U.S.-Saudi bond has been awkward from the beginning; WaPo offers an update

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman now rules the kingdom on behalf of his ailing father.
Most of us have been more or less raised on a fairy tale about the role of our nation in the world.

I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about the dark side of U.S. history, usually emphasized by those who are sometimes called revisionists. Everyone knows that our land was taken, by force and much shedding of blood, from those whom we now refer to as Native Americans. Everyone knows that we were among the last bastions of human slavery. Up to the present moment, we look bad, in comparison to other wealthy nations, in the help we provide to the poor among us.


These are not secrets, but seem to coexist, widely and permanently, with the oversimplification that the United States is the leader of the world’s good guys, and is, in each period, pitted against some version of the world’s bad guys in the never-ending struggle to defend and expand the blessings of freedom and democracy.

By calling it a fairy tale, I don’t mean that there’s no truth to it. I know how lucky I am to enjoy life in America, a blessing that befalls me mostly because of decisions and actions taken by my grandparents who emigrated here.

Nonetheless, the good guy/bad guy tale is fraught with oversimplifications, one of which is the headlines right now. It’s our 73-year-old love affair with Saudi Arabia. Of course it’s in the news just now because of the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi-born Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi agents likely acting on behalf of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often called MBS).

I have nothing new to add to the latest reporting, much of which is grotesque, and especially painful to some, like Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who had portrayed MBS as a promising new leader with the potential to bring Saudi mores closer to the 21st, or at least the 20th century, in terms of modern rights and freedoms.

But, as a history nerd, I’ve written a few times about the origins and continuing strength of the U.S.-Saudi friendship, which began, rather suddenly, in 1945 and has never wavered since, despite the awkwardness of the close bond between the defender and promoter of democracy, and one of the most repressive, least democratic, most sexist, most theocratic and most controlling governments on earth.

The United States had little do with Saudi Arabia, and not much with the Mideast, until President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on his way home from the famous 1945 Yalta Conference, stopped off in the Mideast’s Great Bitter Lake and, aboard a U.S. naval vessel, met for several days with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia.

A bond was created — one that has seldom wavered since. U.S. oil companies and U.S. oil consumers have access to the vast oil resources of the desert kingdom, and the U.S. guarantees the security of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi ruling family’s divine grip on power.

As far as I know, the deal has never been broken by either side, and both sides attach considerable importance to its maintenance. The last time I summarized this history, I wrote:

The oil and security elements of the relationship make a certain sense, but the long deep friendship rubs awkwardly against the view that the United States uses its power in the world to promote and spread freedom and democracy, and the fact that Saudi Arabia, during all these decades, is among the most repressive, least democratic, most sexist, most theocratic and most controlling governments on earth.

MBS now rules the kingdom on behalf of his ailing father. The recent Khashoggi unpleasantness certainly complicates things, but I feel sure that the alliance will survive. Both sides are deeply, deeply invested in it, and the current occupant of the Oval Office is perhaps even more slavishly devoted to the alliance than his predecessors.

But the alliance was struck back when the idea of a reformist, democratizing Saudi Arabia wasn’t any part of the discussion.

In this morning’s Washington Post, my buddy Tom Hamburger gets first byline in a piece that updates the awkwardness of the moment (and really the awkwardness of the whole 73-year tale). It takes us back just to March of this year, as a group of prominent Washington power brokers (prominently including former Minnesota senator, now lobbyist Norm Coleman, whom the piece describes as “a dean of the Saudi lobby in Washington and an influential GOP figure”) prepares for the first state visit of MBS to Washington, just after he had consolidated total power back home.

The Post piece notes that, just at the time of the meeting, “Congress was facing a vote on a bipartisan resolution seeking to end U.S. support for a Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of civilians since 2015.”

The Post piece tells the end of that small chapter in the decades-long Saudi-American friendship:

Eight days after their meeting, the congressional resolution aimed at extracting the United States from what the United Nations labeled “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world” would be defeated — hours after Mohammed was warmly welcomed at the White House at the start of his nationwide tour. 

Those twin successes reflected the power of a sophisticated Saudi influence machine that has shaped policy and perceptions in Washington for decades, batting back critiques of the oil-rich kingdom by doling out millions to lobbyists, blue-chip law firms, prominent think tanks and large defense contractors. In 2017, Saudi payments to lobbyists and consultants in Washington more than tripled over the previous year, public filings show.

The meeting was, of course, before the Khashoggi murder. The point of the story seemed to be to illustrate the power of the Saudi lobby, which is surely earning its pay in the current climate.

