Expert: Cheney's Saudi Talks Centered on Iraq, Iran

When Vice President Cheney met with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah on Saturday, the pair likely discussed Iraq, Iran, Israel and terrorism, says Rachel Bronson, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Robert Siegel talks with Bronson, who is the author of Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Iraq was presumably high on the agenda when Vice President Cheney met with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah on Saturday. The Cheney visit came ahead of the Bush/Al-Maliki summit later this week and we wondered what would be the likely concerns of both sides in the Saudi/U.S. conversation.

So we've asked Rachel Bronson of the Council on Foreign Relations to join us. She wrote "Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia". Welcome to the program.

Ms. RACHEL BRONSON (Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you.

SIEGEL: What do you think is the key message this week, first of all from the White House in the person of Dick Cheney to the Saudis?

Ms. BRONSON: Well, I think the key message that Washington wants to give to Riyadh is that it's very focused on Iraq, that Iraq is of key concern and even though the violence is escalating that Washington is still very, very much focused on what's going on in Iraq, especially coming off the midterm elections. There's probably also a lot of concern in Riyadh about how strong the president is and what his freedom of action actually is now that he's facing a Congress that's led by the Democrat Party.

SIEGEL: What do you think the message from the Saudis to the White House is?

Ms. BRONSON: Well, the Saudis have been pretty clear on a number of issues. The Saudi ambassador to the U.S. recently has said that countries that enter others uninvited should not leave uninvited, and I thought that was quite clear, that they don't want, especially in light of the elections, sudden plans for a massive U.S. withdrawal.

They also want to know that the U.S. is watching with concern Iran. They look at Afghanistan, they look at Iraq, they look at Lebanon and they look at the Palestinian territories, and in each theater the Iranians are more muscular. So they want to make sure that the U.S. isn't about to do anything stupid on Iran, in their terms, that Iraq is not only a problem because of the chaos and violence there, but also because of growing Iranian presence.

SIEGEL: A Middle East analyst from Britain told us here last week that the Israeli war with Hezbollah was seen by Arabs as a proxy defeat of not just Israel but the United States, and so everyone who's allied to the U.S. in the region is now perceived as weak, and those who oppose the U.S. are seen as emboldened and confident. I wonder if you share that analysis and if so, where does that leave the Saudis?

Ms. BRONSON: Yeah, I actually do share that analysis and it leaves the Saudis in a very precarious position. You may recall that one of the first Arab voices when the war began between Hezbollah and the Israelis was the Saudis blaming Hezbollah for it. They are very concerned about Hezbollah and they view it as an Iranian proxy. And so by coming out very strongly and blaming Hezbollah, they were giving their voice to the West and the U.S. to do something, to push back Hezbollah and basically they lost.

So they're feeling very concerned. They can't get too far out in front of their own people and so they won't come out again very vocally and say that, but what they want is stability.

SIEGEL: One thing that Saudi Arabia has contributed to the Middle East over the years is a lot of money from its oil exports, obviously. Would the U.S. be wanting the Saudis to use some economic influence right now in one direction or another?

Ms. BRONSON: Well, very early on, the U.S. was trying to encourage the Saudis to put more into economic development inside Iraq. Right now, I think there's a sense that it's unclear where money would be the answer. Right now it's about creating some sense of law and order, and I think the key that Saudi can offer right now is its influence over the tribes. It does have working relations with many of the Sunni tribes. It has been in conversations, the Saudi leadership has been in conversation with the Iraqi tribes to try to quell the violence. That's really where right now that the Saudis can offer something. Money, absolutely, but that's down the road.

SIEGEL: Many Democrats, who are now in the majority of both houses, have said that if the U.S. doesn't tell Prime Minister al-Maliki that we're going to withdraw lots of troops, he won't have any incentive to actually crack down and start making hard decisions in Baghdad. Evidently that argument according to the New York Times also enjoys some credibility among some members of James Baker's Iraq study group.

The Saudis must be aware of this. You say they don't want to hear about any big withdrawals, but would they buy the argument that the Iraqis need at least the fear of an American withdrawal to start getting their act together.

Ms. BRONSON: I don't think so. I don't think there's a sense in Saudi Arabia that the violence is because the Iraqis aren't doing all they can to try to figure out their problems and solve them. I think that they look at places like Fallujah and other places where the U.S. pulled out and they don't see success stories in the wake. So for them, I don't think they buy into the Democrats' argument and it's not what they want to see.

But I think key to this whole trip and worth noting is the fact that Vice President Cheney did go out there. This is a very high profile meeting and Washington is, in a sense, putting Saudi Arabia on the map as a key player and a key ally and partner.

So going back to your question no, I don't think that they think that the problem with the Iraqi government is that they're relying too heavily on the U.S. I think they think the problem is the U.S. doesn't have a very clear vision for how to solve the problems there.

SIEGEL: Well, Rachel Bronson of the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. BRONSON: Thank you so much.

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