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.