The Post said that after the meeting, Coleman “said national interests are at stake if the U.S.-Saudi partnership does not endure.”

The direct quote from Coleman reads: “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is critically important, and its partnership in confronting the Iranian threat is critical for U.S. security, for security in the region, including the security of Israel.”

The piece goes on to talk about the enduring power of the Saudi lobby, which has recently ramped up its spending to new highs, and which seems to never have lost an important argument.

Read the whole piece, which is here.

But if you don’t click through, here’s one more quote from it, attributed to Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut:  

One of the foreign policy truisms force-fed in Washington is that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a special, unbreakable relationship. At least everybody who is smart and knows about foreign policy who walks into your office tells you that. But as it turns out, a lot of those people are getting gulf money.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/22/2018 - 04:22 pm.

    In other words,money talks, and oil is money.
    But as many commentators have pointed out, the Saudi’s have far more at stake than we do.
    In brief, we are currently a net petroleum exporter and not dependent upon Saudi business for our energy supply. They don’t drive OPEC the way they used to. Our best policy would be to restore the previous gas mileage goals (which Trump undercut) and add subsidies for electric car development.
    As for the military aspect, the Saudis, having bought into our military hardware are now dependent on us for maintenance and training. The Russians and Chinese can’t supply that.
    And apart from these realpolitik issues, as Eric points out the Saudis are a primitively autocratic regime that is contrary to all that we aspire to.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/22/2018 - 04:38 pm.

    15 Out of 19 Sep 11 terrorists are Saudis, 1 Egyptian, 1 Lebanese, 2 UAE and we go off on a 20 year Jihad on Iraq and Iran.

    And to apply a far stretching mixed metaphor, sure to be appreciated by college BB fans:

    As Jerry Tarkanian said about using convenience to pick your enemies:

    “The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation.”

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/23/2018 - 01:57 pm.

      As I understand it, Saudi funded schools of Wahhabism in Afghanistan & pakistan are significant sources of jihadists who continue to fight the US and our allies around the world. But, yeah, they’re great friends.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/22/2018 - 06:42 pm.

    It’s a sad commentary on the corrupt nature of the relationship, and the corrosive effect of piles of money on our national government, especially when that money is widely distributed between/among both Democrats AND Republicans. It’s not just Mr. Trump who wears an “I can be bought” sign.

  4. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/22/2018 - 07:24 pm.

    Well, of course the U.S., as a global actor, isn’t working to defend and expand the blessings of freedom and democracy. Like most nations, the U.S. acts globally to advance the interests of a concentrated global wealth that largely disregards national boundaries in favor of interlocking power and vigilance to repel democratic impulse.

    If the U.S. were working to expand freedom and democracy, it would seek its Middle East foothold by directing itself toward normalizing relations and developing alliances with a nation that has a strong civil society, substantial social capital, a large regional economy and a position of influence, where theological stricture is most clearly superstructure susceptible, over time, to being dissolved by that civil society’s demands for freedom and democracy. It would not select as its most unshakeable ally a nation that is nothing more than a tight grouping of corrupt wealth with no civil society beneath, no source of demand for evolution or change, and no diversified economy, and that maintains its place only by virtue of its uneasy but willing alliance with, and generous ongoing support for, violent Sunni/Wahhabi extremism.

    In other words, if the U.S. were working to expand freedom and democracy, its efforts at cultivating a strong Middle East partner and ally would have been directed over these decades toward Iran, not Saudi Arabia.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/22/2018 - 10:57 pm.

    Speaking of Realpolitick, one of the saddest movies I have ever seen is The Mission. It story is set at the beginning of globalization, where waring factions of countries and relegions and the effects on individuals and groups play out on the world stage. I think I cried through most of the movie. The sad part is the same factors are still at play today. People lives wether individuals or communities are still being torn apart by people holding power. I am still going in tears.

  6. Submitted by Roy Everson on 10/23/2018 - 01:49 pm.

    The image of the Saudi government is tarnished by the crown prince and by Norm Coleman.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/23/2018 - 01:59 pm.

    The murder of Khashoggi had nothing to do with money. It had to do with absolute power and a medieval mentality that still exists in a Saudi Arabia where a brutal autocrat does a “Cut off his head!” with anyone who even slightly criticizes him. For a country that evidently has no significant or useful ground-based army but lots of nifty American high-tech arms, Saudi Arabia really seems to like beheadings and cutting bodies up. Old-fashioned punishments, like the good old days of the early Middle Ages.

    What has to do with money, though, is, as Eric points out, our own American kowtowing to this medieval country and its dictator.

Leave a Reply