It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. The Obama administration has denied there are serious problems. But there are clearly differences, some perhaps irreconcilable.Here’s a quick summary: Saudi Arabia and Israel are deeply worried about the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran — their mortal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are sore at President Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in ousting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in particular his decision not to respond with military strikes to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Mr. Obama instead chose a diplomatic deal under which Syria’s chemical weapons would be dismantled.
The Saudis are also unhappy that Mr. Obama withdrew support for Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, and then worked with Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was elected to replace Mr. Mubarak but was later thrown out.
All three countries have resorted to threats and displays of pique to make their points. Saudi Arabia renounced a United Nations Security Council seat it had worked hard to win because, it said, the United States and the United Nations had failed to achieve a Mideast peace agreement or solve the Syria crisis, as if either objective could be easily delivered by America alone. Although it is hard to see how other countries like China and Russia would be better alternatives, Saudi officials have gone so far as to complain that they regard the United States as unreliable and would look elsewhere for their security.
Meanwhile, Turkey, a NATO member, has said it would buy a long-range missile defense system worth $3.4 billion from China because China’s bid was lower than bids from the United States and Europe. The decision may also, however, have reflected Turkey’s annoyance with Mr. Obama’s Syria policy. (It’s a dumb deal, too, and Turkish officials now seem to be reconsidering it; China’s system will be hard to integrate with NATO equipment, thus undermining alliance defenses and Turkey’s.)
As for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing his best to torpedo any nuclear deal with Iran, including urging Congress to impose more economic sanctions on Iran that could bring the incipient negotiations between Iran’s new government and the major powers to a halt.
Much of this anger at the United States is driven by a case of nerves. The Arab Spring uprisings shook the old order, plunged the region into chaos, created opportunities for Iran to expand its influence in Syria and Iraq and threatened to worsen the Sunni-Shiite divide. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country, in particular, fears an American rapprochement with Shiite-majority Iran.
But Mr. Obama’s first responsibility is to America’s national interest. And he has been absolutely right in refusing to be goaded into a war in Syria or bullied into squandering a rare, if remote, chance to negotiate an Iranian nuclear deal.
In addressing the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama reinforced his intention to narrow his regional diplomatic focus to the Iranian nuclear deal and an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Some have read this as weakness and retreat, rather than pragmatism. We wish he had put more emphasis on Egypt and Iraq. But his priorities make sense. His task now is to reassure the allies that the United States remains committed to their security.