There was a moment almost exactly one year ago, in March 2015, that revealed some uncomfortable truths about America's relationship with Saudi Arabia.
That month, as Saudi Arabia prepared to launch what would become its disastrous war against Shia rebels in neighboring Yemen, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, brought a list of "high-value targets" to CIA Director John Brennan. The Saudis were asking for American support in the war; the list was meant as a show of cooperation.
But when US intelligence agencies checked the list against their own information, they found that many of the targets had little or no military value, according to a report at the time by the Wall Street Journal's Maria Abi-Habib and Adam Entous. Many were civilian structures in or near population centers.
The US warned Saudi Arabia off the targets, and Saudi officials said they complied. But when the air war began, Saudi bombs fell heavily on "hospitals, schools, a refugee camp, and neighborhoods," according to the Journal.
The US initially held back from the war. But soon, in an apparent effort to purchase Saudi acquiescence to the nuclear deal with Iran, the US substantially increased support for the Saudi-led campaign, providing midair refueling, weapons and supplies, targeting information, and 45 dedicated intelligence analysts.
A year after the war began, it is now a disaster, as detailed in a New York Times account. Half of the 6,000 casualties are thought to be civilians; al-Qaeda's hold in Yemen has strengthened; Saudi Arabia has failed in its objective to force the war's end, instead only exacerbating the ongoing violence. The US has helped Saudi Arabia to accelerate the implosion of another Mideast state, with unknown but surely far-reaching implications.
You would think that Washington's foreign policy community — a close-knit network of think tanks, academic outfits, and other institutions that heavily influence the media and whose members frequently rotate into and out of government positions — would be outraged. That community is overwhelmingly focused on the Middle East, prides itself on high-minded humanitarian ideals and far-thinking strategy, and is often critical of President Obama's foreign policy.
But aside from a few dissident voices, the Washington foreign policy community has been relatively quiet on America's involvement backing Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Instead, this week, much of that community expressed outrage over a very different story about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia: Obama, in an interview, had seemed to deride the Saudi leadership and its influence in Washington.
"Free riders aggravate me," Obama told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, apparently referring to European and Arab allies generally. He criticized Saudi Arabia's treatment of women and its practice of promoting fundamentalism abroad; he suggested it would have to learn to "share" the Middle East with its adversary, Iran.
Also in the story, administration officials anonymously described Washington, DC's Massachusetts Avenue, where many think tanks have their offices, as "Arab-occupied territory," implying that they are doing the bidding of oil-rich Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, which provide those think tanks with heavy funding.
Whereas Obama's material support for a disastrous Saudi-led war had drawn little protest in Washington, his words of muted criticism for Saudi Arabia provoked days of sustained outrage. His comments were denounced as "play[ing] the blame game"; "betraying a grievous misunderstanding of what it means to be the world’s No. 1"; "the mark of a careless and clumsy amateur"; "turn[ing] allies overboard"; "overweening arrogance"; blaming others for his own failures; comparable to Donald Trump; and so on.
The moment was just the latest manifestation of something strange about Washington's foreign policy community: It is deeply, viscerally committed to defending and advocating for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country whose authoritarian government, ultra-conservative values, and extremist-promoting foreign policy would seem like an unusual passion project for American foreign policy professionals.
That advocacy has consequences. Though Saudi Arabia often acts counter to US interests, for example by working against US policy in the Middle East and by funding extremists, the US still provides direct support for Saudi actions that undermine the regional stability America desires, for example by backing the Yemen war against Americans' better judgment.
The Obama administration decided on its own to support that war, and for reasons beyond how it would play on Massachusetts Avenue. But that decision, like so many before it, was informed by a culture in Washington that encourages nearly any action in support of Saudi Arabia and punishes any aberration.
Why is this? What explains the Washington consensus in favor of Wahhabist autocrats who often act counter to American values and interests?
Some in the Obama administration, based on what they told the Atlantic (and on my own conversations with administration officials), seem to believe the answer is money: that Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab states have purchased loyalty and influence.
But the truth may be subtler than that — and say as much about innate Washington biases as about any foreign-bought influence.
When I asked members of the DC-based foreign policy community what was driving this, they described an establishment whose preexisting worldview — a natural preference for the status quo and the familiar, a mythology of welcomed American hegemony — naturally aligns with Saudi Arabia's. But they also pointed to ways in which Gulf money, in recent years, has come to distort Washington's conversations about the Middle East. (All asked to speak anonymously, given the subject's sensitivity.)
