Democrats want drastic sanctions for Saudis, but breaking with the kingdom is not so easy | national news

President Franklin Roosevelt first met the King of Saudi Arabia in the closing months of World War II, ostensibly to have the ambitious American leader secure a place in British-held Palestine for 10,000 displaced Jews.

But what emerged from the fateful meeting of February 1945 – apart from a deep personal relationship between leaders who saw each other as like-minded – became one of the most important and enduring global arrangements of the last century. , well beyond the “weapons and oil security” the two countries negotiated aboard the USS Quincy.

“More important, in a sense, for the long term was the American belief that an oil shortage was still on the horizon,” historian Scott Montgomery of the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies told Reuters. History in 2018, based on stories. of the time, “and could only really be mediated by the gigantic, cheaply mined reserves beneath the Saudi desert”.

Rarely have these fears materialized as abruptly as they did over the past month, following the deadly decision by the OPEC+ oil-producing cartel orchestrated by Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut production and effectively raising US gas prices – a not-so-subtle scheme weeks before the US midterm elections – at a time when the West seeks to punish Moscow for its devastating invasion of Ukraine.

The move angered a wide range of U.S. political leaders, particularly Democrats, fearing back-to-back losses in November. They now seem more ready than ever to dismantle an 80-year relationship that is one of America’s most transactional – and, most would say, morally compromised – centered around more than $100 billion in sales deals. active weapons.

Several current and former officials and analysts believe the move is long overdue.

“Too often, American security cooperation is seen as a right and not the instrument of American foreign policy that it really is,” says Elias Yousif, research analyst at the think tank’s Conventional Defense Program. Stimson Center. “The serious misalignment of interests between Washington and Riyadh, exemplified by the OPEC+ energy production cuts, suggests that the status quo arms relationship is not fit for purpose and needs to be seriously reconsidered. “

Across a wide range of congressional leaders, calls have grown in volume and seriousness for the United States to suspend military relations with Saudi Arabia during the reign of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, or May -be even sever them completely as punishment for his last acts of disloyalty.

“This idea that they’re going to raise our gas prices and we’re supposed to look the other way and call them good old boys – to hell with that,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democrat n Room 2, told CNN last week. “I mean it’s a terrible diet. It’s a 21st century kingdom that should be bankrupt.

Usually moderate Senator Richard Blumenthal, in an interview with CNN on Thursday, called the OPEC+ decision “a big Saudi blunder that goes against their own interests, as well as a threat to the global economy. “.

“That should be a catalyst to rethink this whole relationship with Saudi Arabia,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “We transferred technology to the Saudis in massive quantities, very sensitive weapons that we would never want to see fall into the hands of the Russians, who now apparently are good friends of the Saudis, if not allies.”

The ruling government in Riyadh, made up of ties and branches of the ruling family, expressed surprise at the chorus of outrage.

“We are astonished by the accusations that the kingdom is standing with Russia in its war against Ukraine,” Saudi defense chief Khalid bin Salman said. wrote in a post on Twitter. “It is telling that these false accusations do not come from the Ukrainian government.”

The Saudi minister linked to what has become a common message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which he thanked the kingdom for its financial and diplomatic support, in this case $400 million in humanitarian aid. This type of engagement represents the latest example of how the kingdom often tries to support multiple aspects of the same issue externally and sometimes follows through on its promises.

However, the damage seems irreversible. Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, threatened last week not to approve further arms sales to the kingdom “beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend American personnel and interests” until to ‘reassess his stance on the war in Ukraine.’

“Enough is enough,” said the New Jersey Democrat.

But, as Menendez discusses, the move is not without complications, aside from the mutually lucrative economic benefits of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, commonly known among US military leaders as one of the ” Anchor States” of the region.

More than 3,000 US troops are also based there at a handful of bases, representing a strategic boon to operations in the region. They also serve as perhaps the most tangible symbol of an endorsement of US foreign policy in a predominantly Muslim region by the royal house which declares itself the protector of Islam’s holiest sites.

