad cop routine to work, you can not have the two cops be the same person. When Trump offers Tehran a bailout he thinks he is balancing the stick with the carrot, but he does not look like a good cop, he just looks weak. Iran knows Trump ran on being the anti-war president and that he wants to run for re-election on not getting the country involved in another war in the Middle East, so they set the Middle East on fire, assuming that he won’t do anything, while hyping Trump as a danger to world peace in their public diplomacy in the hope the Democrat wins next year so they can get sanctions relief to greater finance their expansionist foreign policy.
Thus far it has worked for them. Trump does not want war and has to consider public opinion. Same with the Europeans who not only have to consider what their people think about Iran and the nuclear deal, but what they think about Trump. In both America and Europe support for the Saudi Arabia isn’t high to begin with and the support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen is even lower.
Still, every president from Franklin Roosevelt up through Trump has believed that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was important for any number of reasons, whether that be energy interests or that Saudi Arabia represents a sizable counterweight to Soviet communism, Ba’athist Iraq, and or post-revolutionary Iran. The U.S. has supported Riyadh in its war, because despite the loud voices of opposition, it is generally accepted that the future of U.S. foreign policy will be dominated by concerns in the Indo-Pacific region and the Yemeni port of Al Hudaydah is located at the western edge of this two-ocean space that also controls access to the Suez Canal. Keeping this strategic area out of enemy hands has been a constant in the 21st century. Earlier in the century the enemy as AQAP, now its Iran and their proxies.
All of this makes it hard for any U.S. president to simply brush aside an attack on a Saudi oil refinery, regardless of public opinion. In addition to weakening Saudi Arabia for its own sake, Iran is probably hoping that by forcing Trump to come to Riyadh’s defense, they can weaken him domestically in the eyes of a public that is not eager to defend Riyadh in light of the war in Yemen and in the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
After the attack, that knocked out 5% of the world’s daily oil production, oil prices spiked more than at any point in history. The last time oil prices jumped that nearly this high was when Saddam Huessien invaded Kuwait. That invasion led to war because, like Iran today, Saddam felt he could get away with it. He was wrong and his invasion of Kuwait remains the biggest geopolitical blunder in recent times. Saddam invaded Kuwait because he needed the money that Kuwait’s oil would provide him after bankrupting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Iran today is in a similar situation. It justifies its actions by saying if they are not allowed to export their oil, then neither should anyone else. It is not going to invade Saudi Arabia, even they are not that stupid, but they keep escalating these attacks on the assumption they will not get stung.
None of this means that the U.S. needs to fight a war on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, which is always where critics immediately take the conversation, or that the U.S. needs to bomb an Iranian facility in return, but it does mean that that the U.S., Europe, and maybe even the Saudis need to come together and put their foot down and say “Enough.” Israel, for example, has countered Iranian influence in the region through military action, but has not bombed Iran itself.
By saying who cares if Saudi Arabia was attacked, you are giving Iran the impression that there are no consequences for its behavior, behavior that did not start when Trump decided to pull out of the nuclear deal. Everyone has a red line, even Democrats and Europeans. The less we do to stand up to them now, the faster they charge towards that line of no return.