July 30, 2007

New Bazaar, Same as the Old Bazaar, But With a Dangerous Twist

Ehud Olmert: "We understand the need of the US to assist the moderate Arab states which are in one front with the US and us in the fight against Iran, and on the other hand we appreciate the renewed and re-emphasised support for Israel's military and security advantage."

Put differently, we are trying to get a US $20B arms deal through for the Saudis and other Gulfies, and to keep the Israelis on board for this program, we've agreed to ratchet up our aid to them roughly 25% to 3B/annum (from approximately 2.4B/annum, or US $30B for the next decade). Still, some Israelis are nevertheless expressing concern the U.S. (with Washington all atwitter about a "Green Curtain" descending on the region) might be overreacting to the perceived Iranian threat by perhaps altering the strategic balance in the neighborhood somewhat:

According to the proposed arms deal, Saudi Arabia will receive thousands of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) - a low-cost guidance kit that converts existing unguided free-fall bombs into accurately guided "smart" weapons...

...Senior defense officials praised the decision to increase military aid but said that the JDAM sale to Saudi Arabia was still enough to destabilize the strategic military balance in the Middle East. The advanced weapon, these officials said, would grant Saudi Arabia the capability to accurately fire missiles at strategic sites and installations in southern Israel.

"We do not have a way to defend ourselves against this weapon," a senior Defense Ministry official said, warning that the Saudi regime could be toppled and the advanced American weaponry fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

Meantime, the Russians are (unsurprisingly) reportedly entering the fray, though less dramatically than Washington.

A few questions that jump to mind:

1) Is Washington over-reacting to the perceived Iranian threat by pushing for such a large arms sale to Gulf players?

2) Will Gates/Rice, on their impending trip to the region, convincingly link the sale to the Saudis cooperating better on Iraq policy?

3) Does this arms sale not further elicit chuckles about our 'forward democratization' strategy and "transformation" and all the other neo-con swill and Crawford messianism we've been subjected to these past years, given that regimes typically don't come much more authoritarian than Riyadh's?


4) Will Israel's qualitative edge truly be materially impacted by this sale if it goes forward?

My answers, for what they're worth, are (1) yes; (2) no; (3) yes; and (4) no.

Don't get me wrong. I wasn't born yesterday, and I know we've been supplying arms to the Saudis and other Gulf States for a good while now, often for legitimate strategic reasons I've been supportive of. But I think this deal arguably makes us look weak to the Iranians, because in its size and the precipitous (almost Pavlovian) manner we're pursuing it it signals irrational panic vis-a-vis the Iranians. And yes, the prospective deal, viewed through the prism of Bush's breathtakingly naive neo-Wilsonianism (married to evangelical zealotry), does have us looking strategically incoherent and hypocritical here.

As for Gates & Rice, I can almost see the dialogue with the Saudi royals now (we're moving to help you with the big sale, but you have to help us in Iraq, by ceasing trouble-making such as this, etc etc.) but the issue is Iran has us in something of a cat's paw in Iraq, which makes the Saudis changing their behavior a hard sell. Let me explain. The Iranians are providing occasional support to Sadr's JAM (and splinter factions) to keep pressure on U.S. forces, but Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who could turn on Iran, and it is quite clear that the Iranians are only using him for short term tactical reasons (Iran certainly doesn't want to make the going any easier for the U.S. in Iraq, at least not while some in the crazed Lieberman-wing in Washington are beating the war drums to begin bombing Iran). The same logic applies to Iran's purported occasional support to Sunni extremists operating in Iraq, again, they are being used for short-term purposes to make it harder for the U.S. to stabilize Iraq and therefore more credibly consider military strikes on Iran.

Aside from the obvious take-away that higher than Ambassadorial level discussions with the Iranians to allay such concerns (not to mention not having Cheney prancing about on naval carriers in the region giving threatening speeches) might lead to better security cooperation with Iran in Iraq, there is another element too infrequently commented on. That is, what's likely most important for the Iranians longer-term, is enhancing SCIRI's grip in Iraq, as well as Dawa's too. Those are the real Iranian clients (albeit to different degrees and with varying shadings per specific political actors in each of said parties), not Sadr's men, and the Saudis (who have a different view of Maliki than our President) understand this backdrop better and realize their Sunni brethren in Iraq could be imperiled once 'moderates' like Maliki better consolidate their power.

So Gates and Rice will be asking the Saudis to "help" in Iraq but, even if they were supremely talented interlocuters (which at least one of them certainly isn't), they are unfortunately coming in with strategic assumptions that belie the realities on the ground, which in turn negatively impact their credibility, and so will likely leave the Saudis rather on the unpersuaded side. This said, as we're not even really in a position to persuasively 'link' better Saudi behavior in Iraq to the prospective arms sale (because of the Iran hysteria the sale must go through in some form, and the Saudis know it), my money says the sale does indeed go forward, albeit perhaps with some Congressional tweakage (Nadler, Lantos, etc) from some players on the Hill worried about its impact on Israel.

