In response to the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait the Bush administration announced two huge arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Clearly, however, these sales were not part of a comprehensive and balanced reappraisal of U.S. policy but an attempt to seize the circumstances to expedite controversial arms sales.
But why? How would another 24 F-15s improve Saudi defense? What additional security would they provide that the kingdom did not already possess in August?Arms sales are just business as usual. To achieve real security in the gulf region the United States needs to reassess its relations with Saudi Arabia, which are now dominated by three myths.
- Myth No. 1: Saudi Arabia is an American strategic asset.
To be an American strategic asset a country must be able to defend itself against foreign aggression without American help, and it has to be internally stable and solidly aligned with the Western camp.
The 1979 revolution in Iran demonstrated that military strength is utterly useless without internal stability. The current Iraqi threat revealed Saudi Arabia's military weakness and raised troubling questions about its stability.
In fact, only Saudi oil is a Western asset; the military weakness and vulnerability of the kingdom coupled with its persistent rejection of all American requests for military presence make it a strategic liability.
- Myth No. 2: Military prowess can be built only through large-scale sales of sophisticated arms.
Over the past 15 years, the Saudis have spent $75 billion on weapons, while their total military expenditures reached a staggering $200 billion.
Why, then, couldn't the Saudis defend themselves against foreign aggression? Because no amount of high-tech weaponry can contain, let alone deter, a major foreign aggressor, as long as the tiny Saudi ground forces do not exceed 50,000 troops.
It will take a generation for the royal family to reverse course, impose a draft and build a credible army of several hundred thousand soldiers.
At the same time huge arms sales are bound to undermine the long-term U.S. goal of maintaining the military balance between Israel and the Arab world. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney argued that "circumstances have changed and arms to Saudi Arabia do not threaten Israel."
Yet, the current crisis demonstrates how swiftly Middle East circumstances can change.
- Myth No. 3: The Saudis can maintain national security without an immediate U.S. presence.
In the past Riyadh wanted the benefits but not the costs and risks of an American presence. Such an "over the horizon" deployment did not carry the stigma of the "American connection" but provided insurance: If the Saudis called for help, the United States would be in the region.
The Sabah Dynasty of Kuwait paid dearly for such a fallacy, and the Saud family has barely survived. The Saudis must now see the need for a major re-evaluation. If they don't, Washington should convince them that an over-the-horizon force is too small and too remote to respond quickly and effectively to a major threat.
A U.S. military presence and access to facilities on Saudi soil are the key to the survival of the House of Saud. For Washington it is an issue involving the most vital interests of the American people.
But before revising U.S. policy, Washington should change its state of mind vis-a-vis Riyadh. The United States has a tendency to overstate Saudi power and influence and to underestimate its own leverage with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis now owe their very existence to the United States. They know it; that's why they are ready to foot the bill for the American operation. The United States should realize that and act accordingly.
(Jacob Goldberg is senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center.)