The White House has announced that it is exploring the possibility of a mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia as part of an overall normalization agreement with Israel. Criticism of such a treaty is mistaken, as the region and the U.S. would benefit enormously from an official end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has itself created unnecessary obstacles to an Israel-Saudi peace; namely, its appeasement of Iran and obsession with “resolving” the Palestinian issue.
The Saudis want a security guarantee because of Iranian aggression. Yet the Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, has worked assiduously to establish a legal path for Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, to obtain a nuclear weapon and a ballistic missile system to deliver it. The administration has also made financial concessions that help Iran fund its terrorist network and underwrite Iran’s hegemonic goals in the region. It is not unreasonable for the Saudis to ask for security guarantees against a monster we helped create.
Critics of a guarantee point to the Saudis’ human rights record. Yes, this record is not good, but at the moment, the House of Saud is the best we’re going to get. The only alternatives to the Saudi monarchy are a failed state ridden with Islamist terror groups or an Iran-backed regime. In either scenario, the human rights violations would be exponentially worse. Moreover, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is taking steps towards modernizing and liberalizing Saudi society that should not be minimized.
Some point to the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a reason to turn our backs on MBS. There is no getting around the fact that his murder was grotesque and unacceptable. We all know it was ordered by MBS, however much he tries to deny it. But Khashoggi was no mere “journalist.” He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and advocated the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. All Sunni Arab governments consider the Muslim Brotherhood an existential threat. Thus, there is more to the Khashoggi affair than meets the eye. In any case, the assassination of one man should not dictate American foreign policy.
Moreover, a security arrangement with Saudi Arabia would not be unprecedented. We have similar arrangements with Japan and South Korea, as well as Qatar. Qatar’s record on human rights is abysmal, but there are no demands to rescind our security arrangements with it.
Critics further claim that a security guarantee to the Saudis will hamstring American efforts to pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region and confront China. This is a simplistic understanding of geopolitics. China and the U.S. are global powers with interests around the world. That world is interconnected. Whatever happens in the Gulf affects the Asia-Pacific region. Nothing demonstrates this better than the emerging axis of evil composed of China, Russia and Iran.
A security arrangement with Saudi Arabia will weaken Iran and, by extension, China. Moreover, a reassertion of American power in the Gulf will come at China’s expense. China badly needs cheap energy and MBS has leveraged China’s dependence on Saudi oil as a hedge against an American retreat from the region. Anything the U.S. can do to influence the price of oil and thus the Chinese economy is a net-positive for America. Furthermore, pushing China out of the Gulf helps the U.S. everywhere else, including the Asia-Pacific region.
The discussions with Saudi Arabia also contemplate crossing a bridge too far: MBS’s demand for a “civilian” nuclear capability.
Once again, the insanity of the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) is on full display. One of the criticisms of the original nuclear deal was that it would lead to nuclear proliferation. Former President Barack Obama, then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Joe Biden ignored that warning.
The answer to a nuclear Iran does not lie in facilitating nuclear proliferation by the Saudis. Instead, the answer is to confront and dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. Once Saudi Arabia has a nuclear program, Turkey and Egypt will soon follow. The region will become a tinderbox with potentially catastrophic results for the United States and the world.
One must also remember that circumstances change. Britain controlled the Suez Canal until Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it in 1956 and threw out the British. A full-scale war followed. In the 1970s, Syria, Iraq and Iran confiscated American oil assets without compensation. While Saudi Arabia paid for its 100% interest in the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), it was pursuant to an offer its American partners could not refuse. To put the best gloss on it, the Saudis called it “participation” rather than “nationalization.” Similarly, the Saudis might agree to the U.S. running the country’s “civilian” nuclear program today. However, that could change in an instant if the Saudis decide to “participate” in the nuclear process.
Even if Israel agrees to a Saudi nuclear program, which it should not, the U.S. ought to refuse. The administration has said it will present any agreement with the Saudis to Congress. The Senate should do all it can to approve such a deal unless it grants the Saudis a nuclear program. If it does, the Senate should vote “no.”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s obsession with solving the Palestinian issue may render the entire enterprise academic. The administration believes that Saudi-Israel “normalization” must include a solution to the Palestinian issue. If the administration holds to that goal, or if the Saudis defer to the Palestinian leadership, there will be no deal. No matter what the Palestinians are offered, they will exercise their traditional veto on Arab-Israeli peace and say “no.” Neither Hamas, Islamic Jihad nor the Palestinian Authority has any interest in resolving their dispute with Israel.
Indeed, it was only when Arab countries pushed the Palestinian issue to the side that they were able to make peace with Israel. That was true of Egypt in 1978, Jordan in 1994 and the Abraham Accords countries in 2019.
Let Israel and Saudi Arabia make peace. End the Arab-Israeli conflict. Maybe then, the Palestinians will get the message that they will never have a state of their own unless they are prepared to compromise and make peace with a Jewish State of Israel within secure and defined borders.
We are a long way from a deal between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. If it is to have any chance at success, the Biden administration needs to tear down the barriers to peace, not build them.