Friday, November 7, 2008

Saving the Saudis

By Douglas Kohn

When America’s closest historical permanent alliances come to mind, the names that usually come up in conversation are Britain, Canada, the rest of the English speaking world, Continental Europe, Japan and Israel. We have other allies to be sure, but few of them are on as deep a level of cooperation and common values as these.

However, an alliance routinely overlooked by many in America who wish we did not need it is the Saudi monarchy. Reminiscent of the absolute monarchies of 15th Century Europe, this oil powered ally of America’s is no less significant than any other. Relations were first forged at the outset of World War II by President Roosevelt very much under the auspices of Winston Churchill. The Saudi royal family, though they have to carefully manage their behavior publicly, is currently our most important ally in the Middle East. I think it would suffice it to say that in the short term, they may even be more important than Israel.

The Saudi royal family is firmly pro American. The Saudi people are not. This is a massive disconnect. There are many threats to the Saudi family but their power does not seem to be in serious question. At any given time there are some 200 wealth wielding members of the al Sauds and another 7000 in the extended family. The state’s infrastructure and traditions are firmly still in place and the standard of living has been rising on the back of oil exports.

The world is changing. Al Qaeda has been beaten from much of the Middle East and the alliance between the al Sauds and the Wahhabist (anti American) clerics remains. Al Qaeda’s intellectual firmament remains the Wahhabist ideology. But there are many nuanced issues that deserve their own attention.

The first is that Saudi Arabia remains an ally despite being a despotic repressive regime at home. The al Sauds are experienced in the art of statecraft and need peace and security for themselves. America’s oil for security pact with Saudi Arabia may be under strain. However, it seems the internal security of the monarchy, though challenged, is not in critical danger.

Unusually for many countries around the world, the Saudi official position, while officially impartial, is known to be friendly and comfortable with George Bush, in spite of his mistake in Iraq. The al Sauds have long ties with the Bush family and with the Republican Party. The Saudis will meet with President Elect Obama this week and size him up for the first time. Among inner circles within the Saudi Court it is known that hearing his calls for hope and change ring hollow and even cause nervousness. Stability is the word of the day. The Stability of Saudi Arabia and the Greater Middle East is necessary for furthering American interests there and facing up to an increasingly belligerent Iran. Saudi Arabia will also be a key diplomatic force in pushing through any Israeli Palestinian Peace Accord.

If Obama pushes the Saudis away he will be making a colossal failure. The last monarchy that the US turned its back on was Iran, and it then became one of our fiercest enemies, blocking every move America has made to try to set up stable regimes in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan (though it originally cooperated with us in Afghanistan). The Saudis knew that in ousting Saddam from Iraq, the only check in the region on Iranian power and influence had been removed. Iran was now free to play a chess proxy game across the region to increase its influence at the expense of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and our smaller Gulf allies. The Russian invasion of Georgia further complicated that country’s value to Western Strategic schemes in the region.

This issue has a very long history. If one goes back to read the old New York Times articles from the 70s they railed on and on about how the Shah was running the most evil and brutal regime ever created. The truth is he was running an enlightened monarchy and was favoring eventually introducing democracy. He had also built a country with a highly educated workforce and vast industrial and mining base. But the Times and eventually the Democratic Party did not let up. When finally Ayatollah Khomeini took over, there was nothing left but for America to elect Reagan to get the hostages out.

We must not make that mistake today. It seems that even on its own the Saudi Monarchy will stay in place. But President Elect Obama must not try to take a moral stand on them. They are slowly reforming. It is painful to not see it go further but the alliance must be maintained. They are now the key to holding back Iran.


nolita said...

Yes, Japan is the first country I think of when I think "closest historical permanent alliances"


thekohnman69 said...

Actually Nolita, America never had a permanent alliance prior to the 1940 Atlantic Charter. Every other time America worked with a foreign power militarily it was on a temporary basis. After World War II, in the context of the Cold War, we signed permanent alliances with many nations, including Japan. America maintains 47,000 soldiers at our military base in Okinawa. We cooperate with Japan on every level of government, not just the military, and we are sworn to their defense for as long as it remains in our laws.

Our great founding fathers, foremost George Washington, advised us to stay away from permanent foreign alliances. This was good advice and I have a feeling America will be paying more attention to it in the near future. The time of the Soviet Union called for a negotiation with our own values. That time is over. But Japan will remain an ally until there is a massive review of all of America's strategic commitments.

nolita said...

Next time you might want to specify all of that in your article. I know that I certainly don't think of 'closest historical permanent alliances' in legal terms. Also, your definition of 'history' seems to be much shorter than mine.

DSKohn said...

I should not have specify something as tangential as that. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the post war world knows that America has had a very close alliance with Japan. I mentioned it once in an essay describing America's alliance with Saudi Arabia. Elaboration on the relationship with Japan and our other allies is totally and completely unnecessary. The essay was about Saudi Arabia, not Japan. So therefore, I have no responsibility to describe in detail every American alliance, whether it's Japan or another country.

nolita said...

At least a parenthetical "since WWII" might have helped. Just a suggestion, amigo.