A 'New Compact' with Saudi Arabia Is a Terrible Idea
We should make sure that the U.S. is never again in a position where it is expected to support another Saudi war.
Steven Cook and Martin Indyk urge Biden to bind the U.S. even more tightly to Saudi Arabia:
Biden should instead consider a more fundamental reconceptualization of the bilateral relationship. What both countries need is a new compact that focuses on countering a major strategic threat they both face: Iran’s nuclear program.
Cook and Indyk’s article is a fairly standard rehash of familiar pro-Saudi claims. While they propose a “new compact” between our governments, the ideas in their article are very old and largely outdated. They assert that the “benefits of reconciliation are self-evident,” but this hasn’t been true for years. If the benefits were so self-evident, they wouldn’t need to be justifying closer ties with Riyadh, and the truth is that the benefits to the United States are nowhere to be found.
Even if the Saudi government increased oil production, any increase it can deliver won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, and the Saudi government makes its oil production decisions based on what it perceives to be in its own interests and not as a favor to America. Whatever benefits there are from the relationship, the Saudi government is the one receiving virtually all of them. It is not self-evident at all what the U.S. gets for its trouble, and except for inertia and the pleading of certain interest groups it is hard to see why the U.S. continues to align itself so closely with such an awful state. It would be one thing if someone could demonstrate what the U.S. stands to gain by continuing it, to say nothing of deepening it, but the possible rewards are never specified.
The authors imagine what this “reconciliation” would do: “The pariah would be transformed into a partner.” One problem with this is that Saudi Arabia was never treated as a pariah (quite the opposite), and it has proven itself to be a mostly useless and increasingly pernicious “partner.” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj turns their statement around on them in his response:
Maybe Saudi Arabia shouldn't be a partner and maybe Iran shouldn't be a pariah and maybe the US shouldn't be lording the nature of its relationships with regional powers in ways that create regional imbalances and instability.
This gets at the core problem with what Cook and Indyk are proposing: the closer relationship with Saudi Arabia that they want would be a destabilizing and destructive one. It would fuel regional rivalries and keep the U.S. ensnared in conflicts that have nothing to do with American security. A “more stable Middle Eastern order” will not exist if the U.S. does what the authors want, and by increasing the commitment to Saudi Arabia they guarantee that the U.S. will end up fighting and supporting wars that it could otherwise easily avoid and oppose.
We have already seen in Yemen what indulging the Saudi government does to regional stability. The Saudi government has proven that selling them weapons for “self-defense” has just enabled them to wage an unnecessary and atrocious war against their neighbor. Our government should stop providing them with the means to engage in more aggression in the future, not least because their use of U.S.-made weapons in their war crimes implicates the U.S. in those atrocities. The current truce in Yemen is holding, and that’s good news for the people of Yemen, but we should make sure that the U.S. is never again in a position where it is expected to support another Saudi war, whether it is in Yemen or anywhere else.
Cook and Indyk justify their “new compact” in explicitly anti-Iranian terms, and they conveniently neglect to mention the nascent negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the Iraqi government has been helping to arrange. Cook and Indyk need to beat the anti-Iranian drum to justify an otherwise lousy relationship with Riyadh, but the Saudi government itself has learned at some cost to itself that relentless hostility towards Iran does not work out very well for them. Incredibly, Cook and Indyk go so far as to say that the U.S. should extend its nuclear umbrella to cover Saudi Arabia:
If the current negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal break down and Iran continues to advance its nuclear weapons program, the United States would also need to consider extending a nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia…
There is no nuclear weapons program in Iran, as Cook and Indyk must know, but they use this bit of deception to push a ludicrous notion that the U.S. should consider being willing to wage nuclear war on behalf of the Saudis. The U.S. has no security obligations to Saudi Arabia and it shouldn’t add any new ones. There certainly shouldn’t be any U.S. commitment to use nuclear weapons to protect them.
More broadly, we have seen how embracing regional clients and ratcheting up tensions with Iran have made everyone in the region less secure. You aren’t going to find a more stable order by continuing to exclude Iran from decisions about regional issues. Waging economic war against one of the region’s biggest countries is bound to be detrimental to the region as a whole.
Locking the U.S. more tightly into an anti-Iranian coalition of states is a terrible idea for our country for what I would hope are obvious reasons, but it’s also a losing proposition for the region as a whole. Further militarizing the region and organizing it into armed camps will worsen the security for all sides. Ideally, the U.S. should withdraw all of its forces from the region and cut its clients loose, but even before that happens the U.S. should be scaling back its support for client states. There is no better place to start than with Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps to stabilize oil markets, we could allow Iran to have skin in the game and drop our sanctions and sign a JCPOA. It’s a basic Bastiat kind of argument. Iran would then have every incentive to keep things peaceful in the Gulf and we would t be dependent on the Saudis.
The alternative is that the US remains the Enforcer of sanctions and is mired in neutralizing Iranian reprisals against Israeli attacks and attempts to spread the economic pain of sanctions around to everyone else.
So the authors are offering unpalatable solutions to problems of our own making.
So the idea is that if we demand nothing and offer only benefits at no cost to the Saudis, the Saudis will, noblesse oblige, somehow mystically transmogrify themselves into a sort of mild mannered social democracy.
Now, pretend that someone were to propose a similar approach vis-a-vis Russia. How would Cook and Indyk and the entire foreign policy establishment react?
Reading between the lines, what Cook and Indyk are really arguing for is asking Biden to abase himself and grovel something as follows: "Please Mister MbS please we'll do anything but pump more oil lots more oil please don't let the wheels fall off the bus please more oil please your sandals taste just like an ice cream cone kill anyone you want but please more oil please!"