Why selling weapons to the Saudis is a bad idea
By Robert Horenstein
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In late July, the Bush administration announced its intention to sell Saudi Arabia $20 billion in state-of-the-art weaponry. The proposed package, which reportedly includes upgrades to the kingdom’s fighter jets, new naval vessels, and devices that convert conventional missiles into accurate “smart” munitions, is part of a U.S. strategy to counter Iran and secure Saudi cooperation in efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Proponents of the deal contend that there will be a net benefit to U.S. national security and, with proper safeguards, a minimal risk to Israel. As an Aug. 10 editorial in the conservative National Review put it, “If the Saudis do not believe that [America is] utterly committed to their defense, they will seek to appease Iran.” Alternatively, should they end up buying much of the same hardware from another country, the editorial warned, “the natural clout that comes with being the supplier of arms would be denied to us.”
Such arguments notwithstanding, the Saudi arms deal is shortsighted and troubling. Though it may make the Gulf states safer from the Iranian threat, this strategy, in effect, would undermine American counter-terrorism policy and bolster extremists opposed to peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Six years after 9/11, it’s still impossible to speak about funding for terrorism without mentioning Saudi Arabia. According to both the U.S. State Department and U.S. Government Accountability Office, wealthy Saudi donors and unregulated “charities” are a major source of funding not only for Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, but also for the radical Jama’ah al-Islamiyah in Egypt and other anti-Western groups that promote hate-filled extremist ideologies.
Putting the issue in starker terms, former CIA director James Woolsey recently argued, “Saudi Arabia earns about $160 billion from exporting oil, and a big share of that goes to the [ultra-fundamentalist] Wahabbi sect to set up madrassas in Pakistan and other places. And the ideology that’s taught in those madrassas is for all practical purposes the same as al-Qaeda’s.”
In an address before the U.S. Senate earlier this year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) noted that when Americans fill up their gas tanks, “a portion of what you pay finds its way eventually to the government of Saudi Arabia, [which] ends up back-dooring it to various terrorist organizations.”
Even so, wouldn’t America’s “natural clout” be enough to get the Saudis to crack down on funding for terrorism?
It hasn’t happened yet.
Despite the considerable leverage afforded by longstanding security guarantees to the kingdom, the administration hasn’t moved the Saudis beyond mere lip service. Five years ago, for example, the Saudi government announced the creation of a national commission that would oversee charities, purportedly to ensure that funds didn’t end up in the hands of terrorists. The commission is still not operational.
It’s one thing to plug a reliable ally into American air- and missile-defense systems. It’s quite another to prop up a regime that is part of the problem when it comes to the war on terrorism.
Saudi Wahabbi clerics have preached and recruited for terror in Iraq, Saudi money has sustained the Sunni insurgency there and the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq have been—you guessed it—Saudi citizens.
Alarmingly, the problem isn’t confined to the Middle East. With deep pocketbooks and religious conviction—and an official Saudi policy of ignoring their activities—the Wahabbis have bankrolled Islamic groups in the United States that adhere to a militant ideology.
One such organization was the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity in Texas that federal authorities shut down in 2001, designating it as a “Global Terrorist” group. Holy Land officials are currently on trial for allegedly channeling millions of dollars to Hamas.
Saudi Arabia also is underwriting the development and dissemination of overtly biased social studies curricula for American public high schools. Of particular concern to Jewish organizations, these teaching materials offer uncritical praise for the Arab world and denigrate the Jewish religious and historical connection to the land of Israel.
As if all this weren’t enough to sway opinion against the proposed deal, there’s an important moral question as well: Should the United States be selling advanced weapons to one of the most repressive regimes in the world? What message are we sending when we strengthen a government that denies freedom of religion to non-Muslims, fosters religious hatred in its schools and deprives women of fundamental human rights?
As part of its overall plan, the administration also is proposing a 15-percent increase in military assistance to Israel over the next 10 years, making it tricky for the pro-Israel community to oppose the Saudi arms package. Nonetheless, if there’s a groundswell of opposition in Congress, it may force the administration at least to downgrade the Saudi component.
Bottom line: Future policy should require a change in Saudi behavior in return for American-made weaponry. Until the Saudis begin to play a positive role, anyone perceiving a net benefit to U.S. national security from a well-armed Saudi Arabia is seeing—to use a figure of speech the desert kingdom can relate to—a mirage.
Robert Horenstein is the staff director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland Community Relations Committee. This article was originally published in the Oct. 1 Jerusalem Report.