Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | September 19, 2010

Reader Pick: Iran, Saudis, US, and Israel

TOC regular Zoltan Newberry brings up big topics in his comments at my last post, and I realized I should respond with a new post rather than sending that one off-topic and into the stratosphere.  ZN writes:

I wish our hostess would turn her astute attention to this very real issue, the power of American military technology and its relation to Israel. For the first time, the new bomber/interceptors Israel is getting will be restricted in various ways. In the meantime, Saudi, the nation which sent us three quarters of the 9/11 murderers, is treated like our rich uncle who must eat first and get everything he wants, and this is the pattern under both Bush and Obama. I gather a planeload of Saudi Royals and their servants was allowed to leave shortly after 9/11 while all others were grounded for weeks.

One of the top Saudi Princes was a college classmate of my best friend. The man was and probably still is one of the most arrogant, sneering individuals he has ever known.

And these are supposed to be our trusted allies!


Second comment from ZN:

I will answer the question myself and see if our hostess and others agree.

It’s the money, honey. The storied thing called “Arab Hospitality” (‘my tent is your tent’) most likely explains why so many in London, New York and Washington, DC in unison ask how high when the Saudi FM and his hundred cousins asks them to jump.

Never mind “The Israel Lobby,” these guys in robes have bought so many politicians, university presidents, and CEOs it ain’t funny. And the other part of their strategic largess has gone to schools and mosques all over the world (including here) which incite hatred and violence on a daily basis.

There’s certainly a pattern of cutting Saudi Arabia special breaks, one that slices across time, parties, and presidential administrations.  But what Obama’s doing now is something else.

I wrote about the Saudi arms sale at “contentions” this past week, because it’s not just how much they’re being offered, it’s the kind of weapons:

I also wrote about the Israeli concerns in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter sale (the ones ZN mentions above, referencing constraints on their ability to put their own systems in it):

Regarding the F-35’s design constraints, that’s not something that will put Israel at a disadvantage in the near term (i.e., the next decade).  But if the principle of non-interchangeable, non-upgradable avionics were to be accepted by Israel, it would definitely make her more dependent on US technological standards.  It would keep the IAF on a tether that could, one day, become a vulnerability.  Previous US administrations have always understood this and made accommodating it a priority.

As I outline at “contentions,” the design of the F-35 is the inherent obstacle to accommodating Israel’s normal requirements in a fighter-jet buy.  What the Obama administration has done, however, is simply decline to show solicitude for Israel’s concerns or look for a compromise solution.  It has adopted a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.  I have no doubt that Netanyahu signed a groundbreaking defense cooperation agreement with Russia this month – Russia – because of the bad vibes coming from Washington on this and numerous other topics.

Another diplomatic snub – in some ways worse – occurred this past week when the UN Human Rights Council convened in Geneva.  Under Obama the US has taken a seat on the Council, although we distanced ourselves from it for decades, under both Democrats and Republicans, because of the absurdity of its typical membership.  The Council excluded Israeli diplomatic observers from its sessions, as it routinely does (while allowing observers from the Palestinian Authority), and the US allowed that to be done without challenge.

In some ways, Obama’s impassive attitude toward Israel is worse that active hostility:  because the Americans at home have trouble seeing what’s different.  Our active collusion in the Human Rights Council’s exclusion of Israel is something almost no one in the US, outside of a few journalists and bloggers, has even heard of.  The F-35 design issue is one almost no one understands.  It’s arcane, and hard to put into terms that make it actionable through the blunt instrument of politics.  It’s the kind of thing our allies have to rely on diplomats, and long-established industry ties, to broker for them with goodwill.

The goodwill is seeping away under Obama, but the official structure of US-Israeli ties remains in place.  This is a dangerous position for Israel – ostensibly tethered to a security framework that may well undermine her security – and I’ve been watching Netanyahu and (Avigdor) Lieberman reach out to broaden Israel’s base of international ties since they took Obama’s measure last year.  The charm offensive through Latin America, Central Asia, Africa, the Far East, and Eastern Europe hasn’t just been for kicks, or to check off “smart diplomacy” blocks.  The Israelis have good reason to be concerned about the stability of the security situation that depends on their US alliance.

