After the release of the Iraq Study Group's report last November, many in Washington despaired over the unwillingness of the Bush administration to listen to the author's pleas for a return to the old "realist" foreign policy in the Middle East that had dominated American thinking for decades before Bush's dreaded "neocons" took over.
But those laments were premature. Any doubt that the administration is back in the hands of the "realists" was dispelled by the announcement last week that the United States was planning to sell approximately $20 billion in advanced weaponry (including kits to turn conventional weapons into "smart bombs") to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Myth of Moderation
The idea that the best way for the United States to achieve its goals in the region is to bribe corrupt Arab authoritarian regimes and monarchies which they wrongly label "moderate" is a cornerstone of the thinking of men like former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the leaders of the ISG realpolitikists.
So a Saudi regime that produced a generation of Al Qaeda terrorists including not only the 9/11 murderers but many fighting against us today in Iraq, funds Islamist mosques and hate education directed against both Americans and Jews around the world, and which has been particularly unhelpful in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as unsupportive on Iraq, is now back in the catbird seat in Washington.
While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims there will be restrictions on the use of these weapons, such statements can easily be rendered meaningless once the sale is a done deal.
In other words, you don't have to be a neocon in order to understand that betting on the Saudis to be a constructive force is a sure loser. But ironically, the two actors in this farce that are helping to seal the deal are countries that the Saudis themselves despise: Iran and Israel.
Fear of Iran is the main reasons for the effort to rally the Saudis and the rest of the so-called Arab "moderates" to America's banner. Both America and the Arabs are right to fear the growing power of Tehran, especially in light of its progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons. The idea is that providing the Saudis with more hi-tech weaponry will both deter Iranian adventurism and enable the Saudis to defend themselves if it does not.
But this theory also underpinned past arms sales to the Saudis when it was Iraq and Saddam Hussein that scared them and us. Yet the Saudis did nothing to stop Saddam. So why will they be any more willing to confront the Iranian mullahs and their frontman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? If push ever comes to shove with Iran, the Saudis will keep their toys at home and wait for an overburdened American military to bail them out.
The other guarantor of the arms sale is, of all countries, Israel — the "entity" that the Saudis still pretends doesn't exist.
The administration forestalled congressional backtalk about the deal by gaining Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's advance okay. The Israelis were bought off with a huge increase in military aid that will be the total up to $3 billion per year. Yet the idea that the balance of power in the region is maintained by merely throwing more advanced munitions at both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide is as much a myth as that of Saudi moderation.
The United States has lavished tens of billions of dollars on the other chief Arab "moderate" Egypt since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Egypt's hostility to Israel and willingness to turn a blind eye to the arms buildup in Gaza the last few years has been a huge obstacle to peace. And the fact that Egypt's military has American technology that can match Israel's makes the region more dangerous, not more stable.
Israelis know their country is ultimately dependent on U.S. support. Fortunately, the economic aid that made up half of the $3 billion per year it used to receive from the United States has been phased out. But that progress has now been thrown away by the decision to take a bigger defense deal, even if it will help strengthen the country's weakened deterrence.
Israel-bashers who harp on the aid forget that much of the military-assistance budget is spent in the United States, and strengthens a genuine ally and not a false friend like the Saudis. But it's still bad news for those who understand that Israel's longterm health depends on reducing its dependence on foreign support, not increasing it.
Unfortunately, agreeing to support the Saudi deal is a symptom of the Olmert government's weakness. Since disappointing the United States with its failure to decisively defeat Hezbollah last year, Olmert has opted to avoid even the hint of disagreement, even when Israel's own interests are at stake. By endorsing it faster than even Bush's closest allies in Congress, the chance to either modify the package or raise enough of a ruckus to make the Saudis back down altogether has probably been thrown away.
Not Enough to Criticize
As for congressional Democrats who would, despite the Israeli okay, like to make a stink about the arms deal, they're right to squawk but should use this as more than just another opportunity to blast Bush.
They can and should highlight the myths that have led us once again to put weapons in the hands of an unfriendly regime. But merely harping on the baffling friendship between the Bush and ibn Saud families for quick applause isn't a substitute for a foreign policy of their own that will avoid falling into the old "realist" mousetrap.
As unpopular as the war in Iraq is, actively seeking to hasten defeat there, as many Democrats have done, will place the interests of both America and Israel in an even more dangerous position than they already are, as well as strengthen Iran.
Any criticism of the Saudi deal should also be accompanied by a renewed commitment by both parties to supporting an American response to Iran. Unless Democrats are prepared to stand firm on isolating and pressuring Iran — and to make sure that it will answer to U.S. power if it does acquire nukes — then complaints about the Bush-Saudi alliance will be pointless.
The bottom line here is that neither fear of Iran, loyalty to Bush or deterrence to the current political climate in Jerusalem ought to deter any American from speaking out about the insanity of putting more sophisticated weaponry into the hands of the home office of Islamist extremism.