Regardless of all the above, let's just pause for a second and wonder, is it wise to pump in USD 50B of arms sales in this manner at this time (at very least, as Egypt will want its cut, and others too), and in a region where a growing civil war in Iraq could still potentially cross borders? With varied cross-border activity looking to pick up around Iraq, whether reports of U.S. special forces planning to assist the Turks to hunt down PKK, the Saudis likely not materially reducing their support to varied Sunni actors in Iraq, the Iranians continuing to stealthfully consolidate control in portions of Iraq (in a manner that will only get the Saudis more concerned as time goes on, leading them to butress Sunni interests there even more)--are we not perhaps risking not only bungling the war but also now even the containment of it?

Time will tell, but my gut tells me the Iraq crisis gets even worse before it gets better. Look, to a fashion, this is just the same old arms bazaar, and we've been here many times before. But this is the first time a civil war was gaining steam smack in the middle of the Sunni-Shi'a divide, with us trying to bolster a Shi'a government in Iraq that will ultimately align itself with Iran likely, while arming Sunni nations abutting Iraq (not to mention the 'right' Sunni tribes in Iraq) arrayed against Iranian interests, and with a Turkish-Kurdish conflagration (and now, as Novak's piece linked above claims, with potential direct U.S. involvement) always looming as a real possibility. In short, I don't see a coherent strategy here, in fact quite the opposite, and I therefore suspect this could end in a very ugly way. But hell, thank God we've learned these past years we have tremendously experienced policy-makers at the helm who innately understand the region well and whose judgments we can bank on!

Posted by Gregory at July 30, 2007 12:52 AM

Gee, I remember when formenting an arms race was a BAD idea. If Containment II is to be answer to Cold War II, then, for heaven's sake, let's keep control of the containment.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at July 30, 2007 06:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The Bush administration knows it does not actually have the capabilities to deal with Iran properly. It knows that it has so badly weakened our strategic strength in the Middle East by our invasion and utterly incompetent occupation of Iraq that we cannot effectively deal with Iran properly, so in its perverted thinking, the Bush administration will set up the Saudis to be our proxy fighters against Iran. Get Saudis to die for Americans (heh, the irony). Saudis have plenty of fresh bodies to send off to become canon fodder.

That's what this comes down to. We no longer have the capability to properly deal with Iran, so we're going to get our allies to do the dirty work for us.

How shameful!

Posted by: Dan at July 30, 2007 07:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Remember, we sold weapons and training to both Iraqis and Iranians during their Iran-Iraq War. This is not something new. This has been done before. And the only ones to truly suffer for it are the dead Iraqis and Iranians. Only this time it will include dead Saudis too.

Posted by: Dan at July 30, 2007 07:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

When has Saudi Arabia attacked other countries? I thought the US is in the long-term habit of shipping advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia in order to ensure the tyrannical control continues, and to prevent any spark of democracy -- God knows democracy in Saudi Arabia is antithetical to the Cheney/US Energy Policy (and for good reason -- most of Saudi Arabia hates the US even more now than 4 years ago, when they were beginning to hate the US for the superbases is S.A.).

Posted by: J.D. Salinger at July 30, 2007 09:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

RE "In short, I don't see a coherent strategy here, in fact quite the opposite, and I therefore suspect this could end in a very ugly way."

Good, I thought it was just me.

Posted by: LL at July 30, 2007 09:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Even o hanlon and Pollard say were winning" so why sweat the details, Greg?

Posted by: CENTRIST at July 31, 2007 01:34 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

we are...not were!

Posted by: CENTRIST at July 31, 2007 01:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is just business as usual--more sales for the Carlyle Group, Lockheed Martin, KBR and Boeing.

Perhaps it's a sign of good things to come in Iraq. Maybe the merchants of death have been notified that they will have to make their profit by selling to the Saudis, Israels, and Egyptians. Or perhaps it merely represents incremental business for them beyond Iraq.

And, of course, these sordid business deals had to be enveloped in the noblest of rationales: protecting those lovable regimes--the unfeudal House of Saud, the humane Likud/Kadima, and the incorruptible Mubarak.

Posted by: JohnH at July 31, 2007 01:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is repeated strategy(mistake) by US, provide training and arms to one country for fight against the America's enemy.But after some years the country which benefited with the arms and training by US would fight against US...
Replacement Windows Norfolk

Posted by: Muthu at July 31, 2007 09:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Silly me, I actually thought things could not get worse, a great article Greg, very well written.