One big reason for that, other than the perfunctory and unaccommodating nature of Obama’s posture with Israel, is his eagerly accommodating posture with Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Middle East in general.  As I wrote at “contentions,” the big Saudi weapons buy is for a major land war.  It’s not for defending Saudi territory against Iran.  That won’t involve a major land war – and even if it did, the Saudis don’t need all the power-projection weaponry for that.  They’re buying and/or upgrading 450 aircraft of the type we would use to undertake an expeditionary invasion.  The Saudis will be better armed for ground assault than the UK, if all these weapons are delivered.

No one – literally, no one, other than the United States – could invade Saudi Arabia and force a defensive campaign of that kind on her.  Iran can’t do it.  She doesn’t have the forces – the massive tank army, the infantry fighting vehicles, the assault helicopters, the long-range strike aircraft.  Saudi Arabia can only be buying all these aircraft for the purpose of waging a campaign at some distance from her own territory.  But she can’t be contemplating a counterattack into Iran; the Saudis will never have the manpower for that, and the terrain is prohibitive anyway.

If the Saudis envisioned heading an Arab coalition, however, in which Egypt provided the major infantry manpower and Egypt and Jordan provided the tank armor, the proposed aircraft buy would make perfect sense.  The object of such a campaign concept would be the Levant.  But there’s more complexity to this than the simplistic suggestion that the Saudis want to attack and overrun Israel.

Iran is in the mix for this Saudi weapons buy, but not in the way implied by the MSM reporting.  The Saudi Kingdom doesn’t need these weapons to defend itself against Iran.  It needs them to mount a rivalry to Iran for control of Israel and Lebanon.  Every increase in Iran’s influence over that area – through Hezbollah and Iran’s ally Syria – brings Tehran closer to effectively occupying a position the Arab nations consider theirs to gain control of.  Ultimately, establishing a “caliphate” headquartered in the Middle East requires eliminating Israel and taking Jerusalem as a prize.  The Arab nations don’t want Iran to get there first; but Iran has been working toward that goal for some time now.

The stabilizing factor – the factor that has given everyone a reason to wait – has been US power, exerted in the Middle East according to a policy of our own.  That factor has been a prohibitive condition for those watching for an opening.  What each motivated actor senses now is that an opening is coming soon, because the US is no longer trying to maintain a balance of power, as the best condition for our own interests.  Instead, we are weakening our backing of some, through inattention or design, and bolstering our backing of others.  We’re beginning to look partisan and opportunistic in a way we never have before – more like the Brits, in the period 1920-1948.

There are multiple reasons for this, not solely related to our stance on arms sales or the Middle East peace process.  Our eagerness to proclaim “combat” over in Iraq (whether it’s a meaningful posture or not), our ambivalent approach to Afghanistan, our dithering posture and strategic sclerosis with respect to NATO, the embarrassingly disadvantageous New START treaty, our deficit spending and importunate attitude toward China and the yuan, our program of defense cuts, and of course our failure to do anything effective about Iran’s nuclear program – all combine to make us look weak, and look like we come into town as a needy prospective ally, rather than as an ally for the needy.

There’s a lot more to this than the American elite liking Saudi money.  Some of them do, for sure, but that matters little if we are strong and hewing to a policy that is advantageous for us.  Such advantage includes, from several perspectives, Israel’s presence and Western influence in the Middle East.  In 20 months, however, Obama has managed to leach quite a bit of the energy and initiative out of our national security policy.  We still have a ways to fall, but not as far as Americans reflexively think.  The rest of the world, outside the editorial boards of Western Europe, is pretty clear on what’s going on.

Strong, relatively impartial, and acting in our own interests, we were a stabilizing factor in the Middle East.  Partisan, feckless, and disquieting to our own long-time allies and partners – but still heavily armed – we’re a destabilizing factor: which is why there’s such a rush on by the nations of the region to roll out the welcome mat for Russia, and shoulder each other off of the Levant.  (Turkey’s becoming a major player in that dynamic now too.)  When you’re strong, things like Saudi money are “factors” and “countervailing influences.”  When you’re weak, everything is a problem.