Everyone I spoke to emphasized that the pro-Saudi views expressed in Washington are earnestly held; no one is ordered by foreign funders to express a certain viewpoint. Rather, they described a subtler role, in which money amplifies preexisting norms and habits that favor a pro-Saudi consensus, deepening a bias that would exist in the absence of that money but would not be quite as strongly held or widely expressed.
All agreed that this bias, whatever its causes, is a serious problem for Washington, hindering the United States' ability to understand, and navigate, a rapidly changing Middle East. And in a town where everything is debated, it's one of the few things that most people would rather not discuss.
The oil money arrives
The story of really big Gulf spending on Massachusetts Avenue begins quite recently, in 2013. And it begins not with Saudi Arabia, or with its Gulf allies Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, though all would eventually become heavy spenders in Washington. Rather, it begins with Qatar.
Around the time of the Arab Spring, 2011, the tiny, oil-rich monarchy of Qatar began seeking a bigger role for itself, first in the Middle East, by funding political parties and armed opposition groups (it had also long funded the TV station Al Jazeera).
Qatar's ambitions quickly became global, and in 2013, Qatar became a quiet player in Washington, spending lavishly on lobbying, real estate, even an American version of its TV channel. And, famously, it made a staggering $14.8 million donation to the Brookings Institution, perhaps Washington's most respected think tank, to open a new center in Qatar's capital.
Qatar and the other Gulf states have somewhat of a rivalry on Middle East matters, for example the rise of Islamist political parties, which Qatar funds but other Gulf states virulently oppose. As the Arab Spring unsettled the regional order, the Gulf states tried to reassemble the region along very different lines, and their ideological disagreements became more serious.
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states saw how much Qatar was spending in Washington and concluded that if they wanted to counter Qatar's influence back home, they would have to counter it in Washington as well. The oil-rich kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain — collectively known as the Gulf states, along with their rival Qatar — hired their own lobbyists. And they made large donations to Washington think tanks and academic institutions.
"The UAE and the Saudis have really invested heavily now as part of their cold war against the Qataris," according to a member of the Washington foreign policy community whom I spoke to for this article. Their attitude was, "We have to get our ideas out there."
But they discovered something: Spending on think tanks was effective, especially compared with other methods of buying influence.
Lobbying firms are for-profit businesses designed to extract the highest possible payment from their clients. Think tanks and academic institutions have lots of influence but less of a profit-maximizing mindset. They didn't see themselves or their influence as for sale, but the foreign donors clearly believed they were getting something in the bargain.
"Frankly, think tanks are a very good investment for these guys," the DC-based expert told me. "For $20,000, that's a huge amount of money for think tanks or academic institutions." But it's not much to an oil-rich kingdom accustomed to spending millions on lobbying. "It's a low-cost, high-value proposition."
This came as the financial crisis, which had begun a few years earlier, was being felt at think tanks as well as universities, where budgets had tightened dramatically. Grants from the US government or from domestic donors were drying up as well. The institutions were in desperate need of money just as the Gulf checkbooks arrived.
By 2014, the Gulf money in Washington had become unmistakable. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), for example, had opened a towering, gleaming new office downtown, financed with a $1 million donation from the United Arab Emirates.
The New York Times, that year, published an investigation on foreign government funding at think tanks, which the paper found had risen dramatically. It identified millions in donations going to many of Washington's most influential institutions, which were "producing policy papers, hosting forums and organizing private briefings for senior United States government officials that typically align with the foreign governments’ agendas."
What Gulf money buys in Washington
The Times investigation detailed several incidents in which donations from foreign governments had seemed to directly influence think tank behavior:
- Saleem Ali, a former visiting scholar at the Brookings center in Qatar, said he had been told not to write critically of the Qatari government.
- Emails between the Center for Global Development and the Norwegian government seemed to indicate a quid pro quo in which Norway would "donate" to CGD, which in turn would help persuade US government officials to increase funding for global forest protection efforts by $250 million.
- The Japanese government gave to CSIS, which now sponsors Japanese officials as "visiting scholars" who are granted access to US government officials by way of CSIS events and preexisting relationships.
- The United Arab Emirates, also a CSIS donor, got its ambassador to the US invited to participate on a public panel alongside then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, whom the ambassador grilled about US commitments to the UAE.
