No Security Guarantee for the Saudis
Washington should put American interests before those of the Saudi royals.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants a security guarantee. The Saudi royals are used to hiring out their country’s “dirty work,” like defense. Who better to protect the licentious elite than the U.S.? While Gurkhas are good fighters, Americans wield aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons. In addition, Riyadh wants its own largely unrestricted nuclear power program as an insurance policy in case Iran moves ahead to make nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, in dealing with the Kingdom, Washington policymakers have proved to be suckers easily influenced and bought for little more than a promise and a song. For decades the U.S. has supported the royals as they backed authoritarian Arab rulers, spread Islamic fundamentalism, and underwrote Islamist extremists. Today the Saudi regime has even abandoned the pretense of moderating oil prices. Yet the spineless Biden administration is considering turning American military personnel into royal bodyguards.
For what? Not U.S. security. Rather, Riyadh wants a big bribe to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The highly celebrated Abraham Accords are fundamentally fraudulent, resulting not from Israel and Arab nations deciding that regularizing diplomatic relations is in their interest, but rather from Washington purchasing assent for the Netanyahu government’s benefit.
For instance, the United Arab Emirates wanted more sophisticated airplanes with which to terrorize neighbors such as Yemen. Sudan was desperate to eliminate U.S. sanctions that should have been lifted years before. Morocco desired Washington’s backing for its illegal seizure of the Western Sahara and suppression of Sahwari self-determination. Now the Saudi royals want the U.S. to make defense of their monarchy America’s own.
To think that President Donald Trump was seen as a Saudi shill. At least he refused to go to war on Riyadh’s behalf.
Candidate Biden entered the White House posing as a democracy and human rights advocate. His poster child for criminal governance was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who crushed dissent at home and kidnapped dissident princes abroad. Unsurprisingly, MbS, as the prince is known, has imprisoned Saudis, including those holding American citizenship, for criticizing the king-in-waiting.
Although he won good press for liberalizing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s once-rigid social restrictions, “better late than never” is no justification. Indeed, MbS simultaneously arrested those who demonstrated on behalf of those changes. When he launched his regime change operation against Qatar, he punished Saudi journalists who simply remained silent, failing to lavish praise on his aggressive campaign. The best illustration of the wannabe king’s arrogance was dispatching a kill team to murder and dismember journalist critic Jamal Khashoggi. The location of Khashoggi’s body—or more accurately, body parts—remains unknown.
Today, Riyadh is ranked among the world’s dozen or so worst human rights abusers, ranked lower than Iran, Russia, and China. Freedom House offers a dreary assessment of the Kingdom’s assault on human life and dignity: “Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties.” Even the usually craven State Department acknowledged “significant human rights issues” with the KSA.
With calculated dishonesty, candidate Biden appealed to progressives, promising to end U.S. complicity with Saudi war crimes in Yemen and turn MbS into a “pariah.” Yet President Biden’s criticisms proved perfunctory, and he refused to halt military support for Riyadh even as it continued its murderous aggression in Yemen. Inexplicably, the president relies on KSA-friendly apparatchiks, such as the National Security Council’s Brett McGurk, known for putting the Kingdom’s interests first.
Last July featured the Biden-MbS fist-bump seen around the world. The doddering president publicly abased himself, groveling before the Saudi royals while seeking increased oil production. Instead, they contemptuously cut sales. He briefly threatened to punish them for this humiliation, but quickly returned to his supine position, treating Riyadh as the partnership’s dominant member. Now Biden has kowtowed even more deeply by signaling his willingness to go to war on KSA demand.
Israel long has counted on the callousness of Arab rulers, and especially their emphasis on self-preservation, to advance its interests, despite decades of maltreatment of millions of Palestinians. Still, the Saudi sale has proved tough. Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit reported: “Truth be told, with Israel under the rule of the most nationalist government in its history, the continued rapid U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East and almost all the region’s Sunni states on a reconciliation course with Iran, the dream of peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia should have been relegated to the realm of science fiction. Surprisingly, it remains real.”
