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July 31, 2007

Arms for Arab Authoritarians, as US Turns Back Clock

by Jim Lobe

Just 25 months after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced 60 years of U.S. support for authoritarian governments in Arab world, she and Pentagon chief Robert Gates are on their way to the Middle East bearing arms and an uncannily familiar strategic vision to the same regimes.

Under former President Ronald Reagan 25 years ago, it was called "strategic consensus" – the notion that you could coax the so-called "moderate" Arab states into a de facto coalition with Israel against the region's perceived Soviet clients and a revolutionary Iran by plying them with sophisticated weaponry and renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Under President George W. Bush, the strategic vision has still not been given a specific name, but, apart from the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the basic elements appear to be eerily similar, if not identical.

Heralding her trip and the proposed transfer of some $43 billion in new weaponry for Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, Rice asserted Monday, "This effort will bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran."

"Further modernizing the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian armed forces and increasing inter-operability will bolster our partners' resolve in confronting the threat of radicalism and cement their respective roles as regional leaders in the quest for Middle East peace and in ensuring Lebanon's freedom and independence," she added.

The trip follows last week's announcement by Bush that Rice will chair a regional conference some time this fall as part of a new diplomatic push for an eventual "two-state solution" of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It will take both Gates and Rice to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a particularly critical destination given the growing estrangement between Washington and Riyadh with respect to both Iraq and U.S. efforts to break up a Palestinian unity government forged by King Abdullah.

At that point, Rice will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah to "continue discussions on the development of a political horizon with Israeli and Palestinian officials," while Gates heads for the smaller Gulf states with which he reportedly intends to seek new access rights to military bases and extend older ones, as well as pursue new arms-sales agreements.

Under the arms-for-allies plan, the U.S. would provide $13 billion in aid over 10 years – roughly the same amount that it has been getting for most of the past decade. While precise figures have not been released, State Department officials said Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will be encouraged to buy some $20 billion in new arms, including satellite-guided bombs, missile defenses, and upgrades for its U.S.-made fighter-jets over the same period.

To dampen concerns by Israel and its supporters here, the administration is also proposing a 10-year, $30 billion package to preserve the Jewish state's military superiority – or "qualitative edge" – over its Arab neighbors. That would amount to a 25 percent increase in U.S. military assistance to Israel over current levels.

While several lawmakers close to the so-called "Israel Lobby" said this weekend they will try to block the proposed sale to Saudi Arabia, or at least condition it on a number of changes in Saudi policy, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signaled his approval, noting, in particular, the importance of an Arab-Israeli coalition against Tehran.

"We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderates, and there is a need for a united front between the U.S. and us regarding Iran," he said.

The proposed arms sales and aid to the "moderate" Arab states mark yet another step toward its renewed embrace of the Sunni Arab authoritarian regimes that the Bush administration and its neoconservative backers had tried to distance themselves from in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and particularly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"For 60 years, my country – the United States – pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East," Rice declared in June 2005 at the American University in Cairo, in a widely noted speech that encouraged democracy activists across the region. "And we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

But since the election victory of Hamas in parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories seven months later and, particularly since last year's Israel-Hezbollah war, which the administration saw as evidence of Iran's expanding power, Washington has all but abandoned its democracy-promotion rhetoric – at least insofar as it applied to its regional allies – essentially returning to its 60-year-old preference for stability over democracy.

That it should now return to using large arms transfers as a major means of ensuring that stability highlights the degree to which the administration has abandoned its pro-democracy stance, according to critics.

"These exorbitant arms sales should be read as a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to keep matters stable for the tyrannies of the region and to reward those who stood with him in his unending wars," said As'ad Abukhalil, an expert on Saudi Arabia based at California State University at Stanislaus.

What the administration wants from its Sunni allies, in exchange for these deals, according to Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report, "is to build an anti-Iranian alliance [resembling] the early Reagan administration's attempt to find an anti-Soviet 'strategic consensus' among U.S. allied Arab states and Israel. Then, as now, the Arab states' price is some semblance of pressure on Israel to make a comprehensive peace."

"The Bush administration is betting that the Arab states' fear of Iran is greater than their sensitivities on the Palestine and Iraq questions combined," he added. "Indeed, the Bush administration, with all its talk of transforming the Middle East, is reverting to usual U.S. form: a patchwork policy of constant crisis management, all in the name of the 'stability' the neoconservatives professed to hate."

"The major difference going ahead is that, thanks to the Bush administration, there are now two 'intractable' Middle East conflicts to manage instead of one," Toensing said.

Indeed, that Washington is now trying to forge a new strategic alliance against Iran in the face of Tehran's emergence as a major regional threat to U.S. interests – largely because of the administration's own miscalculations in Iraq – struck analyst Gary Sick as a "marvelous example of political jiu-jitsu."

"Having inadvertently created a set of circumstances that ensured an increase in Iranian strength and bargaining power, that seriously frightened U.S. erstwhile Sunni allies in the region, and that undermined U.S. strength and credibility," according to Sick, a Columbia University professor who was President Jimmy Carter's top Iran aide, "the U.S. now proposes a new and improved regional political relationship to deal with the problem, and, incidentally, to distract attention from America's plight in Iraq while reviving America's position as the ultimate power in the region."

The major flaw in this strategy, according to Sick, however, may be the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who is both supported by the U.S. but is seen by the Sunni neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, as a pawn of Tehran.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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