U.S. Should Do the Opposite of What Saudis Want
Consider the irony: The United States, which bills itself as the world’s beacon of freedom, has for some 70 years allied itself with one of the last absolute monarchies on the planet. Time and again, Washington has done the bidding of Saudi Arabia in the Greater Middle East, as a catalog of presidents allowed themselves to be dragged along by despotic kings in keffiyehs. It’s downright embarrassing and a monument to American hypocrisy. So, you ask, why aren’t mainstream, so-called liberals outright appalled by all this? Well, they’re as hawkish and beholden to the military-industrial complex as the unapologetic Republicans.
Once, not too long ago, a cynic could argue that such supplication was necessary to feed a national addiction to the Saudis’ liquid gold, but no more. As domestic energy sources have swelled (dangerously, from an environmental standpoint) and renewables technology has advanced, the U.S. no longer relies on Saudi oil to run its bustling—if debt-ridden—economy of plenty. That Washington still dances to Riyadh’s tune indicates something far more disturbing: Either U.S. policymakers are criminally naive, or they actually agree with Saudi policies and priorities.
It is hard to know which is worse.
So much has happened of late in the Mideast that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep up. First, President Trump—rightfully, I think—announced that the U.S. would be leaving Syria “like, very soon.” Then, just one week later, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad allegedly gassed his own people (again), and Trump did a 180, tweeting a warning that missiles “will be coming” to Syria.
So, which is it? I guess the American people will have to (indifferently) wait and see.
What we do know is what Saudi Arabia wants. Last week, during his extended public relations tour to the U.S., the king-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS” for short), told Time magazine that “we believe American troops should stay in Syria for at least the mid-term, if not the long term.” How nice of him to take time out of his lipstick-on-a-pig charm offensive—which included a “60 Minutes” spot—to tell us where our troops should and shouldn’t kill and be killed thousands of miles from home. Apparently, he is quite pleased to see the U.S. military occupy one-third of Syria indefinitely and dangerously stare down nearby Russian, Assadist and Iranian forces. And remember, the U.S. military—along with its many proxy militias—is just one misstep away from catastrophic global war.
The occupation of Syria, as I’ve written in this publication, is a veritable trap, all risk and no reward. If stability in eastern Syria is so vital, why don’t well-armed, U.S.-supplied Saudi troops—brother Muslims—step into the void? Easy. The Saudi military is too busy waging a legally dubious terror war on the people of Yemen.
Besides, Saudi ground troops prefer not to get their hands dirty—unless, that is, they’re beheading helpless women on charges of “sorcery.” Even in Yemen, the Saudis tend to rely on Sudanese mercenaries to do the hard fighting against the Houthis. It’s the Saudi way, and these days the U.S. military seems to be the crown prince’s favorite toy army.
The problem is, each and every time the U.S. has followed the Saudi lead and done the king’s bidding, the results have been catastrophic. None of these ongoing operations is in the strategic interest of the United States, and too often they place U.S. troops on the wrong side of history. Here are just a few areas in which doing the Saudis’ bidding has led to—often ongoing—disasters:
- In Syria, Saudi arms and cash were regularly funneled to Islamist and jihadist rebels. This includes Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in the Levant. Worse still, the Saudis have spent seven years trying to force a regime change agenda—to topple Assad—on presidents Barack Obama and Trump. Never mind that toppling Assad would risk war with nuclear-armed Russia; forget about the thorny question of what comes next, and the genuine danger of a jihadist successor state. The Saudis don’t like Assad. They want him gone. And, well, they plan to use the U.S. military to accomplish it—consequences be damned!
- In Yemen, the Saudis have personally unleashed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis on the poorest country in the Arab world. In that shameful task, Washington is shockingly complicit, providing intelligence, guided bombs and in-flight refueling services to the Saudi high command. In Yemen, as in so much of the Mideast these days, America acts as little more than the Saudis’ air force and logisticians. The output of all that blockading and bombing has been outrageous: the world’s worst-ever cholera epidemic, a worsening famine and tens of thousands of civilian combat deaths. Besides smearing (again) the American reputation in the region, the terror bombing has actually reduced U.S. security by empowering the local al-Qaida affiliate, AQAP.
- In Iran, the Saudis would like nothing more than a U.S. war against the Islamic Republic. Think American (and Iranian) blood for Saudi strategic gain. And, with Trump’s recent appointments of hysterical war hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, war with Iran seems like a real possibility. The Saudis have been trying to scuttle any attempted American rapprochement—particularly Obama’s—with the Islamic Republic. They disapproved of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and are now encouraging Trump—who doesn’t need much persuading—to tear up a deal that even the administration admits the Iranians have been following. If the Saudi crown prince has his way, the U.S. will unilaterally pull out of a six-party deal, which the Europeans and Chinese have already indicated they intend to maintain. That would leave the U.S. diplomatically isolated, and, furthermore, imagine the message that scuttling the deal would send to North Korea. Why would Kim Jong Un even consider serious negotiations with Trump if the U.S. demonstrates its unreliability in adhering to existing nuclear deals?
The Saudis don’t care about U.S. safety or our best interests. They see America—especially its military—as just another tool in their regional arsenal. They want guns, money, tanks, planes and diplomatic cover—which they’ve now received for decades—from Washington. The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia’s kings and princes is an international embarrassment and has ruined whatever is left of our reputation on the Arab street. They’ve bogged us down in stalemated wars, dragged us into probable war crimes in Yemen and all the while underwritten Wahhabi Islamist extremism throughout the region.
Why do it, then? Who benefits? Not the average American citizen, of course. Not the volunteer soldier sent to fight, die and kill in our sundry unwinnable wars. No, the only winner is the arms industry, the military-industrial behemoth, which racked up record arms deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars under both “liberal” Obama and “conservative” Trump. Profits soar and corporate bonuses skyrocket as average folks’ wages remain stagnant and some junior enlisted soldiers survive on food stamps.
So, here’s a novel idea: Let’s pressure Washington to craft U.S. foreign policy that is consistent with American interests and quit placating and supporting one of the globe’s last absolute monarchies—a kingdom trapped in the seventh century. Let us walk the walk we so deftly talk and act like the “city on a hill” our leaders seem so sure that we are.
It won’t be easy. Our crimes are many, the U.S. has much penance to do and a long way to go. Still, ditching the Saudis would be a good start.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.