April 22, 2011 | Foreign Policy

Bandar’s Return

As my friend Simon Henderson has been chronicling, “Bandar is back.” Sidelined in recent years by some combination of illness and palace intrigue, Saudi Arabia's legendary former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is once again a major presence on the world stage. The Obama administration would be wise to take note. Working in tandem with the United States, Bandar's over-sized talents could prove a huge asset in efforts to shape the Middle East Revolts of 2011 in a direction that serves U.S. interests. Put to other uses, however, those same skills could lead to results that Washington may find, well, much less agreeable.

The reason that Bandar has been urgently called back into service is not hard to fathom. While many in the West have seen the promise of democracy and freedom in the political turmoil roiling Arab lands, the Saudis see little but disaster. They view everything through a single prism: their existential struggle with a menacing Iran that is hell-bent on collapsing the Middle East's existing order, unseating the House of Saud, and asserting a controlling influence over Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. For the Kingdom, there really is only one yardstick by which to measure emerging developments: Are they a net plus or minus for the Persian theocracy across the Gulf that seeks to assert its hegemony throughout the region?

From that vantage, the scorecard has not been good. The regime of Hosni Mubarak — longtime Saudi ally; pillar of regional stability; stalwart opponent of the mullahs — is gone. Yemen, on the Kingdom's southern border, teeters on the brink of anarchy. Most threatening of all, just miles off the Saudi coast, in tiny Bahrain — a virtual protectorate of the Kingdom and the gateway to its oil-rich eastern province — the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy was pushed to the brink by Shiite protesters who, cheered on by Iran, dabbled dangerously with the idea of regime change. Brazenly challenged to defend one of their clearest redlines, the Saudis responded predictably, with a large-scale military intervention that underwrote a brutal crackdown to snuff out the escalating crisis.

Exacerbating everything for Riyadh has been its overarching loss of confidence in the reliability of American power. Against all Saudi advice, the Obama administration actively worked to help engineer Mubarak's ouster. In Bahrain, senior U.S. officials were publicly pressing the ruling family to make bolder concessions to the protesters — literally hours before Saudi tanks began to roll. More recently, a tardy and hesitant exercise of U.S. military might has failed to dislodge Libya's Colonel Qaddafi, the man who just a few years ago contracted the assassination of Saudi King Abdullah. And in stark contrast to Washington's very public effort to push aside its longstanding Egyptian ally — “yesterday,” to quote Robert Gibbs — Team Obama has kept an embarrassingly low profile in the face of sustained protests and bloodshed in anti-American Syria, a regime that proudly serves as Iran's closest ally in the Arab world.

Facing a situation where the region appears to be spiraling out of control, and its most important outside partner veers between weakness, incompetence, and reckless naivete, the House of Saud has circled the wagons, brought all hands on deck, called in the A Team — choose your metaphor. But it all leads back to Bandar — one of the most dynamic, creative, and aggressive statesmen of the past 30 years — being summoned out of diplomatic purgatory to help the Kingdom cope with what it sees as an unprecedented crisis. Make no mistake, the Saudis now feel themselves very much at war with Iran, albeit by other means, and the stakes as viewed from Riyadh are nothing less than the future of the Arab Middle East and the survival of the House of Saud. And the force of nature that is Bandar bin Sultan has clearly been placed at the forefront of the Kingdom's battle plan.

I've lost count of how many times people have asked me in recent years, “Whatever happened to Bandar?” Now he's suddenly everywhere. Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Gates visited Riyadh to see King Abdullah. Bandar was there. Days later, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon followed to deliver a message to Abdullah from President Obama. Again, Bandar was prominently featured in the photo-op. More interestingly — and undoubtedly more worrisome — at the end of March, in the wake of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, Bandar was dispatched to Pakistan, China and India to rally support for the Kingdom's hard line approach to the region's unrest.

Bandar's formidable skills in the service of a Saudi Arabia that feels itself increasingly cornered and unable to rely on U.S. protection is a formula for trouble — made even worse when the likes of Pakistan and China are thrown into the mix. No one should forget that, in the late 1980s, it was Bandar who secretly brokered the delivery of Chinese medium-range missiles to the Kingdom, totally surprising Washington and nearly triggering a major crisis with Israel. The danger today, of course, is that the Saudis feel sufficiently threatened and alone to engage in similar acts of self-help. Would they seek to modernize their ballistic missile force? Even worse, would the Kingdom go shopping for nuclear weapons or, at a minimum, invite Pakistan to deploy part of its nuclear arsenal to the Kingdom? Analysts have long speculated that Saudi money financed the Pakistani nuclear weapons program in exchange for a promise that when it became necessary, its fruits would be put at Riyadh's disposal. As the Middle East convulses and Iran relentlessly inches closer to achieving a nuclear weapons capability, has that time finally arrived?

Even short of these extreme scenarios, other troubling possibilities exist. During his trip to Pakistan, Bandar reportedly discussed contingencies under which thousands of additional Pakistani security forces might be dispatched to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for the purpose of, in effect, cracking Shiite heads. Iran condemned the news, ratcheting up tensions further and increasing the risk that the situation could erupt into a full-blown Sunni-Shiite war. Additionally, no one can discount the danger that, with its back against the wall, the Kingdom might not once again fire up the old Sunni jihadist network and point it in the general direction of Shiite Iran — leaving the rest of the world to deal with the nasty, unintended consequences of well-financed takfirists run amok.

To minimize the risk that any of these dangers actually comes to pass, the Obama administration would be well advised to focus like a laser beam on repairing its breach of trust with Riyadh. The visits of Gates and Donilon to the Kingdom clearly had that intent and, by most accounts, succeeded in stemming the hemorrhaging in the relationship. But the effort will need to be sustained.

The administration would also be smart to re-establish a very strong line of communication to Bandar now that he's again playing a major role in Saudi policy. Bandar working without reference to U.S. interests is clearly cause for concern. But Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset. Drawing on Saudi resources and prestige, Bandar's ingenuity and bent for bold action could be put to excellent use across the region in ways that reinforce U.S. policy and interests: through economic and political measures that weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi's departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen. Even in Bahrain, if anyone in the Saudi hierarchy is going to understand over time that a stable solution must eventually go beyond repression to include a renewed effort at real reform, it is likely to be Bandar.

In April 2002, then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia arrived in Texas for a meeting with President Bush. It was a tense time in U.S.-Saudi relations. The Crown Prince was said to be deeply disturbed by raging Israeli-Palestinian violence, and angered by President Bush's failure to heed his pleas to take aggressive action to stop it. The claim was heard that American passivity in the face of Israeli “aggression” was allegedly empowering Iran and rendering the Saudi alliance with Washington increasingly untenable.

The day before the summit, a front-page story appeared in the New York Times declaring that “Saudi to Warn Bush Over Israel Policy.” In the article, an unnamed senior Saudi official offered this inflammatory threat:”

Everyone immediately knew that the quote belonged to the Saudi Ambassador, Prince Bandar. Was it bombastic? Yes. Enraging? Certainly. But did it also reflect at least part of the Hobbesian reality faced by American foreign policy, however distasteful? Unfortunately, it did. So long as that remains the case, the United States would be wise to do its best not to leave Saudi Arabia, or Prince Bandar, feeling lonely. Putting the princes's 2002 proposition to the test is a risk that no one should be eager to run.