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IDEAS

We should be friendly with the Saudis. Fighting for them is another matter.

Biden has been floating the idea of a defense pact with Saudi Arabia. What’s in that for us?

President Biden departed the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Saudi Arabia on July 16.DOUG MILLS/NYT

Here’s one way to deal with Saudi Arabia’s bloodstained monarchy: “Make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Then there’s the opposite way: Embrace the Saudis, sell them advanced weaponry, encourage their nuclear ambitions, and offer them a treaty committing American soldiers to defend them in case of war.

Turning Saudi Arabia into a pariah was Joe Biden’s promise, made during a debate among presidential candidates in 2019. What a difference a few years can make! Biden is now considering a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia.

It’s a terrible idea. The United States should not pledge to send troops to defend an autocratic Middle Eastern monarchy.

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Yet that is apparently what Biden is now contemplating. According to a flurry of leaks from the White House, he is considering turning Saudi Arabia into one of America’s closest allies. At the end of July he sent his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, to Jeddah to negotiate a deal. A couple of days later, at a fundraising event in Maine, Biden confirmed that “there’s a rapprochement maybe under way.”

Rapprochement is almost always positive. One of America’s problems in the world is that we do not maintain normal relations with governments we dislike. Reopening our embassies in countries like Cuba and Iran would contribute to global peace and to our own national security. We should be constantly working to improve ties with every country — including Saudi Arabia. The deal the White House is now floating, however, goes too far.

According to reports from Washington, Biden is seeking a “grand bargain” under which Saudi Arabia would be guaranteed American military protection. The United States would also help the Saudis develop a nuclear program — strictly for civilian purposes, of course — and provide them with our most sophisticated missile defense system. In exchange, Saudi Arabia would agree to recognize Israel if Israel eases pressure on Palestinians and pledges not to annex the West Bank.

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What’s in it for us? Biden hopes that new intimacy with Saudi Arabia would lead the Saudis to support American efforts against Russia and to loosen their growing ties to China. Better Saudi-Israeli ties could unite those two countries in a common front against Iran. A deal would also bring billions of dollars into the coffers of US arms makers. Not incidentally, the Saudis might be more responsive to Biden’s wish for cheap oil, which could prevent the price of gas from spiking during his reelection campaign.

Biden’s “pariah” comment from 2019 suggests that he understands the true nature of the Saudi regime. So do other American leaders who promote better ties to Saudi Arabia, although they avoid admitting it in public. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, for example, she was part of the Washington chorus singing hymns of praise for Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that in private she sang quite a different tune. “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups,” she wrote in a secret 2009 cable. LeT is Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose attacks on civilians in India have killed hundreds. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

It’s no accident that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 were Saudi or that much of the money used to prepare the attack came from wealthy Saudis. That money has also poured into Afghanistan and other Muslim countries where Saudis are promoting fundamentalist Islam.

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Not even Saudi Arabia’s level of state criminality should automatically disqualify it from good ties with the United States. Our national interest requires that we accept countries as they are and make any deals with them that promote our security. If the United States maintained good relations only with countries that fully respect human rights, we would have few partners.

But only in the rarest of cases should such deals include a pledge to send American troops into combat to defend a foreign government.

Even Ukraine, which is America’s favorite friend in the world these days, is not being given that pledge. At last month’s NATO summit, officials made clear that Ukraine would not be admitted into the alliance anytime soon — because that would commit American soldiers to fight for Ukraine. That was wise. Ukraine’s national interests do not align with ours. Neither do those of Saudi Arabia.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.