The issue is not peace, since Israel and the KSA are not at war. And there has long been discreet discussion and cooperation, especially over security issues. However, rising international criticism of, and domestic discontent with, the current government has increased Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire for public accommodation with the Kingdom. Capsit explained that “Netanyahu is willing to pay a heavy price for an agreement with Saudi Arabia.” However, the plan is for Americans, not Israelis, to pay for Arab cooperation.
The prince took Biden’s measure and sensed not just weakness but servility. Treating diplomacy like the Arab bazaar, MbS demanded the world. Reported the New York Times: “Saudi Arabia is seeking security guarantees from the United States, help with developing a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales as its price for normalizing relations with Israel.”
Unfortunately, rather than walking away, administration officials apparently are entertaining the idea of guaranteeing the Saudi monarchy. Thankfully there remain many obstacles to such an embarrassing surrender. Although Republican leaders have proved ever ready to sacrifice U.S. interests to benefit Middle East client governments, of late, Democrats have been demonstrating greater independence, increasingly appalled by both Saudi and Israeli behavior.
Moreover, the American people might take note if the Biden administration agrees to turn U.S. military personnel into modern Janissaries. It is hard to imagine a more grotesque misuse of the American armed forces than to turn them into servants of the House of Saud. For any military deployment, noted the Middle East Institute’s Bilal Y. Saab: “The conversation must be grounded, first and foremost, in the United States’ national interests, not Israel’s.” Washington’s duty is to the American people. Protecting them—their lives, liberties, territory, democracy, and prosperity—should be the starting point to any policy discussion. The U.S. should consider and respect the interests of others, but that doesn’t mean treating defense as an international welfare program.
It certainly is not Americans’ responsibility to protect the Kingdom. The Saudi royal family is not worth the death of a single Kentucky rifleman, New York gunner, or other service member. Let the KSA’s aristocracy convince its own people that it is worth defending. Put the thousands of princes in uniform and send them forth to battle on behalf of their monarch. No American blood should be spilled to secure a prince’s rule.
Half steps would be less dangerous but still foolish. One is to declare the Kingdom to be a major non-NATO ally. Other undemocratic states, including Jordan and Qatar, enjoy similar status, but neither comes close to the KSA’s brutality. The regime has deployed cash and troops to enforce autocracy in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Riyadh’s invasion of Yemen is MbS’s greatest crime, having killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians. In fact, Washington’s complicity made the American people into accomplices.
What of the Kingdom’s oil? The transformation of the global marketplace has greatly reduced Riyadh’s market power, and thus energy value. Rather than beg Riyadh to lower gas prices Washington would do better to concentrate on finding diplomatic solutions to return Iranian, Venezuelan, and even Russian oil to the marketplace. What is needed is not a new “strategic compact” prioritizing Saudi interests yet again, but normal international interaction.
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Of course, despite Saudia’s awful record, the U.S. should not treat the Kingdom as an enemy. Rather, Americans should approach Saudi Arabia like most any other nation—without sycophantic kisses and hand-holding. Washington policymakers should remember that America is the superpower and treat Saudi Arabia like a normal country. The KSA is a valuable market, not an invaluable ally.
Might Beijing and Moscow supplant the U.S. in the Persian Gulf? Neither China nor Russia is likely to defend the royals. Nor is either a good replacement as an armorer. China’s economic role will continue to increase, but that is inevitable, irrespective of political relationships. Anyway, America cannot be expected to forever dominate everywhere. Washington should not hesitate to transfer the yoke of an unfree, increasingly unhelpful “ally.”
The Biden administration’s sycophancy toward the Kingdom has cost the U.S. respect. Guaranteeing the royal regime’s security could cost America lives. Washington should put American interests before the Saudi royal family’s demands.