Almost everyone agrees that overdependence on Middle Eastern oil is bad for America's economy and national security. So why don't we recognize the similar dangers of overdependence on Middle Eastern money to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives?
Gulf State money helped pay for the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and now is funding the armed opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Both causes were backed by the Obama administration and applauded by some humanitarian activists, as well. But in each case -- as in Afghanistan before them -- such money has strengthened dangerous Islamist elements, transforming reformist political causes into dangerous jihadist movements.
For more than a quarter century, Saudi Arabia and the United States have had a grand bargain: they sell us overpriced oil in exchange for virtually unlimited access to our advanced weapons. (Of the $66 billion in U.S. arms sales abroad last year, half went to Saudi Arabia.) In addition, Riyadh agreed to fund U.S. covert operations around the world with its surplus petrodollars.
In the 1970s, the Saudis spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Somalia, South Yemen, and Zaire to bolster embattled U.S. allies. In the mid-1980s, following the Reagan administration's emergency delivery of 400 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh bankrolled the Nicaraguan Contras, thus bypassing congressional aid restrictions and setting the stage for the infamous Iran-Contra scandal.
That was nothing compared to the many hundreds of millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia spent to help Washington finance guerrilla resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Through its support of extremist Arab fighters, and of Islamist schools of indoctrination, Saudi Arabia helped radicalize the region. Its single biggest Afghan client, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, was the resistance leader who invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan and mentored the planner of the attack on the Twin Towers, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
In 2007, Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department's top expert on terrorist finances, testified that "wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia are still funding violent extremists around the world, from Europe to North Africa, from Iraq to Southeast Asia." As Levey told an interviewer, "If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia."
It should come as no comfort, therefore, that Saudi sources, both official and unofficial, have been pouring military supplies into Syria's rebel movement for months. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has encouraged such provisions to supplement its own "non-lethal" aid. "Administration officials say that outsourcing the supply of money and arms to the rebels maintains a crucial distinction that keeps American military fingerprints off a conflict that has already turned into a bloody civil war."
Efforts by CIA officers to steer the arms to non-jihadist groups appear to be of little avail. The resistance movement is increasingly turning Islamist, even joining up with fighters from al Qaeda. The consequences for human rights, especially for Syria's minorities, have been terrible.
In the words of one Indian journalist writing for the New York Times, "As Saudi Arabian arms and money bolster the opposition, the 80,000 Christians who've been 'cleansed' from their homes... by the Free Syrian Army have gradually given up the prospect of ever returning home... The seeming indifference of the international community... is breeding a bitter anti-Americanism among many secular Syrians who see the United States aligning itself with Saudi Arabia, the fount of Wahhabism, against the Arab world's most resolutely secular state."
He is not alone in raising the alarm. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned that by "sending arms instead of working on putting out the fire," Saudi Arabia and Qatar "will leave a greater crisis in the region."
Even some neocons, who for years have championed the downfall of Syria's regime, now sound uneasy about the prospect of Saudi Arabian money dictating the outcome of what increasingly is turning into a regional conflict.
"Washington must stop subcontracting Syria policy to the Turks, Saudis and Qataris," declared Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. "They are clearly part of the anti-Assad effort, but the United States cannot tolerate Syria becoming a proxy state for yet another regional power."
Surely we already have enough dangerous fires to put out, from Islamists attacking a nuclear air base in Pakistan to jihadists rampaging across Northern Africa in the wake of the Libya campaign. The Obama administration is right to resist foolhardy calls for direct military intervention in another sectarian conflict in the Middle East. But outsourcing our intervention to Saudi Arabia is an abdication of responsibility, an evasion of accountability, and a set-up for long-term disaster.
Jonathan Marshall is the author or co-author of five books on international history and politics, including most recently The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Traffic(Stanford University Press, 2012).