A ‘New Compact’ With Saudi Arabia Is a Terrible Idea

We should make sure that the U.S. is never again in a position where it is expected to support another Saudi war.

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Steven Cook and Martin Indyk urge Biden to bind the US even more tightly to Saudi Arabia:

Biden should instead consider a more fundamental reconceptualization of the bilateral relationship. What both countries need is a new compact that focuses on countering a major strategic threat they both face: Iran’s nuclear program.

Cook and Indyk’s article is a fairly standard rehash of familiar pro-Saudi claims. While they propose a “new compact” between our governments, the ideas in their article are very old and largely outdated. They assert that the “benefits of reconciliation are self-evident,” but this hasn’t been true for years. If the benefits were so self-evident, they wouldn’t need to be justifying closer ties with Riyadh, and the truth is that the benefits to the United States are nowhere to be found.

Even if the Saudi government increased oil production, any increase it can deliver won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, and the Saudi government makes its oil production decisions based on what it perceives to be in its own interests and not as a favor to America. Whatever benefits there are from the relationship, the Saudi government is the one receiving virtually all of them. It is not self-evident at all what the US gets for its trouble, and except for inertia and the pleading of certain interest groups it is hard to see why the US continues to align itself so closely with such an awful state. It would be one thing if someone could demonstrate what the US stands to gain by continuing it, to say nothing of deepening it, but the possible rewards are never specified.

The authors imagine what this “reconciliation” would do: “The pariah would be transformed into a partner.” One problem with this is that Saudi Arabia was never treated as a pariah (quite the opposite), and it has proven itself to be a mostly useless and increasingly pernicious “partner.” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj turns their statement around on them in his response:

Maybe Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be a partner and maybe Iran shouldn’t be a pariah and maybe the US shouldn’t be lording the nature of its relationships with regional powers in ways that create regional imbalances and instability.

This gets at the core problem with what Cook and Indyk are proposing: the closer relationship with Saudi Arabia that they want would be a destabilizing and destructive one. It would fuel regional rivalries and keep the US ensnared in conflicts that have nothing to do with American security. A “more stable Middle Eastern order” will not exist if the US does what the authors want, and by increasing the commitment to Saudi Arabia they guarantee that the US will end up fighting and supporting wars that it could otherwise easily avoid and oppose.

We have already seen in Yemen what indulging the Saudi government does to regional stability. The Saudi government has proven that selling them weapons for “self-defense” has just enabled them to wage an unnecessary and atrocious war against their neighbor. Our government should stop providing them with the means to engage in more aggression in the future, not least because their use of U.S.-made weapons in their war crimes implicates the US in those atrocities. The current truce in Yemen is holding, and that’s good news for the people of Yemen, but we should make sure that the US is never again in a position where it is expected to support another Saudi war, whether it is in Yemen or anywhere else.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.