Here’s a question.
Over just the past few years, the Saudi Arabian government has assassinated a Washington Post journalist and US resident; dragged the United States into a ghastly, years-long war on a neighboring country that has further shredded US global standing; and repeatedly humiliated and threatened the US president while cozying up to his leading global rivals — all while imposing Medieval levels of repression against women, homosexuals, and others, ramping up its execution of dissidents to new highs. Oh, and it’s also now beyond a shadow of a doubt that members of its government were directly complicit in the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, that killed three thousand people, the worst ever attack on US soil.
In light of all this, should the United States:
a) find some way to punish the Saudi government?
b) distance itself from it while maintaining a working relationship out of necessity?
c) sign a mutual defense pact that would obligate US troops to kill and die on its behalf?
If you chose anything other than option c), congratulations, because you’re apparently better equipped to run US foreign policy than the people in charge.
According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who typically has insight into what’s being discussed in this White House, President Joe Biden is “wrestling with whether to pursue the possibility of a US-Saudi mutual security pact,” which he describes as “a NATO-level mutual security treaty that would enjoin the United States to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense if it is attacked (most likely by Iran).” That something along these lines was in the works had been earlier reported by the Times and Wall Street Journal, though this is the most explicit disclosure about just what exactly the “security guarantees” the Saudi government is asking for entail.
This isn’t all. Also in the mix are Saudi demands for US help to develop a civilian nuclear program (the same thing, you’ll note, that the United States and Israeli governments regularly threaten, lay siege to, and bomb Iran over, despite the fact that the Pentagon and US intelligence explicitly acknowledge Iran’s government isn’t actually pursuing a bomb) and easing restrictions on US arms sales to the country for more advanced weaponry (even as, technically, the Saudi government’s brutal war against its neighbor Yemen is still going).
What exactly is the United States getting out of this? One thing, according to Friedman, is that the current far-right Israeli government, which is watering down what remains of the country’s democracy while stealing ever more Palestinian land, make concessions “that would preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.” The other is a deal normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations, an effort that started under Donald Trump and which Biden has been hell-bent on closing, part of a war-hawk push to isolate Iran in the region, and that the Department of Homeland Security itself predicts will fuel more anti-American violence. Fantastic.
It pays to really drill down into just how less-than-paltry the supposed “upsides” of this deal would be. Extracting a promise from Israel to merely “preserve the possibility” of a two-state solution — not actually pursue or even agree to one — is already barely a concession. But given Israel’s rampant theft and occupation of Palestinian land these past decades, it’s doubtful at this point that there’s still a “possibility” to even preserve. It also apparently involves no promise from Israel to end its regular, indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians.
To top it off, it comes when popular support for the Abraham Accords, signed by Israel and the Gulf states in 2020, has plummeted due largely to that very violence. In all likelihood, in other words, this deal would only further weaken global US standing at a time when much of the world already rolls their eyes at Washington’s rhetoric around global “rules,” the sanctity of national sovereignty, and the like.
The move would crash headfirst into and possibly reverse recent positive developments in the region, namely China’s successful mediation of rapprochement between the Saudi and Iranian governments, which dramatically lowered the risk of war. This deal would do the opposite, as an emboldened Israel, which already attacks Iran on a semi-regular basis, could decide it now has an open lane to launch the concerted assault it’s been threatening for years, a war that would almost certainly pull the United States in with it.
Finally, there seems to be little thought about loading the United States up with yet another military alliance that stands to drag the country into yet another war. The United States is currently on the hook to fight wars on behalf of a whopping fifty-one countries in five different continents, thirty-one of them in the lumbering NATO alliance alone. And those are just the ones the United States is legally obligated to defend by treaty — it doesn’t even count US quasi-alliances like its relationship with Israel, where political and military support for the country may as well guarantee US entry into whatever war the ally gets involved in.
There’s a point where entering into too many alliances does the opposite of what it’s meant to do and makes a country less safe, particularly when that country is by far the world’s largest military power and is prone to being swept up in overseas military crusades. When smaller countries know they have the ironclad backing of the gargantuan and trigger-happy US military, this can become a perverse incentive for them to act in irresponsible, even aggressive ways, which the Saudi government already has been doing for the past eight years in Yemen.
This is exactly why behind the scenes, as leaked diplomatic cables documented, NATO officials had grave concerns about actually letting the nationalist Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia into NATO. One Turkish official at the time relayed how the country’s foreign minister “had told him that Georgia hoped to use NATO membership as a means to leverage settlements . . . on Tbilsi’s terms” over its territorial conflicts with Russia.
“But NATO accession was not the means to solve these conflicts, and the [Turkish government] is frustrated that Tbilisi has, in the meantime, been unwilling even to explore developing a dialogue with” one of its secessionist regions, the cable reads.
There are few if any more serious commitments one country can make than to go to war on another country’s behalf. Military alliances shouldn’t be handed out like candy, and at the very least they shouldn’t come with only serious downsides for one of the signers. If nothing else, we can all agree that promising to kill and die for a government that already facilitated an attack on you in the recent past doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.