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Blinken appears laser focused on a Saudi-Israel deal, at all costs

Blinken appears laser focused on a Saudi-Israel deal, at all costs

Giving a security guarantee to Riyadh in exchange for normalization would actually put the US at risk

Analysis | Middle East

Amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which in recent weeks spread to direct military exchanges with Iran, Biden administration officials remain convinced they can achieve a broader Middle East peace through an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal which would entail a U.S. security guarantee for Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, said that a U.S.-Saudi security pact is nearing completion. However, Washington should reject this lopsided strategy as it works against U.S. interests and is not practical.

The Biden administration does not appear to be considering an alternative approach. In late March, President Joe Biden said, “I won't go into detail now. But look, I've been working with the Saudis. They are prepared to fully recognize Israel,” re-affirming Washington’s obsession with the Abraham Accords and all its flaws.

Multiple officials continue to push this position, highlighting the administration’s focus on advancing Saudi-Israel relations, especially after Riyadh assisted in taking down Iranian drones and missiles headed toward Israel last month.

The details of a potential deal — including major U.S. concessions — have reportedly not changed. This includes U.S. security guarantees for Riyadh and a green light for its civilian nuclear program in return for normalization with Israel and limiting relations with China. Washington is also reportedly considering security assurances with Israel to sweeten the deal given extensive anti-Saudi sentiments in Congress.

This outline is concerning for multiple reasons. First, it further enmeshes the United States in the Middle East’s security makeup at a time when U.S. citizens broadly support a decreased military role abroad, particularly in the Middle East. Second, it puts the cart before the horse by offering significant incentives to U.S. partners to normalize when every indication suggests these two states already desire normalization anyway.

Both concerns present real threats to U.S. interests. Regarding security guarantees, Washington would promise to commit troops to the defense of both Saudi Arabia and Israel in an unstable region filled with rivalries and ongoing conflicts, reportedly within an understanding short of a NATO Article 5 treaty agreement.

Iran’s destabilizing role — exemplified in its attack on Israel and its aligned militias’ decision to attack U.S. bases in Syria on April 21 for the first time in two months — should raise red flags in this regard. Its rivalries with Israel and Saudi Arabia, alongside broader regional infighting prevalent for decades, risks bringing U.S. forces into a conflict that has nothing to do with America.

This context should matter to American officials, especially today. The region is experiencing the worst instability since at least the Arab Spring revolutions of the early 2010s — when multiple autocratic regimes collapsed in the face of popular upheaval. The destabilizing nature of that moment produced many wars still raging in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. A second round of revolutions in the late 2010s produced the same outcome in Sudan.

Multiple U.S. officials argue the region has not witnessed such instability since 1973. This administration should not take that sentiment lightly — Israel’s war with Hamas and the tit-for-tat hostilities with Iran marks a scary moment for U.S. foreign policy and the region.

American forces are currently in active hostilities with the Yemen-based Houthis over Red Sea shipping security. Until recently, Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria fired on U.S. positions over 180 times, killing three and injuring more than a dozen, and appear to be slowly testing the contours of that strategy today. The April 21 attack highlights that strategy, where U.S. forces are regularly targeted for the actions of Israel and other U.S. partners in the region. The odds of another Israel-Lebanese Hezbollah war remain unacceptably high.

Meanwhile, Washington’s avowed regional partner — Israel — appears increasingly disinterested in preventing a broader regional war, opting to strike an Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 that shifted dynamics further up the escalatory ladder in blatant disregard for basic diplomatic and state sovereignty norms. It does so with an understanding that U.S. forces will face the brunt of any response, arguably goading the U.S. into a conflict with Iran.

No U.S. president can reasonably argue for deeper security guarantees amid those risks. Far too many tripwires threaten to pull the United States into conflict. This says nothing of the wider conflict that Saudi Arabia or Israel could create either accidentally or with their U.S. patron behind them. Indeed, the longest-running U.S. foreign policy theme in the region centralizes U.S. security guarantees for its regional partners, hardening divisions and giving states more confidence to take risks — a classic moral hazard.

For now, a deal appears distant given Israel’s Gaza operation, which is producing substantial anger among Arab populations. Riyadh is currently disincentivized to normalize relations with Israel given fears of another Arab Spring. While some might argue that Saudi-Israeli cooperation against Iran’s recent attack suggests otherwise, this perspective fails to accept Riyadh’s recent shift towards pragmatism — a move supportive of stability that helps advance its Vision 2030 development plans as it shifts from an oil-based economy.

As such, U.S. officials should adopt a restrained approach. Lofty goals often lead Washington to create more problems while only temporarily resolving current ones. Ultimately, the United States can be the “indispensable nation” Biden proclaims it to be without committing to unwieldy security guarantees that put American citizens and broader U.S. interests at stake.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during Blinken's week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, January 8, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool

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