Kingdom Come

The United States may need Saudi Arabia -- but do they need us?


Steve LeVine’s sober reflections on Saudi Arabia’s importance to U.S. interests are welcome after so many years of unremitting public vilification of the kingdom in the U.S. media ("Frenemies Forever," January/February 2011). LeVine is right to point out that, whatever Americans may now think, they need the Saudis as diplomatic partners — for their oil, and for their powerful role in the suppression of anti-American terrorism. But LeVine seems to take it for granted that the Saudis still believe that they need the Americans as much as the Americans need them. In truth, the goodwill that fuels this friendship is depleted, and if U.S. policies remain as they are, it’s most unlikely to prove to be a renewable resource.

The key is whether a future generation of Saudis can be brought to believe, as their elders did, that close ties with the United States serve their country’s interests as well as America’s. LeVine mentions Saudi "fury at Bush’s perceived coddling of Israel and inaction in the face of Palestinian deaths" as the moment Saudi Arabia started talking about a divorce from the United States. But this happened not in 2002, as he suggests, but in the spring of 2001. That was when the United States revealed its powerlessness to restrain Israeli brutality during the second Palestinian uprising. Thoughtful Saudis deduced that the United States could not be counted on to protect them or other Arabs from Israel either.

Subsequent developments led many in the kingdom to conclude that, far from safeguarding their country or advancing its interests, ties to America threatened national security. The United States invaded Iraq and facilitated its incorporation into a new Iranian sphere of influence. The kingdom was attacked by anti-Israeli and anti-American Saudis. The joint U.S.-Israeli attempt to overthrow the elected government in Palestine drove Hamas into dependence on Iran. The Israeli Air Force’s maiming of Lebanon with U.S. support propelled Hezbollah onto the commanding heights of Lebanese politics. Inept U.S. diplomacy then locked Syria into Iran’s embrace. Saudi exasperation with these and other U.S. blunders, not support for the militaristic policies that produced them, accounts for King Abdullah’s demand that America figure out a way to "cut off the head of the snake" its bungling has nurtured. No sensible Saudi would want the United States as an enemy, but few in the coming generation now see America as a friend, still less as an ally. LeVine correctly argues that the United States has a lot at stake with Saudi Arabia. That’s only one of many reasons that it cannot afford to stick with its current policies in the Middle East.

Charles W. Freeman Jr.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Assistant Defense Secretary
Washington, D.C.

Steve LeVine’s article illuminates a central question of U.S. foreign policy: Which countries in the world make good allies? The most troublesome the United States now has are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Both help it fight its enemies, while at the same time helping its enemies fight it.

As the article makes clear, the United States relies on Saudi Arabia for about 11 percent of its oil and also counts on Saudi support in anti-terrorism campaigns. There is another reason this alliance remains so strong: the vast amount of money Saudi Arabia spends to buy American weapons. These purchases create tens of thousands of jobs in the U.S. arms industry; those jobs, spread around congressional districts, insulate the Saudis from criticism in Washington.

Still, no one should have been surprised to read in a cable from the WikiLeaks trove that Saudis "constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." The relationship with Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of Washington’s Middle East policy for more than half a century, and it shouldn’t be abandoned overnight. But there’s no reason not to hedge: The United States might consider whether its hostility to Iran makes strategic sense. Naturally the Saudis are terrified of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement because it would make the U.S.-Saudi relationship less important. But Iran is a bitter enemy of the Sunni terrorist groups that Saudis support and can also contribute mightily to stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan.

Empires and great powers that survive for many centuries are those that adjust their policies as the world evolves. American leaders should focus more energy on the questions of what kind of Middle East the United States would like to see 50 or 100 years from now and which partnerships are most likely to bring it there.

Stephen Kinzer
Professor of International Relations
Boston University
Boston, Mass.

Steve LeVine replies:

From different vantage points, Charles Freeman and Stephen Kinzer convey the same message, which is that there is a gaping chasm between Washington’s foreign-policy discourse and the far more nuanced and evolving reality in the lands that those policies affect. One may disagree with Freeman’s opinions about Israeli and Palestinian policy, but his implicit criticism is rock solid. Only a gentle doubt need be raised about Israel policy for large swaths of the Washington foreign-policy establishment to arise in indignant condemnation of alleged anti-Semitism. Elections are always — always — the best policy, except when the fellow you oppose wins, in which case they’re a cause for war.

As Freeman suggests, these are neither serious nor constructive approaches to the interwoven and explosive issues of today’s Middle East. While the ultimate policy should be kept simple so that all parties — enemies, allies, and those in between — are not misled, the public discussion ought to reflect the very real ambiguity of the facts on the ground. Americans would be better off if their policies were informed by the perspectives of those who actually live in the region.

Kinzer argues similarly about Iran policy. I myself have doubts. One can surely denounce Saudi Arabia’s continuing financial support for Sunni terrorists, but that is hardly a case for allying with its blood enemy, Iran. That would produce a new association with a different, though still poisonous, kind of terrorism. Yet Kinzer’s question, like Freeman’s, should be a more explicit and vital part of the public-policy discourse. Unfortunately, the establishment’s standard fare is mere repetition of the conventional wisdom.

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