The ‘special relationship’ and the arms race

Middle EastUS Politics
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(Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images)

Several days ago the Obama administration and Congress sealed a deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to export $29.4 billion dollars worth of enhanced F-15 fighter jets, alongside the retrofitting of 70 older F-15s. Manufactured by Boeing, the F-15SA is “the most sophisticated and capable aircraft in the world,” White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest said. “The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have signed a government-to-government agreement under the Foreign Military Sales program to provide advanced F-15SA combat aircraft to the Royal Saudi Air Force,” he added.

The F-15 sale is part of a far larger defense package that had been slowly working its way through legislative bottlenecks to secure Congressional approval. Last year it passed Congress and since then the details have been finalized.

Apparently it was somewhat “controversial” in Congress, because of concerns that it would erode Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, the government euphemism which, when translated into English, means that when Boeing and Lockheed Martin sell the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia 30 billion dollars worth of advanced technology, they also sell Israel 30 billion dollars worth of even more advanced technology.

Then they tack on an $11 billion dollar package to Iraq, and a $3.5 billion dollar “missile defense” system to the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, from January 2 1007 through the end of 2010, signed agreements for arms sales from the US to Saudi Arabia totaled $13.8 billion dollars, followed by $10.4 billion to the UAE.

Incidentally, Phil Weiss wrote several weeks ago that Egyptian analyst Issandr el-Amrani had said that if the arms companies were by and large calling the shots in the Middle East, they would lubricate and promote a regional arms race. Over $100 billion dollars in arms sales looks like an arms race to me. The weapons don’t go to Iran because we don’t trust the Iranian people with sophisticated weapons, and much the same goes for Egypt. Better to let the weapons flow to the Gulf monarchies that are even more scared of their people than the men in charge of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Of course a deliberately fomented arms race has to be orchestrated out in a very precise manner if it is to continue. First, make sure Israel always gets better weapons. That’s because to keep the arms race going, you have to make sure there’s always another war, and a better armed Israel makes conventional military defeat difficult, always laying the ground for the next conflict.

And then ensure that it doesn’t look like taxpayer money is flowing directly to the tyrants in the Middle East. Instead, launder it. In the case of the UAE or Saudi Arabia, money from oil sales pays for the weapons which the American military-industrial complex sells them. In the case of Israel, American tax dollars pay for the weapons. And the money from the oil sales comes from…the American consumer.

The arms companies are not picky as to whose pocket they pick.

Generally it’s ours, unless you thought that the price of gas at the pump was dictated by “market forces” like supply and demand, or the almost non-existent cost of extraction. Supply has about as much to do with “market forces” as the dollar under your pillow does with the tooth fairy. As one petroleum economist comments, “Prices at the Persian Gulf,” and even more so at the pump, “have only an arbitrary relationship to production costs…They contain a substantial element of what may be called monopoly profits.” Petroleum firms are price makers, not price takers.

And the F-15s? The war planes that go to the KSA, according to Andrew Shapiro, the assistant US secretary of state for political-military affairs, are there to deal with “a number of threats…Clearly one of the threats that [the KSA] face[s], as well as other countries in the region, is Iran,” he said.

Aggression towards Iran has two purposes. First is Iran’s destruction. Iran carries out an independent foreign policy and has a functional welfare state. This is not to America’s liking. Second, the Iranian “threat” is a convenient bogeyman for the military-industrial complex, one reason that earnest efforts to counsel the White House to adopt a peaceful orientation to the IRI, as in the desperate realist push for reconciliation, won’t work under present circumstances: brinksmanship is too profitable for the arms firms, and they have a lot of money to make sure that brinksmanship is the preferred political tool for policymakers.

A detour concerning that realist push: the Leveretts argue that the drive to attack Iran is “not about American security or the defense of real interests.  It’s about the preservation of imperial prerogatives in the Middle East.” Yet aren’t “imperial prerogatives” precisely the neo-con conceptualizations of “real interests”? Haven’t the weapons firms profited for decades exactly from defining the “real” or “national” interests of the United States as exactly the same as their own? 

