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Rethinking the Saudi Arms Deal

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Last week the State Department and the Pentagon jointly announced the largest arms sale in U.S. history -- dozens of fighter planes and attack helicopters supplemented by transport helicopters, over 16,000 bombs, 10,000-plus laser guided missiles, machine guns, ammunition, night vision devices and other weapons systems too numerous to describe here. The total price tag of over $60 billion is three times as large as the next largest sale in U.S. history, a 1981 offer of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. The only difference: the earlier deal drew heavy fire from Congress, passing by a margin of 52 to 48. The current deal is likely to sail through without even a hearing, much less any serious effort to block it.

It's not just the Saudi deal. Conventional arms sales in general have received less scrutiny than they did during the arms sales booms of the 1970s through the early 1990s. Congress passed the Arms Export Control Act in the late 1970s in the midst of concerns over U.S. sales to rivals (as with the arming of both sides in the conflict between Greece and Turkey over Cypress), to one side or another of a civil war (as in Angola), or to repressive regimes (such as Iran under the Shah). The sheer size of the trade was also a concern, as newly rich members of the OPEC oil cartel went shopping for top-of-the-line weaponry, with the encouragement of the Nixon and Ford administrations. Jimmy Carter's administration almost came to a deal with the Soviet Union to curb sales to regions of conflict, and after the first Gulf War there were talks among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council about limiting arms sales to the Middle East and other regions of concern. The talks collapsed, in part because the U.S. was boosting its sales to the region even as it talked the language of restraint. The size of the trade eventually dropped off, more for economic reasons than due to effective regulatiion, but at least there were serious policy debates about the wisdom of individual sales and the direction of overall arms sales policy.

Turning back to the current situation, is the Middle East really short on advanced weaponry? Wouldn't it make sense from a security point of view to promote a reduction of weapons in the region rather than an increase? Will Saudi Arabia remain a stable U.S. ally for the 15 to 20 years it will take to fully implement the $60 billion deal? Does anyone remember the Shah of Iran?

Not so, unfortunately. The Obama administration has justified the Saudi deal based on a number of questionable arguments: that the mega-deal will send a signal of U.S. support to potential adversaries of the Saudi regime; that it will allow the Saudis to better protect their borders and their oil installations; and that it will make it easier for Saudi forces to act in concert with U.S. forces in the event of a conflict.

As to the idea of sending a signal to potential adversaries (by which the administration can only mean Iran), the "signal" in question is unlikely to have the intended result. If anything, the Iranian regime is likely to use the Saudi deal as yet another excuse to pursue or accelerate its nuclear ambitions. After all, what could 72 F-15 combat aircraft possibly be used for? Iran has no air force worth the name, so the planes for the Saudis aren't likely to be used to defend against Iran. They could be used as part of a U.S.-led attack on Iran, assuming they were integrated into a well functioning air force with well-trained pilots; but that is also an unlikely outcome. So, the F-15s are either useless (and therefore a waste of money) or unnecessarily provocative (and therefore contrary to genuine U.S. and Saudi security interests).

Will planes, bombs, and attack helicopters be of use in protecting Saudi oil installations? Probably not. The most likely route of attack would be surreptitiously planting a bomb or bombs, not attacking in recognizable groups that could be deterred or counter-attacked by aerial bombing or firing guns or missiles from helicopters. In theory the armed helcopters that are part of the deal could be used to hover near key installations and keep an eye out for potential saboteurs, but that is likely to be futile effort (not to mention being hugely expensive and logistically challenging).

One place that the new weaponry might be used is on Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen, where Houthi rebels and Al Qaeda operatives are present. But bombing alleged Al Qaeda sanctuaries or Houthi forces in northern Yemen are more likely to inflame the local population against Saudi Arabia and its arms supplier -- the United States -- than they are to weaken Al Qaeda.

That leaves one major rationale for the sale: money. In exchange for giving a huge boost to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other U.S. weapons contractors at a time when Pentagon spending is levelling off (although not being reduced in real terms), the Saudi government probably feels that sending boatloads of money to U.S. defense contractors will further cement its relationship with Washington so that the U.S. will come to their aid in a jam. But are large weapons deals the only way to forge strong relations?

Given the absence of any meaningful opposition in Congress, the Saudi sale is probably a done deal. But it appears to be only the first in a series of major deals in the works. Next time, the public and the Congress should ask some tough questions before letting our government and our companies pour more weapons into the Middle East.