The US is considering a $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. According to a senior US defense department official, "We've been working very hard on a Saudi arms package, which we believe is critical to the overarching architecture... to deal with the changing strategic threat from Iran and other forces." The arms sale will be a major topic of an upcoming swing through the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Israel's concerns about the sale are expected to be allayed both by restrictions on the level of technology sold to the Saudis and by a substantial increase in US military aid to Israel, which would rise from $2.4b. to $3b. per year over the next decade.
Israel wary of US arms sale to Saudis
The striking thing about the Saudi side of this deal is that it seems to reflect a Bush administration that is not just winding down, but winding backward. Was it not Bush who taught us, as a White House fact sheet put it: "For a half century, America's primary goal in the Middle East was stability... On 9/11, we realized that years of pursuing stability to promote peace left us with neither. Instead, the lack of freedom made the Middle East an incubator for terrorism. The pre-9/11 status quo was dangerous and unacceptable."
Speaking before the UN in September, Bush explained, "Extremists in your midst spread propaganda claiming that the West is engaged in a war against Islam. This propaganda is false, and its purpose is to confuse you and justify acts of terror."
Who is doing this? Who is "perverting Islam" and threatening, as the White House correctly puts it, a world in which "our children will face a region dominated by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons"?
It is not primarily the Taliban, who are out of power, or even Iran, which is the principal rising threat, but represents a Shi'ite brand of Islam that is somewhat isolated even in the Muslim world. Actually, the billions upon billions of dollars going to fund madrassas, where Muslims learn they must wage jihad against America and Israel, are coming mainly from Saudi Arabia.
Iran is the enemy, but this does not mean that Saudi Arabia is a friend. The Saudis embody everything the Bush administration claims to have been wrong with America's pre-9/11 policy: turning a blind eye to dictatorship and the fomenting of radical Islamist ideologies.
It is true that such policies have come back to bite the Saudis themselves, in the form of Islamist terrorism on Saudi soil, and by way of an Iranian takeover of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But should anyone really have to explain to Bush, of all people, that showering dictators with weapons will not strengthen them against forces that they continue, almost six years after 9/11, to appease and promote?
It his hard to escape the impression that we are witnessing the return of a "realist" US foreign policy that Bush spent the last six years working to discredit and displace. If Iran is the center of the axis of evil, then Saudi Arabia is the center of the axis of "realism" and the pre-9/11 worship of "stability" as the strategy for safeguarding Western interests.
None of this is to deny that a potential confluence of interests has developed between the Sunni Arab states, Israel and the US in confronting Iran and its proxies. It is not even to deny that the West should prefer the existing Saudi regime to one that Iran might want to see in its place, or that the Saudis have a role to play in pushing back the Iranian threat.
What we would argue is that throwing weapons at the Saudis, in classic pre-9/11 fashion, is not the solution. Instead, the West should start demanding that the Saudis pull their own weight in the struggle that they say is a common one.
These demands should include helping the US in Iraq, cracking down on "private" funding for extremism, ending their dalliance with Hamas, and taking serious steps toward normalization with Israel, including the ending of the constant barrage of anti-Israel resolutions in the UN. These Israel-related demands should not be seen as doing Israel a favor, but as a central part of ending Saudi complicity in the Islamist jihad against the West, of which the quest to destroy Israel is just one part.
Aside from the real dangers to Israel, a massive Saudi arms sale makes a mockery of Bush's own calls for the nations of the world to unequivocally take the side of freedom against that of jihadist Islam. That Bush was right, this Bush is wrong.