President Joe Biden is exploring the possibility of a big deal in which Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Israel, Israel reopens talks with Palestinians, and the U.S. signs a mutual defense pact with Saudi Arabia.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has described the deal as “a game changer for the Middle East, bigger than the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel”—as long as tight restrictions on Israeli settlements are a condition.
Certainly, the package is intriguing. The fact that Biden sent National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to talk it over with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the fact that Israel’s intelligence chief came to Washington to talk it over with Biden, indicates that this is being taken very seriously—though Biden has said he hasn’t decided whether he should pursue it, even if all the moving parts (of which there are many) could be fastened into a cohesive contraption.
Here’s why I think it’s a bad idea, however skillfully the diplomacy might be maneuvered.
First, the very idea of a U.S. defense pact with Saudi Arabia—a treaty-bound assurance that the United States will come to the royal family’s defense if their country is attacked, in the same way that we have pledged to defend any member of NATO that comes under attack—is, and should be, a non-starter.
It’s one thing to form alliances of convenience with non-democracies. The U.S. has done this on many occasions, for reasons of realpolitik, good and bad. (The classic case of good: Franklin D. Roosevelt allying with Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union during World War II in order to defeat Nazi Germany.)
But it’s another thing to sign a sacred bond—a promise to defend a foreign country as if our own homeland were under attack—with a dynastic monarchy that doesn’t so much as pretend to have democratic aspirations, that has a long and horrible human rights record, and whose leader (the crown prince with whom Sullivan met last week) ordered the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. [Continue reading…]