In 2005, a British journalist venturing into literary criticism released a best-seller called The Seven Basic Plots. The gist was that all Western literature was a variation on a small number of basic stories. It turns out that this isn’t true of just fiction. Foreign-policy discourse tends to recycle just a few basic narratives, suitably embellished for the moment. One of these tales, dating from the Cold War world and the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution over 40 years ago, has just been retold around the campfire by Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post as a paradigm for President Biden’s Middle East policy, as a proposal for repairing the strained American relationship with Saudi Arabia.
This allegedly new thinking arrives as the US is embroiled in a European war with a nuclear-armed adversary, while its top officials speculate about regime change; as relations with China are increasingly tense; as the American constitutional order is being challenged from within; as inflation is at its highest since the 1970s; and, according to the IPCC, as the window in which the international community can act to limit global heating is about to close.
As explained by Zakaria, the idea would be to fix the Saudi relationship via an audacious offer of a long-term US security commitment of a kind that would be more durable than, say, Obama’s signature on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran, which Trump tore up three years later, but not quite so permanent and absolute as to necessitate Senate approval, as a formal treaty would.
In return for this commitment to wage war against enemies of the Saudi state for decades to come, the Kingdom would agree to: produce an admission by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman regarding his personal responsibility for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder; halt combat operations in Yemen; pump enough oil to moderate the price; and, most importantly, make peace with Israel.
The politics of such a deal are interesting. Donald Trump scored by taking credit for the Abraham Accords, an Israeli normalization deal with several Arab states, most crucially the United Arab Emirates. An Israeli-Saudi peace agreement would surpass that. At the same time, it would counter perceptions of Biden as lukewarm toward Israel, which, depending on the timing of a treaty, Biden might calculate will help Democrats later this year or in 2024.
Clearly, the US-Saudi relationship is currently on the rocks. The US president won’t talk to his de facto counterpart Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who was determined by the US intelligence community to have ordered the brutal murder of American resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. MBS, in turn, refused to host presidential visits to Saudi Arabia, the purpose of which was to get the Kingdom to pump more oil to offset the loss of Russian fuel due to sanctions. This was not an idea that held much appeal in Riyadh.
The US-Saudi relationship has always been transactional. MBS felt that the US hadn’t held up its part of the bargain by supporting the Saudi war effort in Yemen (despite overall continuing support for the Saudi military), slow-rolling arms sales, and disrespecting the man in charge.
Still, guaranteeing the security of a foreign country is a big step indeed, in that it holds the guarantor hostage to the foreign policies of the country whose security is being guaranteed. Therefore, we should carefully scrutinize each element of the deal. The first problem has to do with a bias in temporality. While Saudi Arabia would make time-limited concessions, they would get an indefinite open-ended commitment. Not only would that hold the US hostage to the actions of its ally, but it would also create a moral hazard by tempting Saudi Arabia to take unwise risks knowing they’ve got the backing of the world’s mightiest military. Indeed, Martin Indyk, a Brookings Institution scholar and one of the advocates of the deal, admitted as much himself. He told the CSIS podcast Babel earlier this month that when these partners “think they can take us for granted, and that we’ll always be there, to protect them, in the extreme circumstances, they feel free to misbehave and also in ways that are deleterious to our interests.”
Taking the proposed bargains one by one, each is pretty thin gruel. For instance, MBS confessing to Khashoggi’s murder would not enhance US security one iota, while exposing it to considerable risk of war at Saudi discretion. In any case, it seems highly implausible. The determination of the Kingdom to avoid any responsibility for 9/11 in an ongoing court case is more than just a hint of MBS’s unreadiness to be spanked by Biden in a Macy’s window. And now that MBS has been embraced by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he’d have even less of an incentive to stage a confession, as the Turks have dropped their prosecution of the case. (Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.)
Second, Saudi Arabia looks likely to wind down its war in Yemen anyway. Its proxy leader in the country, President Hadi, recently departed and was replaced with a consultative council. Even Iran has said it would work on its Houthi partners (the principal enemy of Saudi-backed forces) to ratchet back the violence and return to the negotiating table. An indefinite security guarantee for Saudi Arabia to gain its cooperation on a problem that could be resolved quite soon doesn’t seem like a fair trade.
Third, Saudi oil promises are not likely to be relevant over the long haul. While it is true that the Kingdom has from time to time responded to White House pleas to moderate the price of oil, usually to remove an economic obstacle to midterm or general-election victories, or in a crisis, as after 9/11, the structure of the oil market will likely be determined by a radical increase in demand coupled with chronic supply constraints that even the Saudis can’t surpass. If this assessment is even partly correct, then greater Saudi production will simply not be very useful.
Fourth, few would oppose a Middle East where Israel, Saudi, and other Arab states resolve their differences. But there has already been a de facto rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia for years—and many close observers believe that MBS will take this step formally once he is seated on the throne. Again, the obligation this imposes on the US outweighs the benefit to the US of a formalized treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia that the two countries have ample reason to sign regardless of a US long-term binding security commitment to Riyadh.
Now, it would be too much to throw Saudi Arabia over the side. The fact is the US and Saudi, like the US and UAE and Bahrain, have been intertwined for many years. This can’t simply be disregarded. These states have felt the cold wind blowing since Obama—for sound strategic reasons—announced US rebalancing toward Asia. In the context of these long relationships, the US would be unwise to ignore their security concerns. But there are ways of acknowledging them without overcompensating and exposing the US to unnecessary risk.
Furthermore, we should recall that when the US offered the sort of assurances that Zakaria is advocating—formally to the Saudis in 1991 and later as a trial balloon with Israel—both said no thanks. They thought, correctly, that such an agreement would have limited their freedom of maneuver, because binding agreements require the signatories to abstain from acting unilaterally in ways that undermine each other’s interests. In the view of Saudi Arabia and Israel, the presumed benefits of a binding US defense commitment just weren’t worth the cost. Washington might want to take a page from their book and think twice before limiting its own military options and shouldering greater obligations as storm clouds gather in Europe and Asia.
TRITA PARSI is the founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of ‘Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.’
STEVEN SIMON is the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies and a senior research analyst with the Quincy Institute.