Two weeks ago, in the aftermath of the execution of the Shia leader Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, I catalogued a list of neoconservatives who were rushing to defend Saudi Arabia. They were doing so despite the domestic and foreign excesses of the Kingdom, notably its devastating air campaign in Yemen, as well as its role in spearheading and financing the four-year-old counter-revolution against the “Arab Spring.” Among the first to leap to the challenge was the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which concluded that “in a Middle East wracked by civil wars, political upheaval and Iranian imperialism, the Saudis are the best friend we have in the Arabian peninsula.”
Amid growing questions about the costs and benefits of the West’s longstanding support for the House of Saud—see Eldar Mamedov’s post at this site on the debate in Europe—the Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist (and hardcore Likudist) Bret Stephens apparently felt obliged to pen a special op-ed in Wednesday’s print edition devoted to “Why the U.S. Should Stand by the Saudis Against Iran.”
Although he issues an initial disclaimer reminding his readers that “[t]here is so much to detest about Saudi Arabia,” Stephens argues that it would be a “bad—make that very bad—idea for the U.S. to abandon the House of Saud, especially when it is under increasing economic strain from falling oil prices and feels acutely threatened by a resurgent Iran.” He goes on, predictably, to blame Riyadh’s current acting out on—guess who?—Obama, insisting that “[i]f the administration is now unhappy about the Saudi war in Yemen or its execution of Shiite radicals, it has only itself to blame.” It’s just like when Jimmy Carter “lost Iran” because of his ambivalence about the Shah.
Stephens continues by citing all the terrible things that could happen if we don’t provide the kind of fulsome embrace that Jeane Kirkpatrick advised the U.S. to offer to “friendly authoritarians,” like the Shah of Iran or all the right-wing regimes, that dominated and oppressed much of Latin America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He deploys the same arguments as Kirkpatrick more than 40 years ago: if the U.S. distances itself, they’ll go to the “Russians or Chinese” (not the Soviet Union) or support “Sunni extremists” to counter Iran. And, of course, if the Saudis lose power, something worse will take their place (and grab hold all of that “advanced Western military equipment” we’ve sold to them).
Moreover, those Saudis have been true allies. They revoked Osama bin Laden’s citizenship “and pushed the Taliban to expel him from Afghanistan” (after being one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban government). Besides, as with any authoritarian regime, we can quietly urge them to implement reforms so long as we assure them of our solidarity and support. After all, the monarchy allowed women to vote and even run for office in municipal campaign just last month. “[I]t’s hard for the U.S. to urge such changes on a country that feels it’s being abandoned,” Stephens said, again channelling Kirkpatrick.
As to our problems with Saudi foreign policy, particularly in Yemen and elsewhere:
All of this means that the right U.S. policy toward the Saudis is to hold them close and demonstrate serious support, lest they be tempted to continue freelancing their foreign policy in ways we might not like.
This struck me as really sound advice, particularly in light of what happened with Argentina. After a period of mutual alienation resulting from the application of Carter’s human-rights policy to the junta, the Reagan administration cultivated a particularly close relationship. Kirkpatrick, who wrote her PhD dissertation on Argentina, was an outspoken advocate of close relations with the generals for many of the same reasons cited by Stephens regarding Riyadh. The generals, in turn, were more than willing to show their appreciation by, for example, sending hardened veterans of their “dirty war” against alleged leftists to Central America to help train what became the Nicaraguan Contras and assorted death squads in the region. There was even talk of forming a South Atlantic Treaty Organization that would include Argentina, along with apartheid South Africa, among other “authoritarian regimes.” Indeed, the junta felt so encouraged by the administration’s courtship that it decided to invade the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in 1982, trusting that Kirkpatrick and her allies could fend off objections from Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. That, however, didn’t work out so well.
But it’s a good cautionary tale, especially in light of Stephens’ advice about how we should hold the Saudis “close and demonstrate serious support.” After all, as one wise commentator recently noted:
Any country that believes it will never be made to pay the price for the risks it takes will take ever-greater risks.
You might ask who was that astute observer?
Why, it was Bret Stephens in his weekly column published in the Journal’s Tuesday’s edition, entitled “Normalizing Iran: Why are liberals campaigning to make this most illiberal regime acceptable?”
Illiberal regimes? Jeez, sometimes the ideological contortions of neoconservatism are just too much.