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A security pact with Saudi Arabia would be a disaster for US interests

For one, desperately giving into demands will mean that the Kingdom — and Israel — will soon be asking for more.

Analysis | Middle East

As the Biden administration continues to pursue a normalization deal with Israel and Saudi Arabia, supporters of a U.S. security guarantee for the Saudis have started making their case in public. 

The Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, took to the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal earlier this week to sell a U.S. defense commitment to Riyadh as “the foundation upon which true regional harmony can be built” and used the example of Washington’s treaty with South Korea as a model. 

A new formal security commitment is one of the biggest Saudi demands as part of their steep price for normalizing relations with Israel, and recent reports suggest that the Biden administration is seriously entertaining the idea. 

President Biden should shut this down now. The U.S. does not need and cannot afford any additional security commitments. It certainly shouldn’t be pledging to send its soldiers to fight on behalf of a despotic monarchy that has been waging an aggressive war against its poorer neighbor for most of the last ten years. The U.S. has already put its military personnel in harm’s way too many times on behalf of the Saudis, and there should be no guarantee to do so in the future.

A formal defense commitment to Saudi Arabia is unacceptable and contrary to U.S. interests, and it is far too large of a bribe to give Riyadh just so that it will establish relations with Israel. 

The case for a U.S. commitment to fight for the Saudis is weak on the merits. The U.S. does not have vital interests at stake that would warrant making a pledge to defend the kingdom. It is also unnecessary. Iran isn’t about to invade or even attack Saudi Arabia. Aside from the strikes on the ARAMCO facility at Abqaiq in 2019, which were themselves a reaction to the Trump administration’s economic war, Iran and Saudi Arabia have no history of direct clashes. 

Cohen’s comparison with Korea is bizarre. For one thing, the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia is nothing like the decades-long hostility between North and South Korea. Iran has no interest in conquering the kingdom, and it lacks the means to do it even if it wanted to try. Unlike North Korea, Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and despite the best efforts of the U.S. and Israeli governments in the last few years their government has still not decided to pursue them. 

Creating a stronger U.S.-Saudi security relationship in opposition to Iran would likely make regional tensions worse and might encourage hardliners in Iran to pursue more confrontational policies. Far from fostering “true regional harmony,” this would stoke conflict by expanding the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf. 

It would also encourage the Saudi government to become more reckless on the assumption that the U.S. would be there to bail them out. If constant U.S. reassurances enabled earlier periods of what Barry Posen has called “reckless driving” by clients, a formal defense commitment would lead to even more of the same. 

Iran hasn’t started a conventional war against its neighbors in centuries, and it has not fought with its neighbors except when attacked. If anything, the Iranian government is the one that has reason to worry about external attacks. They are the ones that have been routinely threatened with illegal military action for the last fifteen years because of their nuclear program. A security commitment to the Saudis wouldn’t be needed to protect against Iranian aggression, but it could very well pave the way for launching attacks on Iran. 

The U.S. would be needlessly locking itself into a regional rivalry in perpetuity, and that would reinforce and harden the divisions that recent rapprochements between Iran and its neighbors had started to weaken. 

The Israeli government isn’t interested only in backing a U.S. defense commitment to the Saudis. According to Axios, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also hoping to get the U.S. to agree to a security agreement with Israel that is focused on Iran. The Biden administration’s apparent eagerness to get a deal with Israel and Saudi Arabia has encouraged both governments to ask for increasingly expensive gifts. That doesn’t say much for the Biden administration’s management of its relationships with these clients.

As journalist Gregg Carlstrom observed, “This whole thing is like a reverse masterclass in negotiations: signal that you’re desperate, that your entire regional policy hinges on getting a deal, and you wind up subjecting yourself to ever-higher demands from your junior partners.”

Carlstrom is right. American concessions to Israel and Saudi Arabia to facilitate their normalization would just increase their appetite for more benefits. At the end of his appeal for a U.S. commitment to the Saudis, Cohen makes a point of saying that even a U.S. security guarantee for Riyadh isn’t going to be good enough to satisfy Israel on the Iran front. 

He writes, “This solution is no substitute for the ceaseless efforts of the international community, and of Israel, to prevent the Iranian ayatollah regime from attaining nuclear military capabilities.” He wants there to be a “credible military threat” against Iran as well, and we don’t have to guess which government would be footing the bill and bearing the burden of making and possibly carrying out that threat.

Cohen’s endorsement of a U.S. security guarantee for the Saudis is useful in that it reminds us that the real purpose of establishing closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia is to forge a regional coalition intent on conflict with Iran. The Israeli government was disheartened earlier this year when Iran and Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic ties, but now they are encouraged to see that the Biden administration seems prepared to give away the store to get their anti-Iranian strategy back on track. 

Increasing U.S. security commitments in the Middle East makes no sense in terms of larger U.S. goals, either. The last thing that the U.S. needs today is to be diverting even more attention and resources to the region that consumed its foreign policy for the last 20 years, but that is exactly what will happen if the U.S. makes the mistake of pursuing this deal with Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Congress needs to step up now and reject a new security commitment to the Saudis. 

The U.S. needs to be reducing its military footprint in the Middle East and disentangling itself from clients that have proven to be liabilities. Biden would be making a terrible mistake if he went in the opposite direction by saddling the U.S. with more security dependents and obligations. The administration needs to change course, and if they don’t Congress should move to block any deal that they reach.

Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman (Wikimedia Commons); Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (World Economic Forum); President Biden(White House)
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