Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Saudis in the Saddle

The Middle East is a complicated place, a land where allies become enemies and interest converge and diverge in a chaotic fashion. The very multiplicity of actors, particularly those able and willing to direct violence, all chafing at the bit for survival and power, their relative position in perpetual motion, strains coherent, focused and lasting analysis. Amid the disorder we seek structure, a framework that satisfies the need of a public to understand, and of a government to function in a pragmatic fashion - a paradigm.

The standoff over the Iranian nuclear program is one such well-worn paradigm. The Iranians have operated a clandestine nuclear development and nuclear weapons programs for over a decade, at times concealing this fact outright, and when such subterfuge became impossible, sheltering their nuclear ambitions under the guise of civilian power generation.

No one would much have cared - as few did when, say, Japan or Brazil flirted within sight of a nuclear weapons threshold - were Iran to be a peaceful member of the international community, and particularly, a stabilizing actor in its own neighborhood. Instead, whether owing to its Islamist ideology, regime preservation or an imperial vision for the Middle East - all three being quite compatible with one another - Iran has sought to destabilize its periphery, unnerve its neighbors and threaten the interests of distant powers.

What has particularly galvanized attention in the US and Europe are implicit and overt Iranian threats against Israel. Iranian nukes may be an irritant to a Europe that no longer has the capacity or will for power projection, and a regional concern, but not an existential one, to a distant America. The Iranians are being provocative, but Europe is far away, and America is sufficiently insulated to risk a war that disrupts oil supplies over the Iranian nuclear pimple.

However, everyone understands that a Jewish state threatened with extermination and having a capability to preempt its demise, even in a fashion that turns the world on its head, will. The main threat is to Israel, goes the paradigm, and it is Israel's catastrophic response that the world wishes to avoid, and which negotiations are designed to avert or delay. It is little wonder, then, that so many view Israel, and not the Iranian nuclear program, as the real problem. Iranian nukes many in Europe and the US are willing to live with; an Israeli attack that sets off Iranian counters that destabilize the global economic system is another matter. For those understanding of Israel's predicament, restraining Iran is a noble effort to secure the Jewish people from a second genocide in less than a century. For others, it is Israel that must be contained, for it is the Jewish state's actions which will precipitate global calamity, not those of the Iranians. So goes the paradigm.

What if the paradigm is wrong? Or, as is so characteristic of popular Middle East vignettes, incomplete. Yes, the threat to Israel may be acute, but no more so than that of Saddam's biological and chemical weapons stockpiles in the late 1980s. Yet, it was not on Israel's behalf that an international coalition ripped to pieces the Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world. Indeed, thinking back on sixty years of war, I am hard pressed to identify a single American military action to defend the Jewish state. When we look at both great American military incursions in the region, in 1991 and 2003, there is only one nation that stands as the principal focus of American interest - Saudi Arabia.

The first Gulf War was launched, quite explicitly, to break Iraq's conventional military capability - particularly its expeditionary potential - which had swallowed Kuwait and threatened Saudi oil fields. Gulf War Two, ill-defined though it was against Saddam's WMD capabilities, constituted an American response to 9/11, a massive demonstration of power designed to extinguish any doubts about American will and capabilities and to coerce compliance in the war against violent Islamist networks. It is easy to forget how central Saudi Arabia once was to the jihadist effort as ideological nursery, financier, recruiting ground and safe haven. Indeed, there were those among the Washington establishment who, arguing outright for invasion, thought that the Saudis, and not Saddam, should bear the brunt of American tanks. Certainly, it can be said that the Saudis took their counter-terrorism efforts more seriously after the positioning of 150,000 American troops in neighboring Iraq.

As paradigms go, then, given America's age-old entanglement with the House of Saud, and the blood and material already shed by the United States to maintain this relationship, it is reasonable to suggest that if American forces were ever deployed against the Iranians, it would not be to safeguard Israel - a nation for which not a single American soldier or bullet have been expended - but to preserve the Saudi Kingdom. A less romantic paradigm, I admit, than one which places the Jewish people on the verge of catastrophe, again, but also one more credible than the notion of an Israel holding the world hostage to war with Iran.

The primacy of Saudi interests in American planning, not to the exclusion of Israeli concerns, but complementary to them, becomes crystallized once one digests George Friedman's latest piece on Stratfor - Rethinking American Options on Iran. With the Israelis as "bad cop" and the Saudis as the busy-bodied silent partners, argues Friedman, Washington is hard at work dismantling Iranian contingency planning in response to American attack - defanging Shiite proxies like Hezbollah, stabilizing the Iraqi government against Iranian meddling and developing a strategic bombing campaign to neutralize Iran's interdiction capabilities against Gulf oil shipping and reduce Iran's conventional military assets to prevent expeditionary campaigns (or the threat of such campaigns) against the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia in particular.

What emerges is an American policy sophisticated, mature, far from helpless, and largely irrelevant to the public debate over the Israel-bombing-Iran paradigm now raging in the press. One can only hope.


  1. Have you read Ambassador Oren's "Power, Faith, and Fantasy" about America's involvement in the Middle East since 1776? It's wonderful. I just finished it, and my interpretation of it would lend support to your thesis that modern American foreign policy is much more about protecting the Saudis than about anything else.

    And technically, although no American soldiers have fought or died for Israel, America did give Israel materiel during the Yom Kippur War. So we did expend some bullets for them, we just didn't fire them.

    Didn't Saudi Arabia give Israel the go-ahead to use its airspace for an attack on Iran already? I thought was uncontroversial by now.

  2. Hey Bryan,

    You're quite right of course that American armaments loom large in the Israeli arsenal. Yet, it is a curious fact, in spite of so much foolish talk that "Americans are dying for Israel", that when you think about it, there isn't really a single concrete case of American military action being taken to defend Israel. You would think there would be one, at least one, in 60 years of partnership.

    Compare that to the number of Americans killed in defending American interests in Saudi Arabia, or South Korea. I wonder how many deadly training accidents there have been for American forces deployed to protect Japan and West Germany. I am not disparaging those commitments, just underlining a key point: Israel may not be unique in the American alliance system, but it is remarkably self-sufficient in its defense to a degree its critics have not acknowledged.

    Some make the point that Americans should not be asked to shed for Israel, as though that's a reality, when it never has been. In the meantime, Americans have already and continue shed blood for regimes like Saudi Arabia, without much complaint from the same people.

    It's interesting you mention Oren's book. It's next on my reading list.

  3. Victor,

    You're right. I'm not disagreeing with your overall point, just engaging in some minor pilpul.

    I would add that during Black September, Israel positioned its own army to save Jordan, another American ally, and during the Gulf War, Israel chose not to respond to Iraq's Scud missiles so that Syria and Saudi Arabia would not drop out of the allied coalition against Iraq. So really, Israeli blood has been spilled for America, but never the other way around.

  4. I think you could take that further. Four Israelis were killed today to upset a peace process initiated by the Obama Administration in pursuit of American interests. Not to say that there shouldn't be a peace process, or that anyone but Hamas is responsible for the murders, but "linkage" has been in vogue lately.

  5. just to pipe in on Oren-praise - he does a fabulous job when on book tour, here he is with "Power, Faith and Fantasy" including transcript and a link to the audio at the bottom

    Somehow "theanswer"-fantasist rings a bell with me, I must have met him elsewhere. He is a delusionalist.



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