What's so difficult to understand about the U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia? Eric Martin is perplexed:
[Recent diplomatic moves] created the impression that the Bush administration was putting a premium on stability in Iraq, and the wider region, by accepting Iran's newfound gains and making appropriate accommodations.
That impression, however, was tethered to the logic of homo sapien. Today brings news that the transcendental Bush administration is also planning on stepping up sales of advanced military assets to....Saudi Arabia. The reality-based mind, it reels.
Martin thinks that selling arms to the Saudi Arabia is just dumping more energy into a system that could flare up into regional war. This assumes that all we have to do is stop meddling and things will be fine. But look at it from the Saudi's perspective. If the U.S. pulls out completely, what would you do in their place?
I'm probably entering kooky crank territory now, but I've been pushing this theory for a while that the current U.S. strategy - whatever it looks like on the outside - is to effectively partition Iraq into areas of control under the sway of its neighbors, principally Iran and Saudi Arabia. The logic here is that no one could be sure how an all-out civil war would end, so it makes sense for the parties to make a deal that gets them much of what they want without fighting. The Iranians would enjoy the power of being able to control a portion of the oil wealth of Iraq, and become a regional player and de facto strategic partner to America. The Saudis would get to contain the threat to their regime that is presented by America's fiasco in Iraq, while not being required to fund more of the Sunni insurgency groups around the region that it would have to counter the Iranians in the event of a wider conflict.
Standing in the middle of this delicate sharing of control would be the Americans, who will withdraw the bulk of their troops (something the Republicans and Democrats would dearly love) but leave a residual force on bases that could serve to project force - overtly or otherwise - as needed to protect the deal. I presented that view some time ago in this thread at Unqualified Offerings and it was ridiculed by real experts in the field, including Eric Martin.
Still, I persist. If you wanted to talk the Saudis into the idea that they won't have to fund al-Qaeda-like groups to defend themselves, but they've have lost faith in the power of the U.S. to protect them, what else might they want? Hardware. Advanced weapons with which to defend themselves in case the deal goes south. Consider the situation:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates travel to the Middle East next week seeking Arab support to stabilize Iraq but they may face an uphill battle from Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials are increasingly frustrated with Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia that harbor doubts about Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, seeing it as unable to pacify the country and too close politically to Shi'ite-dominated Iran.
A senior State Department official said on Friday Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors must send an "affirmative" message of support to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and to Sunni moderates in Iraq.
"We want to see all of the neighbors, particularly such key partners as Saudi Arabia and the (United Arab) Emirates, play in Iraq the kind of supportive and constructive role that will be in their interests as well as ours in the region in confronting the negative forces," said the official, who spoke on condition he was not named.
In other words, the Saudis are negotiating, and I think the $20 billion weapons deal is part of the price. (Not to mention the massive kickbacks to the venal Saudi royal family.) Martin at least considers the possibility before dismissing it:
Even under the most charitable reading - that it is designed ensure [sic] some sort of regional balance of power that would deter wider conflict - the strategy is deeply, deeply misguided ... . The Saudis are arming and funding Sunni insurgents currently, and those same insurgents are attacking our soldiers (and the Iraqi government they are defending). They want to confront Iran, and have been doing so already via proxy in Iraq - much to our dismay as our soldiers have been getting killed in some of that cross-fire, and Iraq has been destabilized generally speaking.
So then, how will increasing the capacity of the Saudis to wage war foster peace in the region, since it is clearly not peace that they are pursuing with their current, lesser capacity?
My answer is simply deterrence theory. If the Saudis think that American hardware can deter Iran when the insurgents they are funding cannot, then selling them that hardware will result in them pulling back on that funding. The aim is well-armed peace rather than poorly-armed proxy war.
Will it work? I don't know. But it looks to me like we're giving it a try.