The Grand Bargain is a Great Delusion

The Grand Bargain is a Great Delusion

The Biden administration has wildly overestimated the leverage the proposed security treaty with Saudi Arabia affords it.

 

It would be the most transformative moment in world history since the end of the Cold War, a mega-deal that could change everything. So say the advocates of the proposed grand bargain among the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In outline, the deal entails a U.S. defense pact with Saudi Arabia, the recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia, and the accompanying transformation of the security and economic environment. The deal would promote the creation of an integrated U.S. air defense system across the Middle East (directed at Iran). It would spur investment in a new shipping and rail corridor (IMEC) linking India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Israel with Europe. Israel and Saudi Arabia, in effect, would reconcile over their shared fear of Iran. They would do so under the protective mantle of the United States. 

In return for the recognition of Israel, the Saudis are said to want four things: a formal U.S. guarantee of their security, like the bilateral treaties signed with Japan and South Korea in the Cold War; U.S. help in building civilian nuclear reactors; better access to U.S. arms; and Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. 

 

It is widely accepted among the commentariat, among both those who support and oppose the deal, that all these demands or “asks” are to be taken at face value as signifying a package that the Saudis really want and believe they can get. I think that is highly unlikely. Something else is going on. No one has a beeline into the brain of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, including U.S. officials, but their theory—that MBS really wants a security treaty and is willing to give a lot to get it—strikes me as highly implausible. Please consider the opposing theory that the Saudis don’t want a tighter alliance with the United States and that these negotiations are part of their preparations for a world without that. 

The Revolution in Saudi Policy

The assumption underlying the grand bargain is that the Saudi position is inherently weak and vulnerable, requiring American succor. The Saudis long for renewed embrace today, though Biden hated on them yesterday. Saudi actions of the past two years suggest a far more independent stance. Consider these steps:

They agreed to a truce in Yemen.

They thumbed their noses at American requests to increase oil production in 2022, nullifying Biden’s releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve by barrel-for-barrel cuts of their own. In 2023, they coordinated with Russia in reducing production further (by, respectively, 1 million barrels a day and 500,000 BPD), spurring an increase in the oil price from a low of $64 a barrel in the summer to the $80-$90 range today. 

In December 2022, they gave a lavish welcome in Riyadh to Chinese president Xi Jinping, heralding an “epoch-making milestone” in China’s relations with the Arab world. As part of that summit, the Saudis agreed to a memorandum that called for Huawei, the US-sanctioned Chinese firm, to build cloud computing and high-tech complexes in Saudi cities.  

They led the effort, over considerable opposition, to readmit President Bashar al-Assad of Syria into the Arab League last May and want to work with China in rebuilding the country.

They have shown a keen interest in developing ties with both BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in both of which Russia and China play key roles. 

They reduced their holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds, contributing their might to the ongoing U.S. funding crisis. 

Last but not least, they agreed in March 2023 to restore diplomatic relations with Iran under the auspices of China. 

Taken together, these initiatives amount to a revolution in Saudi policy. Yemen apart, each was strongly opposed by the United States. The White House went ballistic over Saudi oil policy in the fall of 2022, charging collusion with Vladimir Putin and putting the White House and the Democratic Party “on a mission to punish the kingdom.” U.S. leaders have vehemently opposed the normalization of ties with Assad. They have feared and protested growing Sino-Saudi trade and investment ties. U.S. leaders want the Saudis to continue pricing oil in dollars and to park their surpluses in U.S. Treasury bonds. They don’t want the Saudis to have any sort of military relationship with China or Russia.  

The grand bargain, in effect, seeks to reverse the bold new Saudi foreign policy of the last year. Biden began his presidency by treating MBS as a pariah whom he could trash talk. Then it gradually dawned on him and his advisors that the outcome of the epochal conflict with Russia and China could turn on the struggle for influence in the Middle East, making Riyadh the pivotal player in that great game. So a lot is at stake. The administration’s means of getting the Saudis to reverse course is the U.S. security treaty.

