By Brett Stephens
PublishDate : August 7, 2007
SourceName : The Wall Street Journal
It's hard to fault the logic of the sale, announced last week, of $20 billion in U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia, with trinkets going to the smaller Gulf states. The wisdom of the deal is another matter.
The Wahhabi kingdom is not, as of yet, an outlaw state: It can buy large quantities of sophisticated weapons on the international arms market from whomever it chooses. If the U.S. does not sell the Saudis upgraded versions of Boeing's F-15 Eagle, the Europeans can sell additional numbers of EADS's Eurofighter Typhoon (the Saudis already have 72 of these wonderjets on order).
If the U.S. doesn't sell the Saudis laser-guided "JDAM" bombs, again courtesy of Boeing, they can buy the PR-632, an equivalent munition produced by Ukraine. There may even be some non-mercenary advantages in tying the Saudi military to ours. When Washington cut its longstanding military-to-military ties with Islamabad in October 1990, after the U.S. "decertified" Pakistan as a non-nuclear state, the Pakistani military didn't simply mend its ways. Instead, what was once the most pro-Western institution in the country -- thanks to generations of Pakistani officers trained at Sandhurst and the U.S. Army War College -- came increasingly under the sway of Islamists. No need to repeat that experience with Riyadh. Then, too, as long as the Saudis operate U.S. military equipment, they remain dependent on us for training, maintenance and upgrades. The Iranian regime learned that lesson the hard way when they inherited the Shah's F-4s, F-14s and C-130s, but lost access to the planes' spare parts.
Yet the wisdom of arming the Saudis hinges in no small part on Riyadh remaining for the next few decades what it has been for the past six: a nominal ally of the U.S. It hinges, too, on the likelihood that the deal will advance American interests, and not just those of the Boeing Corporation, much as the two are sometimes confused. In both cases there is considerable room for doubt.
Consider the following dates: 1924, 1926, 1933, 1935. These are the birth years, respectively, of King Abdullah, current ruler of Saudi Arabia; Prince Sultan, his designated successor; and Princes Nayef and Salman, the two men next in line. The younger generation of contenders has problems of its own: Prince Bandar, 58, the urbane former ambassador to the U.S., is reportedly the son of a slave girl, which makes him ineligible; Prince Saud al-Faisal, 67, the current foreign minister, is said to be in poor health. And while the Saudis last year amended their Basic Law to regularize the rules of succession, a lot can go wrong when a throne is in play among a dozen or more billionaire princes, each with his own power base.
Even assuming the Saudis can manage an orderly succession, there are larger questions about where the kingdom is headed. In 2003, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that al Qaeda had "tried to recruit Saudi Arabian Air Force pilots to carry out a suicide attack in Israel . . . using either F-15 jets or civilian aircraft." Israel also has serious concerns about the extent of al Qaeda's penetration of Saudi Arabia's National Guard. A year ago, the Treasury Department named the director and two branches of the Saudi-based International Islamic Relief Organization "for facilitating fundraising for al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups." The chairman of the IIRO is Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti and a member of the cabinet; Prince Sultan has also been a major donor. "Pouring weapons on this scale into a kingdom with an aging leadership, and which is still the fountainhead of Sunni extremism, does not seem prudent," argues Dore Gold, author of "Hatred's Kingdom."
But whatever direction Saudi Arabia takes in the future, there's also the question of what the U.S. gets from the arms sale. In an interview Sunday with Fox News' Chris Wallace, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that "the Saudi government announced that it's going to put an embassy in Baghdad, something that we have hoped they would do for quite some time." The State Department has also tried to entice Saudi Arabia to attend a regional peace conference with Israel later this year.
In fact, the Saudis have not announced their intention to put an embassy in Baghdad, merely their willingness to discuss it with an Iraqi government they have demonized at every turn. They remain similarly equivocal about the conference. It's an old Saudi ploy. In November 1981, Abdullah, then the kingdom's deputy prime minister, mooted a "plan" that promised recognition of Israel at a time when he was seeking to buy AWACs radar planes from the Reagan administration. The sale was approved; the plan disappeared.
Now Ms. Rice isn't even getting phony Saudi peace offers in exchange for American weapons. Nor is she getting much relief on the terrorism front. The Bush administration rightfully complains about the role Syria plays as a transit point for jihadists. Yet according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, 45% of all suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudis; collectively, they account for some 2,000 deaths in the past six months. Would it be too much for the U.S. to ask the Saudis to screen young men leaving the country with one-way tickets to Damascus? So far, the Saudi government has refused. King Abdullah has also declared the U.S. presence in Iraq "illegal."
Equally misguided is the administration's argument that arming the Saudis is necessary to counterbalance the growing power of Iran. If containment is what the U.S. wants, Saudi F-15s will not be of much use against an Iranian bomb. But those fighters might ultimately find their use against Iraq's Shiite-led democratic government, whose air force consists mainly of junkyard Warsaw Pact equipment. Why we have neglected Iraq's justified military needs while lavishing top-of-the-line equipment on the Saudis is a mystery future historians will have to ponder.
Back in 2002, a Rand Corporation analyst named Laurent Murawiec gave a briefing to the Pentagon's advisory Defense Policy Board, in which he described Saudi Arabia as the "kernel of evil . . . active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader." Every word of that is true. Yet the administration walked a mile to distance itself from his remarks and Mr. Murawiec lost his job. Too bad. Had his advice been heeded then, we might not be trapped today by the weird logic of arming our false friends.