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The U.S.-Saudi Unhappy Marriage
The relationship is far from perfect. But a formal defense treaty wouldn’t make things better, even if it could somehow get congressional approval.
THIS WEEK THE NEW YORK TIMES confirmed that the Biden administration is considering accepting a deal that Saudi Arabia has been dangling for some months: In return for Riyadh’s normalization of relations with Israel, the United States would offer the Saudis formal security guarantees. The pact, says the paper, would take “treaties in East Asia”—that is, Japan and South Korea—as their model. This is a questionable idea.
It is true that some form of strategic partnership with the Kingdom has been a pillar of American strategy, not only for the Middle East but globally, since at least 1945. But the most that can be said of the can’t-live-with-them, can’t-live-without-them arrangement is that it has advanced U.S. security and economic interests from an arm’s length. When necessary—such as following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait—the distance narrowed. Lately, it has grown.
Such a transactional relationship reflects the profound differences between the two governing systems; a liberal democracy and a Wahhabi-informed monarchy are strange bedfellows. The Saudi heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, may be a “modernizer,” but he is a murderous one, and he doesn’t deserve the reformist accolades New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman and others once bestowed upon him. Under his 87-year-old father, King Salman, MBS is the driver of Saudi policy and clearly wishes to enhance Riyadh’s power and influence. His ambitions are far grander than those of his cautious and conservative forefathers and he takes a Machiavellian approach to fulfilling them.
Analogies to Japan and South Korea are therefore hugely inapt and almost insulting to two nations that have developed deeply democratic political cultures. While this originated in decades of American occupation in Japan’s case and pressure in South Korea’s, the populations of both countries have shown deep respect and appreciation for freedom and self-government. Their previously war-devastated economies have flourished. And, in two very traditional cultures, there are growing shoots of social liberalization, such as on women’s and LGBT issues. Seoul’s high court recently ruled that the South Korean health care system must recognize same-sex marriages and in July, the Japanese Diet passed a law to “promote understanding” of diverging sexual orientation and gender identity. Political, economic, and social progress has, in turn, extended and enlarged the basis for strategic and military cooperation with the United States. Both Japan and South Korea have been stalwart on Ukraine.
Of course, this all didn’t happen at once. Japan’s democracy was essentially dictated to it by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the American army of occupation between 1945 and 1952, and the Japanese-American Defense Treaty wasn’t signed until 1960. South Korea got its mutual defense treaty with the United States in 1953, thanks to the end of the Korean War, and didn’t secure its democracy until decades later.
But, crucially, both Japan and South Korea were clearly subject to American influence and neither was—nor is—disposed to take unilateral military actions that might embroil the United States or spark proxy wars with adversaries, as MBS and the Saudis have done in Yemen. While both Seoul and Tokyo are increasingly concerned about Chinese military capabilities and aggressiveness, their postures—be they along the 38th Parallel or in the Ryukyu or Senkaku archipelagos or in the surrounding air defense zones—remain strictly defensive. And, in moments of heightened tension, they are accustomed to remain in close communication with the United States.
More generally, neither the strategic situation in East Asia nor the U.S. role in the region are comparable to that in the Middle East. The American military has played a major role in the Western Pacific since the Spanish-American War, a dominant role there since World War II, and now considers the People’s Republic of China to be a “pacing threat.” In the reckoning of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, it is the “only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and . . . the power to do so.” The U.S. commitment to East Asian security has been durable and based on true, deep alliances of both interests and values.
By contrast, the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have repeatedly stepped back from the Middle East. In his “Obama Doctrine” interview with Atlantic magazine editor Jeffrey Goldberg, the former president both declared the Middle East “unfixable” and asserted that the Saudis needed to “share” the Gulf region with Iran. The crowning achievement of Trump family diplomacy was the so-called “Abraham Accords,” a framework for an Israeli-Arab, anti-Iran bloc. The Biden administration has been largely hands-off. Judging by its last three presidents, the United States ran out of political will to involve itself in the Middle East by 2021, if not earlier. Which is why the prospect of a more formal defense treaty with Riyadh seems so strange: To step back from the region while simultaneously suggesting some kind of mutual defense pact looks like strategic schizophrenia.
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The big payoff in exchange for a U.S.-Saudi treaty is supposed to be an undefined normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations. That would be nice, and maybe worth a price, but the Saudis are asking for a lot. Particularly worrisome is their increased appetite, in the face of Iran’s nuclear progress, for either a spot under the American nuclear umbrella or an independent deterrent for Riyadh. In an interview with Fox News this week, MBS told Bret Baier that if Iran gets a nuke, “We have to get one.” By implication, the Saudis are indicating they feel the need to keep pace, meaning that any civilian nuclear power project—something they are also asking for U.S. help with—could be a steppingstone toward a weapon.
The traditional, transactional, and conditional strategic partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hardly a match made in heaven, as both sides would probably agree, but it has proved mutually convenient for eight decades. There remain shared interests (shared also by the Israelis and other Gulf states) in preventing an Iranian nuclear breakout, containing the ayatollahs’ hegemonic ambitions, and curbing inveterate mischief-making across the region. Put simply, America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia isn’t great, but it ain’t broke.
Setting aside for the moment the question of what normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would get either country that they can’t already get through their robust back-channel contacts, and the question of why American intercession is necessary to change that cool but functional relationship: The White House well knows that proposing any treaty or permanent security commitment of this sort to Congress is futile. Even congressional approval for selling advanced aircraft and other weaponry to the Saudis for a premium price requires epic effort.
This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. That famous failure should serve as a warning about the attractions of “grand handshake” strategy-making in the Middle East. Better to stick with the least-bad alternative.