As Tom Jones, the CEO of Northrop Grumman, wrote to Kim Roosevelt in September 1968, justifying arms sales to the Shah (a push that came from Washington, not from the Gulf States or Israel, which were slightly wary of such sales), in “any discussions with the Shah…it is important that they be kept on the basis of fundamental national objectives, rather than allow it to take the appearance of a sales plan.” 

The euphemism, “national objectives,” is very useful in its plasticity, and particularly in that it can be used as  a nationalist binding to hold the lower classes to the agenda of the upper class. Also, something happened in the Persian Gulf between 1968 and now, which is that Iran had a revolution – which is what the Gulf States were concerned about. That, too, is a reason for the continual targeting of Iran, which started in 1979, with eight separate acts of sanctioning taking place between then and the 1996 Iran Libya Sanctions Act. Israel had next-to-nothing to do with most of them – although the Israel lobby does indeed have something to do with it the last set of sanctions as well as ratcheting up aggression against Iran.

The Project for a New American Century, for example, used to be helmed by Bruce Jackson, one of the “neocons,” and a former Vice President of Lockheed Martin. He also used to work at Lehmann Brothers, nicely illustrating the fluid movement between various high-level posts that creates a shared elite culture, one reason among many that no one in Washington is really willing to push Israel hard enough to force a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, even though perhaps some imagine it would be vaguely in their interest to do so.

The sale was “not solely directed,” toward Iran, Schapiro added.”This is directed toward meeting our partner Saudi Arabia’s defense needs.” 

Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Jim McNerney, added that “For Boeing, this agreement represents the continuation of an enduring partnership between the company and the Kingdom that dates back to 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented a DC-3 Dakota airplane to King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia…We appreciate the efforts of the Obama Administration and the trust of King Abdullah’s government in finalizing the agreement, which will support tens of thousands of American jobs and help the Kingdom enhance its defense capabilities and diversify its workforce.”

When CEO and diplomat say “defense,”  presumably they mean that if the protesters in Qatif and Bahrain keep on protesting the government will be able to defend itself by strafing them with F-15s. They will certainly try, but if things really shake loose, all the F-15s in the world won’t keep those populations under control. Something else the Iranian revolution showed.

McNerney added that “Boeing is privileged to support the important U.S./Saudi bi-lateral relationship, and we are pleased Saudi Arabia has chosen the proven, state of the art capabilities of our F-15 and rotorcraft platforms.” Of course this theme is omnipresent in the US/Saudi Special Relationship –  the real Special Relationship. Likewise ARAMCO (The Arabian American Oil Company) and later Exxon and the other oil majors have packaged their pushes for profits as part of supporting the “important…relationship,” as though the relationship is not composed almost entirely of business arrangements for mutual benefit. As Robert Vitalis, the major historian of the Saudi-US relationship, writes,

    The history of U.S. foreign policy that we write now and the idea of “the national interest”  that actors constructed then are the result of a set of U.S. investors capturing the concession and then mounting a campaign to have the state underwrite the risk. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine an emerging American-Saudi Arabian special relationship in World War II in the absence of the oil companies’ investment there. We may well want to think about the limits on the ability of firms to secure their interests, but any notion of the oil multinationals fundamentally acting to advance (different and conflicting?) State Department objectives in Saudi Arabia defies all logic save that concocted by statesmen.

I recall also some people thinking that there was trouble between the US and the KSA when some Saudi potentate wrote in the NYT about severe changes in the Saudi-US Special Relationship due to US support for Israeli irredentism.

The real world chimes in:

“When you look at the size of this package, what does it tell you about US-Saudi relations?” commented a senior Saudi official, who had to speak anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “It says it’s very strong and very solid. Any disagreements from time to time don’t affect the core relationship.” The core relationship is that we support their dictatorship, they buy our treasury bonds (the KSA currently holds a trillion or so dollars of US-dollar denominated securities of various kinds), they price their oil in dollars, and buy our weapons, while modifying supply so as to keep the price of oil low when we want it low – the Clinton years – and high when we want it high – the rest of the post-1973 period.

Pay attention to what happens between the Kingdom and the Empire, and most importantly, pay attention not to what they say, but what they do. The rest is for your mindless consumption. I recommend taking a pass.

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