Posted by: Nigel at July 31, 2007 10:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

To me the sale only makes sense if its intention is to provoke a confrontation not ostensibly prevent one or further draw the 'green curtain'. Rather than seeing it as a result of panic or foolhardy bravado, Greg, possibly you should be thinking of it as a disturbingly cunning gambit.

Also, speaking of Iran's intentions - how much of what they are doing is geared towards Britain's coming withdrawal from Basra? No one seems to be talking of that.

Posted by: Orwin at July 31, 2007 12:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is the much vaunted 'realism' you cherish, Mr. Djerian. I'd argue that they did attack on 9/11, and in Chechnya, Kashmir,
Afghanistan & Iraq. The persons involved are part of the Wahhabi
state educational/religious/paramilitary infrastructure; from the leading tribal families of Hail, Nejd, Asir (Quahtani, Ghamdi, Uteibi)
to name just a few. To provide such weapons to persons
ideologically disposed to use it against us; is a grave error. But that's the enlightened policy of Mssr. Scowcroft, Powell, Armitage et al; and thev've never steered us wrong.

Posted by: narciso at July 31, 2007 02:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Saudi Arabia more or less has the US by the short hairs. The US imports oil heavily, and is getting more and more dependent on imported oil -- and increasing dependence on MidEast oil is a prominent part of the Cheney/Bush Energy Policy, as published some years ago. It was a very realpolitik policy, focusing hardly at all on alternative energy sources (which are not likely to change the immediate future), and focusing heavily on how to increase US imports from MidEast and other suppliers -- need to maintain and gain access and control, need to cause infrastructure improvements, whatever that takes (ie, taking over countries, or just bribing them with gifts).

I believe this policy is not merely to maintain the high-level of Oil profits and "profiteering", but also because the US as a whole really depends very heavily on oil, and really does need to bend heaven and earth to keep the oil flowing.

Saudi Arabia is also, as is well-known, in a special position, because it not only has huge reserves, but also because its monarchy has traditionally been especially willing to help the US out by adjusting oil flow to ease problems. The Bush family and the monarchy princes, and some others (including the Bin Laden family I've heard), are all close, and no doubt the Bush family uses the relationship for benefits in terms of oil flow.

In a certain amusing sense, the US also has the Saudi monarchy by the short hairs, because they are a dictatorial regime largely disliked by their own population, dependent on US support and weapons to maintain their power.

So it is a traditional US & strongman/dictator relationship, which helps give the US leverage and a stable business environment, and a good amount of leverage.

Posted by: Jack Sprat at July 31, 2007 03:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Halliburton, Dick Cheney, and Wartime Spoils

Mr. Cheney called in June for the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Iran. He called relations between Iran and the United States a ''tragedy,'' adding that one of the best ways to improve ties would be ''to allow American firms to do the same thing that most other firms around the world are able to do now, and that is to be active in Iran.''

He added, ''We're kept out of there primarily by our own government, which has made a decision that U.S. firms should not be allowed to invest significantly in Iran, and I think that's a mistake.''

Under Mr. Cheney, Halliburton has become a leading member of USA Engage, a lobbying group that seeks to lift sanctions. Halliburton is also a member of the board of the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobbying group that recently won a victory in the Supreme Court, which struck down a Massachusetts state law imposing state sanctions on companies doing business in Burma.

Mr. Cheney's company has already done business in countries still facing U.S. sanctions, including Libya and Iraq, the enemy Mr. Cheney helped vanquish in the Gulf War.

Dresser-Rand and Ingersoll-Dresser Pump Co., joint ventures that Halliburton has sold within the past year, have done work in Iraq on contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq's oil industry, under the United Nation's Oil for Food program.

Way Way More:
Halliburton, Dick Cheney, and Wartime Spoils

I wonder what the Bush's cut will be?

Posted by: someotherdude at July 31, 2007 03:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The Iranians are providing occasional support to Sadr's JAM (and splinter factions) to keep pressure on U.S. forces, but Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who could turn on Iran, and it is quite clear that the Iranians are only using him for short term tactical reasons (Iran certainly doesn't want to make the going any easier for the U.S. in Iraq, at least not while some in the crazed Lieberman-wing in Washington are beating the war drums to begin bombing Iran). "

Um, I hate to see this sort of, um, MSM stuff from you. Last I heard, the Iranians *organized* SCIRI, and had trained the Badr Brigade. Iran already *has* an in to a certain faction in Iraq - the biggest group in the government.

Posted by: Barry at August 1, 2007 10:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Saudi Arabia more or less has the US by the short hairs"

Not only oil, but a trillion dollars in treasury notes and other dollar instruments. SA has been, along with China, covering the deficit spending of the last few years.

Posted by: bob mcmanus at August 2, 2007 08:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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