This month marks the 30th anniversary of an emotionally fraught and bitterly waged political confrontation between the Reagan administration and the organized Jewish community that culminated in the U.S. Senate approving, 52 to 48, an $8.5 billion sale of sophisticated airborne radar planes (AWACS) and F-15s to Saudi Arabia.
Now, the Pentagon is overseeing the phased sale -- unveiled in 2007 with nary any opposition-- to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of warplanes, helicopters, missile defense upgrades and layers of anti-missile weaponry worth over $67 billion. The Obama administration's desire to sell Bahrain bunker busting missiles and other weapons has been criticized -- not by Israel's friends, but -- by opponents of the sheikdom's handling of internal protests.
How to explain the fact that ever since the 1981 AWACS debacle massive arms sales – including offensive systems – to Arab countries have faced no real domestic opposition?
For one, the American Jewish community simply does not have the stomach to fight such sales. For another, geostrategic circumstances have changed: Iran now poses a clear threat to both Gulf States and Israel. And finally, Israeli decision makers are broadly convinced that the Washington really is working to maintain the country's qualitative military edge.
Politically, there's no question that the AWACS battle wilted the resolve of Israel's friends to confront any U.S. administration head-on. True the Saudi ambassador may no longer enjoy unfettered access to the White House as Prince Bandar once did in the Reagan era. Then Arab lobbyists shamelessly called on senators to choose between "Begin and Reagan." But the whiff of anti-Semitism injected into that row has apparently had a long shelf-life. Even then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger said -- apparently with a straight face-- that criticism of Jewish lobbying efforts against the AWACS deal had taken on "an ugly tone." His cabinet colleague Alexander Haig claimed to have been worried that if the deal were blocked there would be "a dangerous potential for anti-Semitism." And then Senator Joseph Biden said he had the "feeling that American Jews are being made a scapegoat by supporters of the sale." It probably did not help that the president himself warned "other nations" not to meddle in "American foreign policy.”
In geopolitical terms, at the height of the AWACS controversy Iran had been ensnared in a devastating war with Iraq (that was to claim staggering numbers of casualties on both sides). In contrast, the Saudis today find themselves besieged by imperialistic Persian ambitions which have instigated unrest in their Eastern Province, threatened nearby Bahrain, added fuel to endemic instability in bordering Yemen and undermined Sunni interests far and wide.
It is widely understood that King Abdullah has found the Obama administration's approach to blocking Iran's drive for a nuclear weapons capability not good enough. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia send an important signal to Teheran of Washington's commitment to the kingdom, according to Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror.
Back in 1981, Jerusalem feared that its overall qualitative edge was indeed being eroded; that armed with the latest American military jets the Saudis might feel compelled to join the next Arab war against Israel, and that despite their refusal to help lead the Arab side toward peace with Israel Washington had unfairly rewarded the kingdom. At the time Israel also faced wall-to-wall international opprobrium – not least from the White House – for having destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor.
In the midst of the AWACS storm, Reagan wrote Prime Minister Menachem Begin: "You have my reassurance that America remains committed to help Israel retain its military and technological advantages." Significantly, that pledge -- discounted by some at the time as a political maneuver -- has been by-and-large kept ever since, according to Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior lecturer of Middle Eastern History at Bar-Ilan University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
On the other hand, it is regrettably clear that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia has had no hoped for impact on moderating its stance toward Israel. The kingdom remains in the vanguard of the 60-year-old Arab League boycott of Israel. In any event, Schwartz argued that the House of Saud, given its custodianship over Mecca and Medina, simply cannot be seen to be at odds with what passes for the Palestinian Arab consensus on Israel.
On top of deterring Iran, the U.S. military hardware bolsters the prestige of the Saudi ruling class and solidifies its power (though the regime's ultimate domestic guarantor is the National Guard – not the armed forces), said Schwartz. He argues that King Abdullah has decided to rein in Wahhabi extremists and wants the kingdom to be part of a "crescent of normality" that would extend from Kuwait to Oman.
The possibility that current comparatively moderate rulers will be replaced by extremists is a chance Washington has been willing to take -- with Israel's tacit approval. In calculating the risk-benefit ratio, the threat of Iran weighs more heavily than an extremist putsch in Riyadh, said Teitelbaum. Moreover, precisely because U.S. weapons technology is so complex American advisers necessarily play ongoing training and support roles, what the Pentagon calls "interoperability." That also means that U.S. forces can step in to use them in case of emergency.
Such assurances go only so far. What if the virulently anti-American Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz were to come to power in Riyadh? According to Schwartz he despises the U.S. and Israel no less than Iran. Nor can Israelis take comfort from events elsewhere in the region. Who, after all, would have imagined that a Turkish premier would intimate that U.S. military hardware might one day be aimed at the IDF? And while Egypt's ongoing military build-up has always been suspect in Jerusalem – after all the country has no enemies on its borders -- who today could reasonably promise that its post-Mubarak, American-supplied armed forces will not someday turn against Israel?
In this volatile situation, AIPAC has been warning that the United States security assistance, pledged at $30 billion over a 10-year period, is facing growing budgetary threats. Most of this money is spent in the United States yet America's economic woes could make it politically impossible for Washington to honor its pledge of maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge. Shouldn't this new fiscal reality be part of the decision making calculus as Washington moves ahead with arms sales to the Gulf States?