It was 1981 when President Ronald Reagan met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Washington. It was a cordial, cautious encounter, followed by a fierce confrontation over a planned arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Reagan's diaries, released a few weeks ago with only minimal editing by historian Douglas Brinkley, reveal Reagan's thoughts after the meeting with Begin ended. In the entry dated Sept. 9, 1981, he wrote: "I told him how strongly we felt it could help bring the Saudis into the peace-making process."
Twenty-six years later, this rationale for selling arms to the Saudis is still valid. Two weeks ago, President George W. Bush announced that the United States will host a regional peace conference in the fall, and clearly the Saudis would be the big "get." If they come and sit at the table with Israel, the achievement will be praised by all. If they choose not to come, leaving Israel with the usual suspects—Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, entities with which it already has agreements—the initiative will be labeled a failure before it even begins.
But luring the Saudis to the peace conference is not the only reason the Bush administration wants to sell the Saudis some of the most sophisticated weaponry on the market. It's not even the main reason. The deal, officially announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday, "will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hizballah, Syria, and Iran," according to her statement.
In short, it is meant to ensure the Saudis' commitment to the "moderate" camp, to help Washington better manage its affairs in Iraq and prepare to block Iranian expansionism in the region. The United States is practically bribing the Saudis to make them more cooperative in Iraq and more confident in light of an emboldened Iran. This is yet another manifestation of an administration that is setting its priorities anew: No more reforming the Middle East—let's focus on managing it in the old, realist way. Using friends, however reluctant, against foe; manipulating regional powers against each other; using whatever regimes are at hand to ease the pressure on the United States.
The problem with the Saudis, though, is that time and again they have proved to be unbribable and unmaneuverable. In fact, it is Riyadh that is manipulating Washington into this questionable deal, using tactics they've been perfecting for decades—never fully committing themselves, always leaving the door open to other alternatives to keep the United States on its toes. If America will not sell them weapons, they might turn to China or Russia. And as for the threat from Iran, they know that the United States knows that leaving the Saudis to their fate is not an option. Not as long as there's no real alternative to the fuel they so generously provide.
This new deal with the kingdom is no more than another down payment, an attempt to ensure its future cooperation on a number of issues on which the Saudis should have cooperated long ago. The "Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq," and U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about its close Arab ally's "counterproductive" role in Iraq, the New York Times reported last week. This is one of many instances in which the Saudis have defied U.S. interests and played the double agent: working with Syria on the fate of Lebanon, orchestrating an agreement between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, allowing Saudi businessmen to keep an open channel to al-Qaida.
Writing in the Washington Post on Sunday, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Peter Rodman explained that "the pressures pushing us to accept defeat in Iraq are already profoundly unnerving to allies in the Middle East, and elsewhere, who rely on the United States to help ensure their security in the face of continuing dangers." Saudi Arabia, supposedly one of these allies, is playing both ends against the middle: pressing America to stay in Iraq to prevent Iranian infiltration—while at the same time helping forces working to destabilize the elected, American-supported government of Nouri al-Maliki. The arms deal aside, there's every reason to suspect that the Saudis will continue to keep America at arm's length.
And anyway, the Saudis' anxiety—about weakening U.S. defense, increasingly aggressive Iran, of revolutionary Islam—is only half of the story. The fear of abandonment is a double-edged sword. American worries about Saudi Arabia and its future are driving the rocky relationship with a problematic regime forward.
When Reagan was pondering the deal of the early 1980s—selling the Saudis the F-15 fighter jet and the AWACS reconnaissance system—he was nearly defeated by a Congress sensitive to Israeli complaints, but he managed to overcome the objections at the last moment.
When he submitted the package to Congress on Oct. 1, 1981, Reagan issued a statement: "[W]e will not permit" Saudi Arabia "to be another Iran," he promised legislators. If the peace-process argument that he made to Begin can still be used more than 25 years later, so can the one he offered Congress at the very same time.