“I fear indeed that we are overreacting to the Saudis at this point,” says Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t really see any way to meet the current challenge of world affairs without their help or at least their benign role.”

“MBS killed one person – or maybe a few. Putin has killed tens of thousands and threatens millions,” O’Hanlon adds. “We may need to choose the lesser of the two evils in order to more effectively address the larger problem or threat.”

Tensions escalated after a US administration under Donald Trump that enjoyed its business with Gulf hegemony gave way to President Joe Biden, who sought to distance himself from reliance on fossil fuels. The current White House has instead called out Riyadh for its dismal human rights record, including the crown prince’s complicity in the gruesome 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident.

On Thursday, Biden said his administration was “about to talk” to Saudi Arabia about recalibrating its current relationship following the OPEC+ decision, without providing further details. However, administration spokespersons have since confirmed that it is in fact considering following up on such drastic threats.

“Arms sales will definitely be one of the options that we will look at to see if that needs to be recalibrated,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told Fox News.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, however, told CNN on Sunday that Biden has no plans to meet his Saudi counterpart at the G20 economic bloc summit in Indonesia next month.

“The president is not going to rush it,” Sullivan said. “He’s going to move methodically, strategically, and he’s going to take his time to consult with members of both parties and also to have the opportunity for Congress to come back so he can sit down with them in person and work out the options. .”

Meanwhile, other political leaders have warned of the dangers of a complete abandonment of US-Saudi relations.

Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview with CNN last week that he agreed the United States needed to put pressure on the Saudi government.

“But what that would mean in the short term is that Saudi Arabia would be in a position where they would be closer to Russia and closer to China and further away from us,” the Washington Democrat said.

“I guess you could say the leverage we have over Saudi Arabia is that we could stop selling them weapons, but we’re not the only ones in the world selling weapons,” Smith added. “There would definitely be a tricky transition for Saudi Arabia. The weapon systems are not interchangeable. But they would go in that direction.

Analysts generally agree with Smith’s point on interoperability. The nearly century-long reliance on American-made military equipment would make it difficult for the Saudis to suddenly start trying to integrate Russian or Chinese-made weapons – a quagmire currently facing India. and Ukraine as they try to break away from their Soviet Union. the era of stocks towards more Western military technology.

And, many add, the Saudis remain pragmatic.

“They know the United States is still at the forefront of producing high-quality, sophisticated weapons,” says Colin Clarke, senior researcher at private intelligence firm The Soufan Group.

“I also don’t think Russia’s military performance gives Saudi Arabia much comfort, because the way Russia fought in Ukraine, I don’t think we can consider Moscow as a so-called ‘great power’ anymore. “,” adds Clarke. “There is a slim possibility that China will usurp the United States in the Gulf, but I think that is still many years away. Also, for Beijing, be careful what you wish for, you might get it. Becoming the guarantor of security for countries like Saudi Arabia can be thankless and comes with serious strings attached.

Ash Carter, who served as President Barack Obama’s last Secretary of Defense, lamented the United States’ current reliance on Saudi Arabia in a book he published in 2019 and called for the “rebalance”.

“I am not advocating a complete break with the Saudis,” he wrote at the time. “We remain essential to their security, and they remain important players in the Middle East due to their size, strategic location, wealth and the fact that they are home to the two holiest places in Islam. “

“But we have to be realistic about the extent of their importance to us, and not be swayed by their skills as propagandists and lobbyists,” Carter added, noting how Saudi leaders “offer politicians, journalists and American think tanks abundant liquidity”. “As for the US arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which seems to be so big in President Trump’s thinking, I support them. But US arms sales are not a gift we give to the Saudis. , nor an act of generosity on the part of the Saudis. These are simple mutually beneficial and balanced transactions, and they should be considered as such, no more and no less.

He noted the controversy surrounding the crown prince, particularly in relation to Khashoggi’s murder.

“Whatever happens to MBS, our relationship with Saudi Arabia is likely to remain troubled,” Carter concluded, “two partners who share certain values ​​while being deeply at odds with others, hitched uncomfortably by the mutual need for friends in a part of the world where friends are hard to come by.

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