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Could the ambitious Saudi crown prince unleash a storm across the Middle East?

David Ignatius on

Can such quiet cooperation continue? Not if the Saudis sabotage the country's economy in what they describe as an effort to punish Hezbollah.

For the U.S., Lebanon poses what's becoming a recurring challenge -- how to encourage MBS' push to modernize the kingdom without letting him drive Saudi Arabia and the region off a cliff.

Call it the MBS conundrum: The headstrong crown prince jumped into what U.S. officials thought was an unwise war in Yemen; it's still raging, despite U.S. attempts to find a settlement. MBS escalated a feud with meddlesome neighbor Qatar; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried unsuccessfully to mediate. This week in Lebanon, the U.S. was again attempting damage control, as Ambassador Elizabeth Richard pledged $42 million for the Lebanese army and expressed support for "a stable, secure, democratic, and prosperous Lebanon."

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been ripping the fabric of the Middle East since the Iranian revolution of 1979, spawning terrorist movements and proxy wars among Shiite and Sunni allies of the two nations. This sectarian bloodletting seemed unstoppable when a strong, arrogant Iran faced a weak, confused Saudi Arabia.

MBS wants to become the powerful Sunni leader who could eventually balance the region -- and open the way for a grand bargain that would bring stability. That's a desirable outcome. But in the short term, the challenge for Washington is to prevent this would-be strongman from blowing up himself and his neighbors.

Another failed state in the Middle East is not in America's interests.

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David Ignatius' email address is davidignatius@washpost.com. His latest novel, "The Quantum Spy," was released this week.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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