Can the enemy of my enemy be my ally?

The latest US arms sales to the Gulf states can be part of a de facto alliance of the US, the Gulf states and Israel to deter Iran's ambitions.

February 24, 2010 22:20
4 minute read.
The Indian Agni III missile

Agni III missile . (photo credit: Associated Press)


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The Pentagon's favorite cash cow, the oil-rich Gulf Arabs, are on an arms buying spree, and that's good news and bad news for Israel, according to defense analysts in both countries.

The intended purpose is to bolster the defenses of friendly Arab countries against an aggressive Iran; at the same time the US is beefing up its own missile defense systems in the region.

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The Arab shopping lists include F-15 and F-16 warplanes, Patriot missile batteries, Aegis cruisers, advanced anti-ship and anti-tank missiles, smart bombs and bunker-busters and missile boats.

And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; beneath the surface lie billions more in contracts for maintenance, training, spare parts, upgrades, facilities (buy a squadron of fighters and we'll sell you an airbase and everything that goes with it from runways and control towers to barracks and even air-conditioned mosques; the Pentagon once even sold sand to Saudi Arabia).

That's good for the US economy, although American taxpayers are footing the bill for Egypt and Jordan (as we do for Israel) and the American consumer will help pay for the rest though the gas pump. The Pentagon also profits on the deals. All major weapons sales go through the Defense Department, which not only collects a commission but also gets discounts on its own purchases thanks to economies of scale.

IN 2008, US foreign military sales were worth $37.8 billion, double the rest of the world combined, according to a Congressional study.

But don't get the impression all these customers are doing us a favor buying American, like the Saudi prince who told an American defense secretary, "You're just salesmen and we pay cash." Just the opposite. We're doing them a mitzva.

They are buying a place under the US defense umbrella. American systems are not only the best but they also provide reassurance for the buyers of a level of commitment, something particularly critical in the face of Iranian intimidation.

The goal of this latest round is to deter the Iranians, unnamed administration officials told The New York Times, and to "reassure the Arab states so they don't feel they have to go nuclear themselves." Those officials also say the arms sales are meant to "calm the Israelis."

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was in Israel in the past week as part of the administration's effort to convince Israel that Washington takes the Iranian threat very seriously and Jerusalem does not need to take unilateral military action.

Throughout this buildup, which began under the previous administration, Israel has been kept informed of the sales and assured the US remains committed to maintaining its qualitative military edge - QME - but many analysts see that edge eroding as the Arabs turn to the United States for the same top-quality weapons, training and maintenance Israel buys.

Upgrades to Arab air defenses will limit Israeli freedom of action. Israeli attacks on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 and the Syrian nuclear site in 2007 had to be flown over countries that today bristle with some of the best anti-aircraft systems America has to offer - Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Israeli planners welcome a strong American presence in the Gulf as a convincing deterrent to Iranian ambitions. They also recognize that the Gulf states have legitimate needs and selling them American arms (since they won't buy Israeli, as the Pentagon does) can serve Israel's political, diplomatic and security interests.

BUT THERE are also risks. These countries are ruled by repressive autocrats who are kept in power in part with American assistance. The historian Bernard Lewis has pointed out that the closer a regime is to the United States the more people in the Arab street hate America and blame us for their plight.

F-16s and F-15s, missile boats and smart bombs can't protect these dictators from the real threats to their regimes, which come from their military or Islamic extremists. On the other hand, there is a lot we sell - from machine guns to tanks - which corrupt and repressive regimes use to tighten their grip on power.

There is also the risk many of these weapons - particularly anti-tank and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles - can get "lost" or end up in the hands of terrorists.

President Ronald Reagan once chided prime minister Menachem Begin that Israel and its friends shouldn't object to so many US arms sales to the Arabs because they were needed to defend against possible Communist threats. Begin responded, "With all due respect, Mr. President, they often use your arms against us and not the Communists." He may have had in mind the Johnson administration's 1966 sale of M-48 Patton tanks to Jordan, which King Hussein promised would not be used against Israel. Nonetheless, 170 of the tanks went to war against Israel in 1967 and more than 100 were destroyed or wound up in the Israeli inventory.

In the 1982 Lebanon war, I personally saw crates of American-built assault rifles that had been sold to Saudi Arabia and captured by the IDF from PLO forces.

With decisive American leadership and oversight, these latest arms sales can be part of a de facto alliance of the US, the Gulf states and Israel to deter Iranian ambitions to dominate the region and spread its revolution. It's not a new idea. Alexander Haig, the former secretary of state who died last week, proposed such an alliance against Soviet encroachment in the region 30 years ago. The threat may have changed, but the idea remains valid.

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