Politics & Policy

The Saudis and Us

We have no illusions about Saudi Arabia. It is a Wahhabi state that is on both sides of the War on Terror. But neither do we have illusions about our strategic situation in the Middle East, where our credibility and staying power are in doubt and an Iran with hegemonic ambitions is ever more powerful. Considered in this context, the $20 billion Saudi arms deal that is getting criticized from both the right and the left is a net benefit to our national security.

If the Saudis and other Gulf states do not believe that we are utterly committed to their defense, they will seek to appease Iran and become even less cooperative with us. Saddam Hussein’s regime was long one of the most important counterbalances to Iran, and now it has been replaced by a weak central government with ties to Iran. We need another counterweight and have to look to the Gulf.

Supplementing these considerations are two others. First: The Saudis could get a lot of the hardware we are selling them from elsewhere, in which case the natural clout that comes with being the supplier of arms would be denied to us. Second: Our work with foreign militaries has been one of the most important ways we have influenced foreign governments.

The Saudi arms deal is part of a broader initiative to knit the Gulf states closer to one another and to us. We are plugging them into U.S. air- and missile-defense systems, counter-proliferation and maritime-security efforts, and regional defense planning. And the Iranians notice. When we undertook an exercise of the Proliferation Security Initiative with Gulf states last year, the Iranians realized it was aimed at them. There is a reason the Iranians are howling in protest at the Saudi deal. “The point is to make Iran recognize that its rhetoric and behavior in the region and towards its neighbors are making it less, not more, secure,” says a former Bush-administration official.

The Saudis have always been an ally of convenience rather than a natural partner for us, to say the least. (Not for nothing did an National Review cover story once dub them “Desert Rats.”) We wish the administration would push them harder to end their worldwide Wahhabi evangelism and to do more to support the government in Iraq. But the Saudis can be useful nonetheless. They have ponied up $1.5 billion to help support Fouad Siniora’s besieged government in Lebanon. And they — along with other Gulf states, who tend to follow their lead — recognize the nature of the Iranian threat, for ideological, strategic, and sectarian reasons.

The Gulf states cannot do much to deter a nuclear Iran. But our Gulf initiative can counteract Iran’s conventional-arms buildup, as well as the large-scale military exercises obviously meant to scare its neighbors, who scare easily. The closer the Gulf states are to us, the more likely they are to keep their territory from becoming transshipment points and front-company locations for Iranian nuclear and missile purchases. If we are ever compelled to take military action against the Iranian nuclear program, our bases and military infrastructure will be under threat in the region, and we will want the Gulf states to be as capable as possible of helping us protect them.

Even the Israelis have come to appreciate the importance of the Saudis as a nuclear Iran draws nearer. They have qualms about the inclusion of precision J-DAM munitions in the deal, but we have long promised the Saudis J-DAMs, and acquiring them has become a point of pride in Riyadh. In past Arab arms deals, we have worked closely with the Israelis to minimize the danger of such weapons’ being used effectively against them, and we should do so again. It goes without saying that Israel’s qualitative military advantage must be maintained, as it will be.

No one likes having to work with the Saudis, since parts of their society and even elements of their government support terrorism. But their government too is a target of Islamic extremists, and we do not have the luxury of pushing away any allies in the struggle against Iran. (If we did push away the Saudis, we would probably soon be facing the prospect of a Saudi bomb as well as an Iranian one.) We wish we could have the bright, shining, perfect allies that exist in the imaginations of some Democrats, and of some conservatives too. But that’s not the real world. The Saudi arms deal passes the realist’s most important standard in such matters: It’s better than the alternative.

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