The people I spoke to for this article, even those who are very critical of institutions that accept Gulf donations and of Washington's seeming pro-Saudi tilt, emphasized that they believe these incidents are the exception rather than the norm.
None said they were aware of any quid pro quos, explicit or implicit, between Gulf countries and the recipients of their money, and all said they doubted such a thing would occur at any of Washington's name-brand institutions. (Indeed, the only clear quid pro quo the Times found was between CGD and Norway, and to advocate for a policy CGD supported before receiving the donations.)
Rather, they described Gulf donations as playing a much subtler role in influencing Washington — one that is less explicit and thus less dramatic. But that role is also, by design, systemic and thus pervasive, making it less egregious-seeming but perhaps more distorting than the incidents described by the Times.
"It doesn't mean that he's bought and paid for," one of the experts said, referring to a hypothetical think tanker or academic whose work would be funded by Gulf donations. "But at one level there is a kind of silencing effect. It's more about what doesn't get written about."
The expert, like others, described an unspoken effect whereby scholars, who are naturally aware of their funders' sensitivities, might think twice before writing critically on those issues.
"'I could write about Saudi sectarianism, but then I might lose some money,'" the expert said, explaining the thoughts a Gulf-funded scholar might have. "'I could write about UAE human rights abuses, but, you know, there are abuses everywhere, and there are a million other things I can write about.'"
"It's probably not going to affect how the analysis is done, but there may be some self-censoring on certain topics you don't raise unnecessarily, topics that are sensitive to the Saudis or others in the Gulf," another expert said.
This contributes, they said, to a practice in Washington whereby the bad behavior of other Middle East states — particularly US adversaries such as Iran — receive heavy attention and debate. But bad behavior by Gulf allies — human rights abuses, opposition to democracy movements, foreign policy actions that often undercut US interests — while far from ignored are discussed with less frequency and vigor.
This is especially pronounced "when it comes to Islamist opposition groups, or democracy questions, or human rights issues," one of the experts said, citing issues that Gulf governments consider highly sensitive.
"Plenty of places that get funded by the Saudis are still writing on those issues," the expert went on. "I doubt it's coming down from the top, 'You can't write on X.' But human nature would lead someone to say, 'Is there a red line I should think about, just to be careful?' Maybe they'd be more cautious."
Self-censoring risks becoming especially pronounced, one said, when foreign funders promise recurring donations rather than writing a one-time check. "The really dangerous kind of funding is renewed funding, because it leads to self-censorship," they said.
A recurring donation gives the donor more leverage because of the implicit threat to withdraw. More than that, recipients know that donors take many factors into account when they consider whether to renew a donation. If a donor is on the fence, perhaps simply because he is considering other projects, no one wants their policy paper or strongly worded comment on a panel to be the thing that nudges the donor to the other side.
When I asked for evidence of this silencing effect, everyone I spoke to raised the same name: Michele Dunne.
Dunne's story is infamous in Washington think tank circles, often mentioned but rarely discussed. A respected diplomat with nearly 20 years in the State Department, Dunne was hired, in 2011, by a think tank called the Atlantic Council to head up a new Middle East–focused division called the Rafik Hariri Center, named for a former prime minister of Lebanon who'd been assassinated.
What happened next is sensitive, so I will simply reproduce the Times's careful description of the events:
The center was created with a generous donation from Bahaa Hariri, his eldest son, and with the support of the rest of the Hariri family, which has remained active in politics and business in the Middle East. Another son of the former prime minister served as Lebanon’s prime minister from 2009 to 2011.
But by the summer of 2013, when Egypt’s military forcibly removed the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, Ms. Dunne soon realized there were limits to her independence. After she signed a petition and testified before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging the United States to suspend military aid to Egypt, calling Mr. Morsi’s ouster a "military coup," Bahaa Hariri called the Atlantic Council to complain, executives with direct knowledge of the events said.
Ms. Dunne declined to comment on the matter. But four months after the call, Ms. Dunne left the Atlantic Council.
The Atlantic Council's president told the Times that Dunne had left of her own accord, for reasons unrelated to this incident. (She joined the Carnegie Endowment, one of the few institutions operating largely on endowment rather than donations.)
No one I spoke to claimed to have evidence that Dunne had been pushed out for her views. And it's important to note that the funders here were Sunni Lebanese, rather than from the Gulf, though their interests in the region often align.
But suspicions — "Why would you leave a job like that? It raises questions." — are widespread enough that this incident, and others like it, have had something of a deterrence effect. They make people think twice before taking a position they know will upset a major donor.
