Paul Pillar

What Have the Saudis Done For Us Lately?

The president of the United States is going on a foreign trip, and that means it is time for another surge in temperature-taking regarding the state of relations between the United States and some of its “allies.” The countries involved may include not only ones such as members of NATO that are indisputably allies by virtue of being linked to the United States by a mutual security treaty but also “allies” that are called that mainly because there is a general habit or practice in Washington of calling them that. The temperature-taking includes an assumption that smooth, harmonious relations with any “ally” is a good thing, and that anything less than harmony should be cause for hand-wringing. Lost sight of are any carefully formulated criteria for anointing any country not linked by a mutual security treaty with the label “ally,” and any critical examination of whether and why frictionless relations with these states should be considered necessarily good.

Whether such relations are good comes down to whether an alliance-type relationship with the particular state has something in it for the United States. It is a question of whether the other country is doing something that protects or advances U.S. interests, and more specifically whether it is doing it only because it is in an “alliance” with the United States and would not be doing it for its own reasons anyway.

Two other considerations might expand slightly this standard for weighing the value of a putative alliance and of showing some degree of deference to the putative ally. One is that, even though the other state may be doing something anyway for its own reasons, there might be greater mutually beneficial effectiveness if the other state and the United States do whatever they're doing in close coordination with each other. The other consideration, which follows from the concept in the Declaration of Independence of having a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, is that sometimes an ally may have a better idea of what is in U.S. interests than the U.S. policy-makers of the day do. (For example, the United States would have been better off if, when deciding to invade Iraq in 2003, the policy-makers of the day had not told allies in Old Europe who disagreed with that decision to take a hike.)

Saudi Arabia, which President Obama is visiting this week, is one, but by no means the only one, of those habitually labeled U.S. “allies” that is a subject of much hand-wringing over the less-than-harmonious state of its relations with the United States. Whenever the question is asked, about relations with the Saudis, what's in it for the United States, the answer inevitably turns immediately to oil. The specter of politically motivated embargoes is a residue of the 1970s that infects thinking on this subject. The shale oil revolution and other developments in the petroleum industry have changed greatly the dependencies involved in the four decades since then. It is true, as many observers have noted, that the U.S. interest in undisturbed oil exports extend to the entire global oil trade and not just to America's own imports. But the broader the base of customers importing Saudi oil, the less likely any new politically motivated embargoes would even enter into Saudi thinking. This dimension provides a reassuring thought even when thinking the unthinkable—about revolutionary change bringing hostile and radical elements to power in Arabia—in which scenario the new rulers would also have incentive to keep selling the oil. They could not drink it.

It is appropriate to think of such transactions with Saudi Arabia in market terms. The customers get the oil, but they pay good money for it, which is what has made the Saudis rich. The same frame of reference can be applied to part of what Saudi Arabia gets out of the United States—viz., a steady supply of advanced armaments—for which the Saudis also pay good money. Buyers and sellers, each acting out of their own interests. That's how markets work. No special deference or “alliance” labels are necessary.

Cooperation in counterterrorism is another subject that sometimes is mentioned in connection with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But no “alliance” is necessary for effective counterterrorist cooperation, the vast bulk of which takes place behind closed doors. Much effective counterterrorist cooperation does take place, not only between states that are not considered allies but even between ones that are generally considered to be adversaries and to have sharp, open disagreements between their political leaders.

An added twist regarding terrorism is that, looking at the bigger picture, Saudi Arabia has been more part of the problem than part of the solution, especially in fostering an intolerant brand of Islam and in the Saudi regime's earlier efforts to export its radicalism problem to someone else's homeland. The uncomfortable truths on this subject are reflected in Riyadh's panicky response to the legislation pending in the U.S. Congress about letting culpability for 9/11 become a matter of private lawsuits against foreign regimes.