Saudi Arabia Bulking Up

The United States’ proposed $60 billion defense sale to Saudi Arabia is the right move in the short term.

What do you do when a developing power insists on continuing its nuclear weapons program  Well, you could impose “crippling” sanctions as a penalty and hope that your enemy capitulates to the pressure (as President Barack Obama is doing now). Or if you were a neoconservative, you could use (or threaten) military action and hope that those operations don’t result in a full-scale armed conflict. Either way, both choices are based on a word that isn’t exactly dependable in international relations — hope.

But there is a third option. Sensing that a military strike is too dangerous and economic sanctions are too ineffective, a world power (like the United States) could pump arms into the region in order to boost the deterrence capabilities of its key allies. For instance, the United States could sell advanced military hardware to Israel, Saudi Arabia or Jordan before Iran decides to turn the screws on full weapons development. This is good old-fashioned deterrence at its finest, and the concept has worked remarkably well for the United States throughout the twentieth century.

Absent evidence to the contrary, all indications seem to conclude that deterrence will continue to work well. At least that’s Washington’s perspective.

So the United States are selling some $60 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia in order to further isolate Iran from the Middle East. Granted, the sale still has to be approved by Congress, which is undoubtedly concerned that this transaction may weaken Israel’s own deterrence capability in the region. But if the package is signed off, it would include the sale of 84 new F-15 fighter planes, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Black Hawk helicopters, and 36 Little Bird (troop carrying) helicopters. If that doesn’t put a little scare in Iran’s strategic calculation, then perhaps Tehran’s leadership is more ideological than I previously assumed.

If conventional wisdom were any guide, the proposed American-Saudi arms agreement would sound like a big deal. The New York Times overhypes the story by writing that the package could “shift the region’s balance of power over the course of a decade.” But when we take history into account, this sale is anything but new. The United States pursued a similar policy in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Saudi Arabia purchased American planes and the United Arab Emirates bought American manufactured weapons systems in bulk (they continue to do so, by the way). Of course, the rationale back then was to box Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into a corner. The only thing that has changed over the past twenty years is the antagonist.

We now wait and see if Congress approves the plan. Some are rightly concerned that placing more weapons into an already volatile region could push Iran to either manufacture its own weapons as a response or buy them through the black market. Others are probably worried that the scheme will simply not work. Tehran may go ahead, as planned.

But absent other options, providing moderate Middle Eastern regimes with an improved defense capability is perhaps the most logical. At least it won’t start a war.