Some suspect this sort of effect may play, to a lesser degree, into hiring as well.
"I don't think they're calling up Qatar and asking who to hire," one expert said. "But I think if they're looking at a series of candidates, and someone is documenting Qatari human rights abuses, they might not make it to the short list. Why invite trouble?"
Many say a sort of taboo has developed against needlessly antagonizing Gulf states by criticizing them or by taking policy positions that those states consider red lines, for fear of upsetting a current donor or alienating a future donor. Even the money itself has become a taboo subject.
"Everybody knows about it, but no one likes to talk about it, because they all want the money too. Nobody wants to risk that their institution won't get their share of the pie," one said.
And as traditional sources of funding dry up, think tanks and academic institutions are competing for the same Gulf dollars, heightening an institution's incentives to take these considerations into account.
"You're very worried about your university or your think tank, because everyone is in financial crisis and everyone is desperate for money and there's not a lot of money out there."
The hardening pro-Gulf line in Washington
But these effects only speak to why Washington's foreign policy community might shy away from criticizing Gulf states, or from taking contrary positions on sensitive subjects. They do not explain why this community often seems so interested in actively taking positions that align with those of the Gulf states or, as many did in response to Obama's comments, standing up for Saudi Arabia itself.
In this, according to the people I spoke to, the money plays an even subtler role. Long before Gulf states began putting so much money into think tanks, they pointed out, pro-Gulf positions were the Washington consensus.
The donations, they said, amplified a preexisting conventional wisdom that already favored Gulf states and their interests. Further, the money has hardened this conventional wisdom even as the situation in the Middle East has changed dramatically. Though American and Gulf interests have seemingly drifted further apart since 2011, Washington's pro-Gulf consensus has proven strangely resilient.
"For most of these people, it's what they would say anyway; they don't see themselves as bought and paid for," one told me.
But with Gulf money flooding into Washington, people who express this pro-Saudi conventional wisdom are granted larger platforms, more job security, more opportunities.
Well-appointed, Gulf-funded fellowships or research centers offer good salaries and the resources by which someone can both advance her career and amplify her Gulf-aligned policy views.
"The money gives them a platform, a job, resources, PR departments pushing their message out," the DC-based member of the foreign policy community told me.
"It's selection effect. If you're in favor of an interventionist foreign policy, would like to contain Iran, and think the US should be forward deployed in the region, that's what you believe; it just happens that's also what the Saudis want."
This selection effect is self-reinforcing. As institutions that favor the Saudi line get more money, they expand career opportunities for people with like-minded views, and thus amplify those views even further. And no one has to feel like they're doing the bidding of Gulf states, because they're only expressing their honest opinions.
The more significant role of Gulf funding, people argued, was in entrenching that pro-Gulf conventional wisdom even in the years since the Arab Spring, during which time Saudi Arabia has come to act much more counter to US interests. The changing Middle East has made the US-Saudi relationship more toxic and the two nations' interests less aligned — consider the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen, or Saudi funding of extremists in Syria — yet the Washington consensus remains firmly pro-Saudi.
In the absence of that money, some wonder, would the pro-Saudi conventional wisdom remain quite so widespread and resilient in Washington, despite changing facts that would seem to merit greater skepticism?
Their concern is not that scholars are willfully doing the Saudis' bidding, but rather that Gulf money has, over time, distorted Washington's foreign policy community by helping promote and amplify pro-Gulf voices over those who might be more skeptical.
"It's always been there, but there's been a dramatic escalation after the Arab Spring," one said of the role of Gulf donations. "Before that, [Gulf states] didn't need to do it; there was an elite consensus. There were endowments, but they were much less transactional. Now there's a lot more of it, it's more transactional. The stakes are higher for the Gulf states."
Money buys familiarity, and familiarity engenders comfort and empathy
Recently, David Rothkopf, who is CEO of an international consulting firm and of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine, traveled to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for an event his magazine was helping to put on. It was a typical international conference, consisting of policy panels and friendly mixers, stuffed with American policymakers and scholars.
Like many such conferences, it was held in the United Arab Emirates, whose government often hosts such events, typically providing them with financial underwriting.
Rothkopf, on returning, wrote a column in Foreign Policy praising the UAE's government as "a laboratory for producing exciting new ideas about the future of governance," whose leaders were "placing it atop the very small group of the world’s most imaginative and successful governments."