  1. “Heavily armed”, she says. Pshaw. OC often writes, occasionally in some considerable detail, about the aggressive disarmament campaign undertaken under Barry (and which to be fair was begun under Dick Cheney and GHWB and continued with varying degrees of intensity even up to the coming to office of our current Dear Leader). (In fact there is a piece in this months Commentary on that very subject but I have not yet had a chance to peruse it). The relative “preponderance” of U.S. military power is collapsing possibly by the year and is on a trajectory to crash over the next couple of decades at the most.

    Unfortunately there is very little talk of actually beginning even a slight rebuilding of our badly depleted military and indeed discussion of looking at the military for cuts even among people such as the “Young Guns”, Mike Pence, Gov. Daniels et al. To be sure out current fiscal state requires the greatest attention and one can understand that those who wish to remedy it (however aware they may be of the weakness of our military – and indeed skimping on military spending has been the tendency of such well now “soft-power” doves as Thacher, Eisenhower, heck even Frederic the Great). Still, if this problem isn’t addressed promptly we may find a world more unstable, much more dangerous and much less conducive to the kind of prosperity which will be required to get our finances in order, however prudent the domestic spending and taxing regime (and we have reason to be skeptical here too – lets hope hope the Wicked Witch of the Very North-West – or is it actually East up there – you can see Russia from Alaska you know).

    In the meantime I really want to express my gratitude for OC’s post at Contentions which I read religiously. I do not, unfortunately, always have the time to consider the content at tOC as carefully as I would wish (indeed I’m triple tasking as I type) but make sure to pick up the valuable nuggets over there.

  2. Thanks. You are a rising star.

    You say what’s been going on has been clear to many outside of major western editorial offices, and I think you mean it is certainly clear to the Chinese, Russians and Israelis.

    Yep, the French do not care, but your clear reasons why the men in robes want a great air force are stunning.

    Normally, I find “Commentary” articles far too long, but, in this case, I hope they will have you expand this into an exhaustive article on Saudi intentions. I would like to know how many royals are alums of Harvard, Princeton, Hopkins, Stanford, Georgetown and Yale where the policy troops gather and think, how many departments and chairs and professorships they have funded at our universities and think tanks. I think we need to follow the money, because you have just elucidated my opinion that its the money, honey.

    This is very disquieting and I do hope that good people from George Gilder to George Will to Glenn Beck to Sara Palin to Charles Krauthammer will notice and choose to help you sound the alarm.

    PS: Could you adopt whatever software might help to make this blog more user friendly, such as edit functions?

    • In the Ballot Box topic, I talked about the Democratic party, California and “trust fund babies”. They all attend schools like Stanford, etc. So I guess the gang from Saudi Arabia are the ultimate examples. Look what they did to Afghanistan, destroyed the lives of women and girls, blew up 1500 year old Buddhist statues and harbored international terrorists and if the going got too rough they return to the Emirates and luxuriate. Hopefully what can fight people like that (all males with emotional problems from being kept trust fund “children”) is information. I’m a big supporter of women writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan. I can’t fight such people with weapons, but I can fight such people with information.

  3. That is to say that I hope the Wicked Witch of the Very North-West LOOSES.

  4. Guys, thanks for the usual great, zesty comments. I’ll be mostly away from the computer until Wed morning and won’t have time to make good reponses until then.

    ZN — I do want to reply on your question about blog features. Because this is a WordPress free-hosted blog, I can’t use plug-ins, so that limits the additional features I can have. I haven’t checked for a while to see if WP has added a comments-editing feature in the free-hosted package, so I’ll do that. I’m working on expanding the use of the features WP does offer, but one of the ones they don’t have today is a “wall” plug-in, which I’d really like to have.

    That said, running my own blog hosted for a fee isn’t an option right now. It costs somewhat more than the monthly fee with start-up costs (e.g., spam software), and with multiple blogging gigs (and new offers coming in), I find that the time just wouldn’t be there to do the behind-the-curtain IT management.

    Anyway, more when I’m back in the saddle on Wed.

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