Global Watercooler: Saudis Go Where West Fears to Tread

Global Watercooler

Around the watercooler today: Gulf states have stopped waiting for the West to act in Libya; Japan’s nuclear disaster is having fallout in Europe; and parallels between Barack Obama and John Kennedy.

Saudis Go Where West Fears to Tread

With Gadhafi’s forces closing in on rebel forces in eastern Libya for the kill, Saudi rulers and the Gulf Cooperation Council states have shown a decisiveness that the European Union and NATO have lacked thus far. Proximity tends to focus the mind.

More than 1,000 Saudi military forces in tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled across the 16-mile causeway into Bahrain yesterday to defend the Sunni monarchy from a Shia uprising. The UAE also said it had dispatched 600 police officers to save the kingdom.

The move highlighted one of the most crucial but least openly discussed aspects of this entire story: Iran. As Jerry Seib reports in his Wall Street Journal column today, the U.S. has been divided about whether “the Arab Spring” would do more to destabilize the Iranian regime through encouraging domestic opposition—or whether it would offer more potential for Iranian meddling in newly unsettled places like Bahrain.

GCC countries had no such hesitation. Leading officials from those countries have told me and others that they believe the Obama administration is distancing itself from traditional allies without offering a coherent alternative approach. They feel they dare not wait for the White House. 

European Aftershocks from Japan

All natural disasters create plastic political moments. Political careers are ended and made during such times–and not just in the countries where the crises occur.

Being the Atlantic Council, we’re focused on Germany’s Angela Merkel, where popular opposition to nuclear energy has always been considerable, and France, where much of the nuclear industry resides and the French people have favored an industry that provides some 80% of its electricity.

Merkel faces important regional elections in two weeks time in Baden-Würtemberg, the first of three close contests this month that could tilt national power against her. She’s quickly back-peddling from her party’s plan to extend the life of Germany’s reactors, ordering a safety review of all 17 and shutting down the oldest 7 facilities through June.

France, meanwhile, is concerned above all with preserving its industry at a time when Japan threatens what had become a nuclear energy rebirth – with new contracts for France’s Areva and EDF in places including China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. France is actually betting that the disaster will help business: the world can’t satisfy its overall energy needs without nuclear, and a top adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy argues that’s where his country stands out. 

Berlin 1961 and Kennedy’s Leadership

The first review (“starred” in Publishers Weekly) has appeared for my new book (publication date May 10), called Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth. With a young, relatively inexperienced president in the White House dealing with a host of global challenges, researching and writing the book was a revealing look at another young, relatively inexperienced president’s actions in 1961 and how they shaped history. One truth remains: U.S. presidential action and inaction shapes history, often for decades to come.

Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Berlin 1961, will be available May 10. Compiled with Borjan Zic.

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