Treaty Ally? 

There are lots of things that are passing strange about this proposed bilateral pact. It almost certainly couldn’t get the approval of sixty-seven U.S. senators. When the administration chose New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to reveal (on July 27) that Biden was weighing a big Middle East deal, Friedman wrote that Biden himself hadn’t fully committed to it, though the president is now said to be an enthusiast. MBS pretty much reviles the supposed guarantor. He refused to take Biden’s phone calls for over a year. He made fun of Biden in private. MBS is vilified in Congress as often as Putin or Xi, among Democrats and Republicans alike.  Treaties are matters of trust. Trust is lacking between Saudi Arabia and America.  

Here’s another oddity, which is that the treaty would simply affirm what was, over many decades, seen as a key pillar of U.S. policy in the region. The distinction between the historic commitment and the proposed new commitment has garnered virtually no discussion in the press, but there are a few obvious questions. If the old commitment is no longer in existence, when did it go away? If the commitment went away before, couldn’t it go away again? If so, what’s it worth?

In fact, the traditional U.S. commitment has been worth something to Saudi Arabia, but that something has rested not on U.S. affection for the Saudis but on fear and loathing of Iran. So long as hostility to Iran is the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the region, as it seems likely to remain, the Saudis achieve about as much “security” as they would under a formal treaty. Whereas the United States has been irresolute in its commitment to its clients—it abandoned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak; it double-crossed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi; it turned tail in Afghanistan—its enmity with Iran is eternal. This factor is far more important for the Saudis than vague words on paper about mutual protection.

That applies also to all the lesser “guarantees” that have been bruited about, including a mutual defense understanding that would be “less than a full treaty” or an executive agreement that would bypass Congress (practically impossible given the inherent congressional prerogative to block aspects of any deal). Whatever form the guarantee might take, there is no possibility of it being truly “iron-clad,” as the Saudis are said to want. A future White House or Congress would interpret its terms as they liked.  

China Interposes

In the history of the grand bargain, the news of three Saudi “asks”—a formal security treaty, a civilian nuclear program, and guaranteed arms sales—broke on March 9, 2023. A few hours later, to the apparent surprise of Washington, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced their diplomatic rapprochement under Chinese auspices.  

This was a significant development, most unwelcome in Washington, and a “lose, lose, lose” for the neoconservatives. But good relations with China are essential for Saudi security because China is vital to Iran, giving China sway over decision-making in Saudi’s chief rival. The isolation from much of the world that the United States has imposed on Iran makes China an especially vital lifeline for it. 

Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf insisted that China’s role in the deal was insignificant; the agreement “was not brokered by the Chinese; they hosted it.” That’s not Salman’s view. “We had a few obstacles,” Salman noted in his interview with Fox News. “China come in and solve it.” 

What China likely told Iran and Saudi Arabia was that it would not stand for either side infringing on the vital interests and national rights of the other. Saudi Arabia has in China a lever to restrain Iran. This is worth just as much, if not more, than the U.S. threat to blow up Iran’s nuclear installations. Given that the Saudis would be deeply exposed in the event of a U.S.-Israel attack on Iran, a peaceful route to Iran’s restraint sponsored by China probably looks more promising to the Saudis than the bellicose U.S. approach.  

Palestine: On Back Burner? 

A central part of the grand bargain is an apparent solution, but not really a solution, to the Palestinian question. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told PBS that the deal will ensure that “the prospect of a two-state solution stays vibrant and strong.” As that “solution” has been dead and buried for many years, existing solely in speech as a fraught hypothetical, Nuland’s formulation is bizarre. Events on the ground—above all, 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank—have long pointed toward no settlement that respects Palestinian rights. The last two decades showed that the Israelis didn’t want an independent Palestinian state and that the Americans couldn’t or wouldn’t make them want it.