THE current debate over arms to Saudi Arabia reflects certain fundamental attitudes toward foreign relations in American society. Although special-interest groups may play a part in blocking the sale, the problems posed by the issue are deeper. Any success the opponents to the sale may have is possible, in part, because of the way Americans tend to view their nation's approach to other nations. In the pursuit of US objectives, Americans have exaggerated expectations of the support the United States should receive from another nation. Saudi Arabia, a relatively weak desert kingdom with a royal leadership concerned primarily with survival, is an example. Given the ruling family's Arab roots and the country's central position in Islam, Saudis are both emotionally and practically committed to the Palestinian cause. (King Abdel Azizin, in his meeting with Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, was one of the first to raise the Palestine issue with an American president.) In the interplay of Arab politics that surrounds the plight of the Palestinians, the Saudis see themselves at the mercy of stronger Arab states, particularly Syria. It is unrealistic to believe that the Saudis will take bold steps toward peace in the Middle East if that peace is opposed by these states. It is equally unrealistic to believe that the cautious Saudis would initiate an attack on Israel or permit US arms to fall into the hands of radical Arab elements.
To obtain congressional approval for important projects, administrations are pressed to overstate, if not misrepresent, how other nations will respond. The Saudis, again, are a good example. Either by misreading their equivocations, or out of an unfounded hope, the executive permitted Congress to condition the delivery of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia on the prospect that that nation would play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process. That was not likely to happen.
Americans tend to see the sale of military equipment as a form of aid rather than as a commercial transaction. There are generally no concessions on price or credit in cash sales to a country such as Saudi Arabia. Certainly, arms sales must be considered in the light of US strategic concerns, but the US cannot expect to ``buy'' conformity to its policies when another country is paying for the equipment. Any emphasis on conformity obscures such advantages as access to the nation and its civilian and military leaders and a degree of common interest in security not otherwise obtainable. In the threat from Iran, the Saudis have a genuine security problem; it is in US national interest to help them meet that problem.
The American view of foreign policy is, basically, short term. Today's mood of antagonism toward any sales to Saudi Arabia is described as based on a wide public perception that US interests in that country and that region are less vital now. The oil glut and the reduced leverage of the Arab states in the world are cited as indications that the US no longer needs to be as concerned either over the security of these states or over what they may do to the United States. Few who have a sense of the long-term energy picture would dismiss so readily the importance to the US and to other major industrial countries of the major oil reserves in the region. And those who have followed the several decades of conflict and rivalry would not dismiss so readily its strategic importance.
Americans feel that because such nations as the Saudis ``have nowhere else to turn,'' it is not necessary to deal with them except on US terms. Islamic and conservative, the argument goes, the Saudis are not likely to turn to the Soviets. So why worry? In a nation such as Saudi Arabia, the ability of a ruler to provide for the nation's defense is not only a matter of external security. It is also a matter of preserving the loyalty of the armed forces. Americans seem to forget too quickly how elements of the armed forces of Iraq, Libya, and Ethiopia, unhappy with what they saw as unproductive ties to the United States, overthrew governments friendly to the US. The governments of friendly countries may have no where else to turn, but there may be elements in the country that do.
We live in a world of independent political systems. Only a few, with their own interests and security in mind, will be in total agreement with the US. There will be some where the possibilities of total identity of view may not exist but where common long-term interests dictate a strong measure of cooperation and where the benefits outweigh any risk. Saudi Arabia is such a case.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.