Arms Sales Can’t Replace U.S. Engagement in the Gulf

Without better infrastructure for using U.S.-made weapons systems, the Arab countries will keep coming up short.

Saudi defense ministry spokesman Col. Turki bin Saleh al-Malki speaks during a press conference on Sept. 18 in Riyadh about the recent attacks on Saudi Aramco’s facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais.
Saudi defense ministry spokesman Col. Turki bin Saleh al-Malki speaks during a press conference on Sept. 18 in Riyadh about the recent attacks on Saudi Aramco’s facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

According to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a solid majority of the American public feels less safe because of U.S. arms sales to other countries. That’s obviously not how the White House feels, with U.S. President Donald Trump continuing to push for more sales to enhance the security of allies and boost U.S. jobs at home. And his predecessors, except for President Jimmy Carter, agreed more with him than with average Americans.

Who’s right? Washington, or the American people? Well, neither. Arms sales should be viewed as only one part of the United States’ efforts to pursue its security objectives and cooperate with its allies. Excessive focus on this particular tool oversimplifies things and misses the point. The real question that should be asked is whether U.S. security cooperation and assistance is furthering U.S. goals. To be sure, that’s not an easy question, but at least it’s the right one. And it is possible to get some sense of the answer by limiting the focus to the Middle East, since that region buys American weapons more than any other in the world and is where the United States seems to encounter the most problems related to those sales.

Why is U.S. security cooperation important, and especially so in the Middle East? First, to effectively compete with China and Russia—the United States’ top priority—Washington will have to reallocate U.S. military resources from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. This in turn places a higher premium on cooperation with partners in the Middle East. In short, if the United States wishes to do less in the region, its partners will have to do more, and do it better, to prevent security vacuums.

Second, even if Washington weren’t worried about Russia and China, most Americans still want out of the Middle East. It’s not clear yet what that means specifically, or how the United States can pave a path out of the desert, as Middle East scholar Kenneth Pollack poignantly put it in his 2009 book, but it’s obvious that the United States wants to be less militarily involved in that part of the world (which is a good thing). The Middle East is less strategically vital to the United States than it was a decade ago: The United States doesn’t need its oil as much anymore, no regional power can threaten Israel’s existence (unless Iran gets a nuclear bomb), and preventing another 9/11 definitely doesn’t require the deployment of thousands of American soldiers overseas. U.S. overinvolvement in the region has also cost it dearly in blood and treasure, with very little to show in return.

Of course, U.S. Central Command, the war-fighting organization stationed in the Middle East, will vehemently object and argue that the Middle East is at the heart of the global power competition. There is truth in that, as the global price of oil is still heavily influenced by regional stability—witness rising oil prices after attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure this month—and China’s well-being relies on massive energy imports from the area. But Middle East fatigue in Washington is very real and seems durable. It is already guiding policy: Just look at how the United States watched Syria burn, how it has withdrawn most U.S. troops from Iraq despite the generals’ advice, and how it can’t wait to exit Afghanistan through a deal with a brutal gang that harbored terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. Those are not the behaviors of a United States that is committed to staying in the Middle East.

But Washington knows it can’t just leave, because the consequences, including further chaos, bloodshed, and refugees, could be steep. It can, on the other hand, responsibly reduce its security burden and footprint in the region. That’s a tall order, but security cooperation can help. For the first time since Feb. 14, 1945, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly met with Saudi King Abdulaziz aboard a U.S. Navy cruiser in the Suez Canal, American officials are serious about relying more on their regional partners to address shared security threats. It’s no longer a nice thing to have; it’s a priority.

But Washington needs to do security cooperation right. And for that, it must stop approaching this issue through the narrow lens of arms transfers. As he welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House in March 2018, Trump praised the strength of U.S.-Saudi ties by holding a chart of military hardware the Saudis allegedly bought or were considering buying. Even the Saudis, who are prone to liking shiny military toys, felt humiliated by Trump’s gesture.

To be sure, U.S. equipment is necessary for U.S. partners to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. But institutions—the organizations, structures, and people that create and enforce defense rules—are crucial for the partners’ ability to optimize and sustain these processes, and ultimately graduate from U.S. help.

Take Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, for example. A wealthy nation that spends a whopping 8.8 percent of its gross domestic product on defense (more than any other in the world), Saudi Arabia possesses some of the most advanced, U.S.-supplied weapons systems in the world. And yet, throughout its Yemen campaign, its air force has consistently run out of fuel and ammunition, lacked good intelligence, and performed poorly at targeting—all because the human and technological systems needed to support its missions are suspected to be either inadequate or absent. Moreover, Riyadh has no national-security or defense strategy that clearly identifies its priorities in the world. That the Saudis are stuck in Yemen, then, should come as no surprise.

But this story is hardly unique to Saudi Arabia. Most of the United States’ partners in the region lack the defense-institutional capacities that would enable them to become net security providers and better warriors. Giving them more tools, when what they really need is to strengthen, and sometimes even build from scratch, their entire defense and security sectors, is not going to do them much good.

At the U.S. Department of Defense, where I recently served as a senior advisor for security cooperation covering the Middle East, the United States has recently begun to be required by law not just to throw money and hardware at U.S. partners and expect them to meaningfully contribute, but to help them build the institutional infrastructure of national defense. Proper execution of those reforms will also require a culture change in the U.S. government, because the country has never done that before, at least not consistently and systematically.

Given all the difficulties, it would take a miracle to pull off institution building with most of our regional partners. It would mean building and empowering institutions that have the guns, and thus the ability, to conduct coups. Only a foolish Arab autocrat would be interested in that. It would also mean liberalizing or professionalizing national-security ministries and intelligence agencies. Few Arab leaders would voluntarily undermine the favorable clientelistic networks that are run by their governments. In short, defense reform requires political reform. And political reform is not something our Arab partners do very well.

Second, the United States and many of its Arab partners have dissimilar threat perceptions and security priorities, which will inevitably impact the effectiveness of security cooperation. For now, the sides may seem united on the threat posed by Iran, but even on that subject there are differences. For some Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, Iran poses an existential threat. For others, including Egypt, Kuwait, and Qatar, it is an irritant but a manageable concern. Still others, such as Oman and Jordan, even view Tehran’s regional policies with indifference. No amount of U.S. arms, funds, and training can change these realities.

Third, there’s the long-standing and absurd problem that Arab partners invest in the wrong military capabilities. It’s nice to have stealth fighter jets, but those won’t help you much in countering terrorists and insurgents. Efforts to guide different purchases have led to naught, even when the United States is the one making the sales. And if the United States starts placing conditions on its deals, its partners may simply go to the next seller, and that would be China or Russia.

Fourth, Arab partners hesitate to give Washington access to their most secret data and programs, out of concern that this might expose their vulnerabilities and U.S. officials might tell the Turks, the Israelis, or even the Iranians (if U.S. talks with Tehran do return). After all, the United States reached a nuclear deal with the Iranians in 2015 without consulting with its Arab partners, even though it directly affects their national security. The Trump administration has also been talking with the Taliban in Doha over the past few months without keeping the United States’ Afghan ally, President Ashraf Ghani, in the loop.

So there is no shortage of problems on the U.S. end or on its partners’ end when it comes to security cooperation. But it will be impossible to address any of those without making a total switch on how the United States thinks about security cooperation. This is not just about arms sales, for which there are many arguments for and against, it is about making arms sales count, and for that to happen, the country must commit to doing the real hard work of helping its partners develop better institutions for effectively using and sustaining the weapons they receive.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.

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