Midway through the column, Rothkopf included this note acknowledging that he'd come to be in Dubai, and thus had met the Emirati government officials who so impressed him, due in part to that country's government contributing to his business interests:
(By way of full disclosure, I was in the UAE to moderate the fifth edition of Foreign Policy’s PeaceGame project, which we host with the support of the Emirati government. That said, the views expressed in this column are mine, independent of that relationship, and I am making every effort to be objective. For just the same reasons, FP’s business relationships should not influence our editorial content positively, and they should also not bias us to deny positive commentary where it is due. At any rate, judge this for yourself. The story of the creativity of Emirati leaders is worthy of consideration regardless of how you may view the overall track record of the country.)
Rothkopf's disclosure is admirably self-aware for addressing, head on, any concern that Emirati government money could have biased him. And, indeed, it is worth taking him at his word that this column reflects his honest opinion.
But the column reflects a subtler form of influence buying, one that Gulf states, and particularly the UAE, have deployed in Washington to great effect: purchasing familiarity.
This is why, the people I spoke to suggested, the UAE hosts, and often underwrites, frequent international conferences, which are well-attended by DC-based think tankers, academics, policymakers, and, yes, journalists.
As a result, much of the Washington foreign policy establishment has been to the UAE, probably on a trip that felt informative enough to justify as work, but comfortable enough to engender fond feelings. Attendees may have had a casual conversation or two with an Emirati official — nothing that would feel as aggressive as lobbying, but enough to collect a business card or two.
"Maybe half of the foreign policy establishment has been out to Dubai or Abu Dhabi," one DC-based Middle East expert said, citing two major UAE cities. "They fly out first class, visit the museums, and get to say they've been to the Middle East."
For those who are curious to learn more, as Rothkopf was, Emirati officials, often fluent in English and familiar with American customs, are happy to entertain them. This only works, of course, because the UAE believes it has a compelling message to deliver.
What the country buys, through things like conferences, is access to impart that message to the small but powerful audience of American foreign policy elites. Hearing this message, of course, does not transform those US elites into pro-Emirati stooges. But familiarity and personal relationships can be powerful forces.
Because so many US foreign policy elites have met and spent time with Emiratis and Emirati officials, they are naturally more apt to humanize Emiratis. They are also more familiar with the nuances of Emirati views on the Middle East, including the UAE's preferences for American policy in the region.
It's not just far-off conferences. Gulf states have been building personal relationships in Washington for years.
The UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, for example, is renowned for hosting star-studded charity galas, featuring guests from George W. Bush to National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
"He was very quickly known as an easy source of money with no strings attached," a Washington philanthropist told the Huffington Post for a story on Otaiba's growing influence. Another said that charity events are productive influence generators because "you've got every congressman and senator in the world, and every White House aide there, and you can have a conversation and get something done that you couldn't get [otherwise]."
In 2013, Otaiba had thrown a surprise 50th birthday party — attended by several high-ranking White House officials — for MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Otaiba is a frequent guest on Scarborough's show, which in turn praises the UAE, an ultra-conservative monarchy, as progressive and forward-looking.
In 2014, Otaiba co-hosted a gala for children's health care, along with Fox News host Bret Baier, who called the ambassador "a tremendous person." Such personal relationships naturally align with Fox News's editorial position on the Middle East, which mirrors the UAE's own agenda: opposing Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, calling for policies that support the Gulf states against Iran, and demanding American military forward deployment in the region.
Such stories tend to focus on the UAE because that country, unlike other Gulf states, has focused on cultivating influence out in the open and often among journalists. (I have been offered free trips to the UAE but have not accepted.)
But other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, deploy much the same strategy, and to similar success. The difference is that these states focus less on splashy parties and media appearances, and more on building quieter but perhaps more important relationships directly between Saudi and American policymakers.
"The UAE is outwardly focused in a way Saudi Arabia is not," said one person I spoke to, who pointed out that Saudi and American officials have been working together for decades, jointly shaping and executing their shared vision for the Middle East.
"This is an institutionalized relationship. You've got security assistance, security cooperation, counterterrorism, intelligence ties; they're deep," another member of the foreign policy establishment told me.
Virtually anyone who has worked in the US government on Middle East policy has probably, at some point, worked alongside a Saudi counterpart on a shared policy goal of some kind. This means that Washington's foreign policy establishment is filled with people who have developed a comforting familiarity with the Saudis, who are well-attuned to Saudi views and concerns, and often who maintain personal relationships with those counterparts.
