A few days ago on June 12, 2017, the U.S. Senate narrowly approved the first sale of sophisticated American weapons to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The package proposed by President Trump is estimated to be worth $100 billion in the short run and up to $350 billion over the next ten years. The most controversial armament in the deal are high end guided missiles. Objections to the sale have mostly centered on the failure of linking the deal to human rights inside the Kingdom and to their military activities in Yemen. Surprisingly, neither AIPAC nor the Zionist Organization of America are raising vigorous protests or cautions, unlike their reaction in the 1980s, to the sale of spy planes to the Saudis. The biggest concern in the Jewish community is to the implications of this sale for Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the Middle East. Ultimately, the question becomes how much economic gain for the United States needs to be realized before the scale of military power tips away from Israel?
The big picture here is the new American-Trump view of the Middle East and its complex problems. To some extent, that view coincides with that of the government of Israel, which sees Iran as the main problem in the region. President Trump is looking to arm Iran’s pro-American Arab Sunni enemies against the Iranians. On the other hand, groups like ISIS, our other major declared enemy, is Arab-Sunni as is Al Queda and anti-Saudi. Both the Taliban and Boko Haram are also Sunni and anti-American.
The Saudi response to Sunni Islamic radicalism is complex. On the one hand, all of those groups are anti-Saudi and the Saudi government has taken steps to combat them. On the other hand, the Wahhabi religious philosophy, supported by the Kingdom, is the intellectual seedbed of general Sunni fundamentalism including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. An Islamic revolt against the Saudi monarchy, like what happened in Iran, would then result in ISIS and others taking control of the wealth and military might of the regime.
The ambivalent nature of the relations of monarchy and Islam were recently highlighted in the monarchial Sunni Arab rejection of Qatar. Qatar, also Sunni Arab, has been accused of harboring Sunni and Shia terrorist organizations despite its extensive interactions in the West including air travel and news services. Who is your friend and who is your enemy in today’s Middle East is not a straight forward matter.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the Trump arms proposal is that, in part, it was made possible by the $35 Billion deal concluded by the Obama Administration with Israel. Supposedly that deal guaranteed Israel’s QME, but that was before the Trump deal was announced. Coupled with the American administration’s backing off of moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and it toughening up on new settlement construction, one has to wonder where the United States is really heading at this point.
Jewish critics of the international deal with Iran over the suspension of its nuclear program understandably met with fierce opposition. The relative silence on the Saudi deal is, therefore, most puzzling and worrisome. How long will it be before an enhanced Saudi Arabia or a shored up military dictatorship in Egypt starts down the nuclear path?
Unqualified American support of a pro-Saudi foreign policy is deeply problematic. The Kingdom is not democratic, has a terrible human rights record, does not have a formal peace arrangement with Israel, has a long history of duplicity and, most of all, it is the home of Sunni fundamentalism. Why then are we selling them so much? Money, the old saying goes, cannot buy you love (nor security).
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.