Of all the talking points justifying American inaction in response to the indescribably brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, perhaps the worst is the idea that the Saudis somehow have leverage over America because of their large-scale arms deals.
The truth is exactly the reverse.
The Saudi military is highly dependent on advanced American weaponry. American F-15s comprise close to half the Saudi fighter force, and the Saudi variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle represents a substantial portion of the air force’s striking power. On land, the Saudi army is dependent almost exclusively on American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. They can’t just waltz over to a different country and transform their armed forces — not without suffering enormous setbacks in readiness and effectiveness during a years-long transition. A fundamental reality of arms deals is that a major arms purchase essentially locks the purchasing nation in a dependent posture for training, spare parts, and technical upgrades.
Indeed, one of the reasons for engaging in an arms transaction — aside from the economic benefit — is that the transaction gives America enormous power over the national defense of the purchasing nation. You buy our weapons, and we gain power over you. Well, we gain potential power. The question is whether we have the will to exercise that power.
Moreover, Trump’s claim that the Saudis could simply go to China or Russia betrays an odd ignorance about Chinese and Russian arms. Many of their most advanced weapons aren’t quite ready for prime time. If the Saudis are terrified of Iran, purchasing worse weapons that would require new training cycles, new spare parts, and new technical relationships is a terrible option. It’s a recipe for a serious military setback.
For example — as Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin observes — the State Department just approved the sale of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense missile-defense system to the Saudis. The Saudis are rightfully concerned about Iranian missile attack. Is it the position of the Trump administration that the Saudis have leverage over us if they cancel that deal and seek an inferior missile-defense system from a competing country? As Rogin says, Trump’s thinking is “totally and completely backwards.”
Buying a weapons platform is not like choosing between a Honda Accord and a Toyota Camry — where if one dealer ticks you off, you can just walk across the street and immediately get a substantially similar product. Trump is displaying his ignorance here, and his surrogates on television (many of whom know better) are exploiting understandable civic ignorance to push the administration’s line. We can’t expect Americans to know exactly how arms deals work or how F-15s are serviced and upgraded. But we should expect the president to understand these realities.
For all the president’s bluster, he’s demonstrating a surprising timidity in the face of an undeniable provocation from one of our more mendacious “allies.” We hold the cards in this alliance, and it’s time — for once — to stand up to a repressive and brutal regime, even if we do have a common Iranian foe. The world’s strongest nation, with the world’s largest economy, needs Saudi Arabia far less than they need us. End support for the brutal Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. Impose conditions on continued American military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. It’s time for the junior partner in this alliance to finally learn its place.