"Relationships matter. The Saudis get around in DC, and plenty of people have longstanding relationships with them," the foreign policy expert went on. "Being comfortable with them, knowing them, feeds into that strategic analysis that they're partners who can help us. There's a comfort level with the Saudis that does affect the analysis."
These relationships often extend into the vast and lucrative world of intelligence or military consulting and contracting — an arena in which a former US official might make several times her government salary.
"There [are] also many former [Defense Department], [intelligence community], and State [Department] officials and staffers who enjoy close relationships with Gulf states (including Saudi Arabia) via the consultant and contractor world," a third Washington expert said, using shorthand terminology for those agencies. These countries, the expert noted, "spend tens of billions each year buying stuff and advice from US firms."
But if familiarity with Saudi and Emirati officials engenders comfort with those countries, and empathy toward their worldview and policy goals, then the converse of this is true with regards to the Gulf states' greatest enemy: Iran.
The US-led nuclear deal with Iran has alarmed Saudi Arabia and other Arab states on the Gulf, who fear America is tilting away from them and toward their longtime enemy. These states have not been shy about expressing their concerns, and their preference that the US remain maximally hostile toward Iran, to virtually any American who will listen.
And these Gulf states, by virtue of their longstanding relationships and presence in Washington, have great ease communicating this message to members of the American foreign policy community.
"I think a lot of it is about that Iran context," one of the experts said, suggesting that just as the Washington foreign policy has longstanding ties with Saudi Arabia that perhaps color its read on events, so too does this community have longstanding skepticism toward, and distance from, Iran.
There is great merit to this skepticism, the expert stressed. But because so many in Washington have longstanding relationships with Saudi officials, but have perhaps never even met an Iranian official, they are apt to humanize and empathize with the Saudis they know over the Iranians they don't.
"So you've got two forces at work: an ingrained bias in favor of the Saudis as a longstanding US partner, and then a bias against Iran," they said.
This phenomenon makes more sense if you allow that before the money began arriving, and in some cases before the relationships began building, Washington's conventional wisdom already favored Saudi Arabia and Saudi interests. This gave the Gulf states leverage by which to amplify that trend, and to harden it against countervailing forces, without ordering anyone to take pro-Gulf positions.
But where did that conventional wisdom come from in the first place? And why has it proven so surprisingly durable?
Saudi Arabia is the status quo, and the status quo is religion in Washington
Money talks in Washington, but status quo bias talks much more loudly, as my colleague Matt Yglesias put it. And, when it comes to American policy toward the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is practically synonymous with status quo.
America's alliance with the Saudis began in the 1940s, famously, with oil, which has helped align US and Saudi interests ever since. But in those ensuing 75 years, the US and Saudi Arabia have also partnered up on the Cold War, in the 1980s for Afghanistan's proxy war, in the 1990s against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, in the 2000s against Islamist terrorism, and now against Iran. Nearly every major US effort in the Middle East has been in partnership with Saudi Arabia.
"This comes from a very long history," one of the Middle East experts said.
Any aberration from this alliance is thus a significant break with the status quo, and that's necessarily going to be controversial.
But more than that, Saudi Arabia is at the center of a larger status quo of American dominance over a Middle East that, in the past, was far more stable and predictable.
For decades, America has maintained hegemony over much of the Middle East through a system of alliances with Arab states, the most powerful of which has long been Saudi Arabia, as well as with Israel. "Our" Arab dictatorships were reliably pro-American, siding with the US on Israel (if only tacitly), on isolating Iran, and on fighting Islamist terrorists.
This system serves the United States, granting it generally pliant proxies in a region full of valuable resources but also anti-American ideology. It also serves Saudi Arabia, giving the rich but sparsely populated kingdom a powerful protector against its more populous foreign enemies and a useful friend in maintaining monarchical rule long after most royal families had given up or fallen from power.
The people I spoke to disagreed about the degree to which this status quo bias was more or less important than whatever role money might play. Rather, most saw the two as working in conjunction, exacerbating one another. The money, in this view, merely enables Washington's well-known habits for status quo bias and confirmation bias.
"My own impression is that it’s less funding," said another DC-based Middle East expert, "than it is, as you point out, the default bias to unquestionably support a semi-reliable partner in an unpredictable region of high importance to US interests."
