Bush's Gulf Gambit

By containing Iran, the U.S. remains in Iraq.


The United States plans to sell Gulf countries at least $20 billion worth of military hardware in the coming years, and will sign 10-year military aid packages with Egypt and Israel, valued together at $43 billion. According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Washington is "working with these states to give a chance to the forces of moderation and reform."

Oddly, on Friday the New York Times published a story roundly criticizing the Saudis for their "counterproductive" attitude in Iraq. Senior U.S. officials were quoted as saying that the kingdom had tried to discredit Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by handing American officials forged documents depicting Maliki as an agent of Iran and an ally of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Times revealed that "the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say that nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow." U.S. officials also noted that "the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and that about 40 percent of all foreign fighters are Saudi."

Why this story came out just before the announcement of the arms deals was unclear, though one could guess. By criticizing Riyadh publicly for the first time, and in such a blunt way, the Bush administration preempted, and therefore effectively neutralized, Saudi Arabia's critics in Washington who might seek to block the military transactions. But the Times article was also a warning to the Saudis that the U.S. was losing patience with the kingdom's behavior in Iraq, though the impact must have been dulled by revelations a day later that the Gulf states were central to the U.S. strategy of containing expanding Iranian power.

But perhaps most significantly, the leaks were designed to remind the Saudis that the Bush administration's failure in Iraq would only harm the kingdom itself, which might then find itself caught up in a regional sectarian conflagration devouring everyone. The subdued Saudi reaction to the American censure—the fact, too, that Riyadh knew the announcement of the arms deal was imminent—very likely meant the Saudis were expecting the administration's broadside beforehand.

The U.S. has dusted off an old template in the Persian Gulf, but with two twists. We're back to the days when the Gulf kingdoms and emirates were avid consumers of high-tech American weaponry, in the context of a broader quid pro quo where the U.S. took on the burden of security in the Gulf region in exchange for Saudi intervention to stabilize the oil markets. The two twists are that stable oil prices today can only really come by way of thwarting Iranian hegemony in the Gulf; and second, doing so means that the U.S. must replace Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran.

Reverting to this policy is more astute than it looks. The U.S. approach to the Gulf throughout the Cold War years and up until 9/11 enjoyed bipartisan support. The large weapons contracts pleased members of Congress representing constituencies with defense-related industries; stable and low oil prices were good for everyone; and the American presence in the Persian Gulf was always an acceptable way of projecting U.S. power, without usually having to worry about casualties.

In reviving that general framework, one justified today through the containment of a threatening Iran, the administration is defining its military deployment in Iraq very differently. The priority is no longer promoting Iraqi and Middle Eastern democracy; it is ensuring that U.S. interests in the Middle East are preserved. We're back to the basics of foreign policy "realism." As Condoleezza Rice declared on Monday: "There isn't a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important, single-country challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."

If Iran is accepted as the arch enemy, then withdrawing from Iraq suddenly looks like a bad idea, particularly when influential critics of the conduct of the Iraq war like Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack are writing that the U.S. is "finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms." By anchoring Iraq policy in a consensus that previously existed vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, buttressing this with lucrative defense contracts, and gaining Israeli acquiescence for the sales, the administration has made it more difficult for Congress impose its will on President George W. Bush when it comes to the Iraqi conflict.

For the moment Congress is playing coy. Sen. Joseph Biden and Rep. Tom Lantos, who head the congressional committees that will consider the arms deals, are waiting for September to commit themselves. September also happens to be when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker submit their report on the progress of the U.S. military "surge" in Iraq. Biden and Lantos may use debate over the weapons contracts as a bargaining chip with the administration to define future Iraq policy, depending on what Petraeus and Crocker conclude.

But you have to wonder if Bush has not already won that round. Congress has been unable to impose an alternative Iraq strategy, and now the administration is trying to take advantage of that void. If we are to believe the administration in its new approach, the U.S. military in Iraq is now part of a regional security architecture. By approving the defense packages, Congress would be endorsing this Bush vision for the region. Maybe the president is not quite as dead as his detractors think.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor to reason.