In a speech last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” But what is that interest? Blinken did not say. Nor has the Biden administration provided such an explanation on any other occasion.
In fact, an upgrading of the current Saudi-Israeli relationship to include full diplomatic relations would advance no identifiable U.S. national interest. Whatever benefit to the United States is to be gotten from Saudi-Israeli cooperation can be had from the extensive cooperation, including on security matters, that already exists between those two countries, without any exchange of ambassadors and embassies. That cooperation has gone as far as including Saudi and Israeli participation in an airborne military exercise that also included a U.S. Air Force bomber.
Saudi-Israeli normalization would not be a “peace” agreement, given that Saudi Arabia and Israel are not at war. Israel would treat such a move, as it has treated earlier normalization with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as cementing an anti-Iran military alliance — which, far from making the region more peaceful, sharpens lines of conflict and heightens tensions. Normalization would also reduce further any Israeli incentive to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Not making peace with the Palestinians is one of the main points of normalization for Israel.
The Netanyahu government strongly wants full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, as it did earlier with Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco, as a demonstration that it can enjoy relationships with regional states while continuing the occupation and de facto annexation of Palestinian territory. The symbolism of this have-cake-and-eat-it concession to Israel would be the principal significance of normalization of relations with Riyadh.
Far from having a positive interest in any of this, the United States has a negative interest in perpetuation of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of that conflict’s continuing and recently escalating violence and contribution to regional instability and because of how the close U.S.-Israeli relationship associates the United States in the eyes of the world with the suppression of Palestinian rights. And yet, the Biden administration has, for reasons it will not explain publicly, adopted Saudi-Israeli normalization as a goal and seems prepared to pay an up-front price to attain it.
The earlier normalization between Israel and some other Arab states did not reflect any regional kumbaya, as demonstrated by how the Trump administration needed side-payments to the Arab governments involved to make the normalization happen. Those side-payments had costs in the form of exacerbating rather than relieving regional tensions. The payment to the UAE was a sale of F-35 aircraft, which encourages a further arms race in the Persian Gulf and increases the military reach of a country that already has intervened with air power as far away from its own territory as Libya. The payment to Morocco was the Trump administration’s breaking with previous U.S. policy and the international consensus regarding the Western Sahara dispute by supporting Morocco’s claim to the territory — an abandonment of neutrality that exacerbated tensions between Morocco and Algeria and complicated international efforts to resolve the dispute.
Now Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is demanding his own side-payments, in the form of more unrestricted arms transfers, U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, and assistance in building a Saudi nuclear program. It would be bad enough to give MbS concessions of any sort in pursuit not of U.S. interests but instead something that another foreign regime wants. As Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut aptly put it, “If we’re going to enter into a relationship with the Saudis where we’re doing more significant arms sales, it should be in exchange for better behavior toward the United States, not just better behavior toward Israel.” It is even worse when MbS’s demands have additional problems of their own.
The demand regarding a Saudi nuclear program carries a major downside in increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. MbS has explicitly raised the possibility of Saudi Arabia making a nuclear weapon. He tied that possibility to whether Iran makes a nuclear weapon, and Iran currently is not doing so.
But the significant expansion of Iran’s nuclear program following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the multilateral agreement that had severely restricted that program raises the prospect, if Saudi Arabia builds its own nuclear program, of mutual suspicions leading to a race in nuclear capabilities that could easily get out of control. This would be a version of a security dilemma, with each side of this Persian Gulf rivalry reading, or misreading, the other side’s moves in erecting an ostensibly civilian nuclear program as signaling a decision to build a bomb.
Saudi Arabia has so far refused to sign what is known as a 123 Agreement, a formula that has permitted U.S. assistance to civilian nuclear power programs in other countries but keeps uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication out of those countries to avoid risk of the program being diverted to military purposes. Saudi officials have talked instead about a “nuclear Aramco,” referring to how the oil enterprise with that name began as a joint venture between the kingdom and several U.S. oil companies. But once it got the technology and infrastructure it seeks, including the technology of uranium enrichment, nothing would stop Riyadh from turning a nuclear Aramco — just as happened to the oil Aramco — into a wholly Saudi operation.
It is unclear exactly what kind of security guarantees the Saudis have in mind as another demand they are placing on the United States, but it is difficult to envision any formula that would serve U.S. interests and would not instead raise the risk of the United States being dragged into someone else’s quarrels. This already happened with the highly destructive Saudi air war against Yemen, which was carried out with U.S. assistance.
Added U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia would carry the moral hazard of leading MbS to feel freer to engage in additional Yemen-like violent mischief.
A silver lining of the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 — claimed by Yemeni Houthis, but widely blamed on Iran — was that the absence of any U.S. rush to assist Saudi Arabia encouraged the Saudis to conclude that their security requires rapprochement with regional rivals rather than continued confrontation. This led eventually to the Chinese-brokered restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which the Biden administration, to its credit, welcomed. Giving MbS a security guarantee that might encourage renewed confrontation would undo much of the relaxation in regional tensions and would heighten the risk of new wars.
Saudi Arabia clearly is an important regional state. The United States needs to have extensive relations with it and to find ways to work with it on specific matters where the interests of the two countries run parallel. But there is no reason for the United States to side automatically or even semi-automatically with the Saudis in whatever regional contests or quarrels they engage in. Saudi Arabia shares almost no fundamental values with the United States. It has a thuggish, autocratic political system that is the least democratic in the Middle East, it is religiously intolerant and has fostered violent religious extremism, and it is a gross human rights violator — including in ways that have touched the United States, such as the state-sanctioned murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
No amount of cozying up to MbS will build a special relationship leading him to defer to U.S. wishes and U.S. interests. President Biden should have learned this when his friendly fist bump with MbS amid hopes of Saudi cooperation with Western oil needs was followed by the hopes going unrealized. Saudi Arabia continues to work with its fellow oil producer Russia through OPEC+ and makes decisions about oil production levels that maximize revenues for both Saudi Arabia and Russia — Western economies be damned. The Saudi-Russian relationship has entailed a Saudi policy of neutrality toward Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Riyadh’s recent welcoming of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro was another indication of Saudi willingness to have positive relationships with U.S. foes.
MbS almost certainly sees himself as being in a strong bargaining position relative to the Biden administration. A U.S. president who before coming into office had said he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” has not only dropped that posture but is having U.S. diplomats talk about what benefits can be bestowed on MbS’s regime. That regime also has just scored one of its biggest victories in the sportswashing of its sordid international image, with the PGA Tour of professional golf having caved to the challenge from the Saudi-financed LIV tour and agreed to a merger. If that merger is ultimately finalized, the chairman of the organization that will now oversee all of men’s competitive professional golf in the United States and Europe will be the governor of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.
Interpreting charitably the Biden administration’s motives for its otherwise unexplained push for Saudi-Israeli normalization — that is, overlooking the obvious domestic political motives involved — perhaps the administration wants to try to recover some of the Middle Eastern diplomatic prominence that the Chinese acquired with their role in the Saudi-Iranian normalization. But if it really wants to compete with China diplomatically in the region, it will not be able to do so with the usual American posture of dividing the area rigidly into foes and friends and dealing constructively only with the latter. It needs instead to emulate China in practicing active diplomacy with everyone in the region — which is why China was able to accomplish the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and the United States was not.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.