And, indeed, everyone I spoke to was careful to point out that this pro-Saudi status quo bias would exist even in the absence of foreign funding. But they saw Gulf money as amplifying that trend, perhaps significantly, along with the voices that just happened to echo the pro-Saudi conventional wisdom.
"It would not completely disappear in the absence of that money," one of the Washington experts told me. "People earnestly believe that the American interest is best served by maintaining the status quo, supporting Israel, containing Iran."
This status quo order was probably never going to last, and began disintegrating in 2011 with the Arab Spring, which saw Islamist and populist politics rising as the reliable old dictatorships fell. The familiar old order began to disappear. And that order had served few better than it did for the United States and Saudi Arabia.
For many Middle East hands in Washington, who have presided over this status quo throughout their professional lives, this change is unsettling, and has sparked an understandable desire to hold on to whatever remains of the old order.
"Democracy's become a bad word again," one expert told me. "It's all about stability. And the Saudis are equated with stability."
Because the US-Saudi alliance was always a central pillar to American strategy, preserving the alliance is sometimes treated as synonymous with preserving the pro-American order.
When Obama derides the US-Saudi alliance, he is shaking that pillar. Washington's community of foreign policy experts, already alarmed at the changes that are taking away the Middle East and thus their role as they've long understood it, react accordingly.
"There's a broad consensus in wanting things to be the way they were before," one DC-based Middle East expert said.
"That means the US alliance with Israel and with Gulf states to contain Iran, fight terrorism, and keep the oil flowing," the expert went on. "That's been US foreign policy for 50 years. Obama is trying to do different things. So what you're seeing is a pro-Saudi position that's also the foreign policy establishment position."
Because the old order was so aligned with Saudi interests, Washington's status quo bias is expressed as a pro-Saudi bias. When the foreign policy community calls for maintaining the old alliance structure, isolating Iran, and staving off Islamist movements, these are all core Saudi interests.
But, more than that, the Saudis and other Gulf states tend to describe the world, and America's place in it, in terms that many members of Washington's foreign policy community badly want to hear.
I am often asked why Washington's foreign policy consensus can seem unusually inclined to interventionism and other assertive foreign policy positions, and why, compared with other policy fields, it is relatively bereft of more libertarian-minded scholars.
To me, the answer has always seemed obvious: You are more drawn to the study and practice of American foreign policy if you believe that American involvement abroad is generally a force for good.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states share this belief. They explicitly desire American hegemony over their region because it serves their interests, helping to maintain their rule at home and their outsize influence abroad. When you speak to officials from those countries, they sound practically like Ronald Reagan, describing American power projection in the world as necessary and indeed welcome.
"I think I believe in American power more than Obama does," Jordan's King Abdullah II is quoted as saying in the Atlantic's story.
This is a common view among American allies, who have come to rely on American security reassurances, who know that the United States has an enormous budget and military that can help solve their problems for them, and who, for years, have been listening to Americans tell them that the United States will and should be in charge.
For American foreign policy professionals who share this belief, their attitudes are rooted in idealism and optimism about the role of US power, along with a self-affirming belief in the intrinsic good of American hegemony. For Gulf states, it is a matter of cold, strategic self-interest — American power is not just useful for them, but perhaps necessary for propping up their own regimes, which are often anachronistic autocracies and enjoy far more regional power than they would otherwise.
The point is that both groups share a worldview that privileges, to an unusual degree, the assertion of American power and that fears the consequences of American inaction.
This worldview, for Americans, is rooted as much in foreign policy doctrine as it is in something of mythology. In our mythos, hegemony over the Middle East is fondly but falsely remembered as more stable, more welcome, and more durable than it actually was or is. American power projection in the Middle East, whose track record has been mixed at best, is considered not just a useful tool but an intrinsic good in itself.
In that mythology, the American unipolar moment after the Cold War was peaceful not because of the absence of great-power conflict or proxy warfare, but for the far more idealistic and appealing reason that the assertion of American power is inherently virtuous and stabilizing. In this view, the root cause of any problem in the world must therefore be an absence of American power projection, and the solution, therefore, is always more American power.
For decades, American foreign policy makers have been trying to convince US allies, including those in the Gulf, to buy into this mythology. Many did, and grew to rely on the consequences of that worldview. Now those in the Gulf are spending heavily to persuade Washington of its own mythology. Many people in Washington, ever willing to hear their own wisdom repeated back to them, including and perhaps especially when that wisdom appears falsified by reality, are listening.