Never mind that the Obama administration had been quite good to the Saudis, reportedly boosting the intelligence support they got from the National Security Agency and offering them $115 billion worth of weapons in 42 separate deals over eight years, more than any previous administration.
For the Saudis, nothing made up for the Obama-led deal to lift sanctions on Iran, their preeminent foe, in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
Legitimizing Iran was anathema not only to Saudi Arabia but to much of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, the “blob” so disparaged by Obama’s deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes. Trump’s performance in Riyadh—complete with ardah—was a belly flop into the blob, which has long supported the seemingly hereditary U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, handed down like an inheritance to generation after generation of Saudi kings and American presidents.
A central tenet of this durable pro-Saudi dogma, indeed of nearly all U.S. alliances in the Middle East, is the sale of U.S. arms. In 2015, the top three purchasers among all developing nations worldwide were Qatar ($17.5 billion), Egypt ($11.9 billion), and Saudi Arabia ($8.6 billion). From 2008 to 2015, Saudi Arabia bought more U.S. weapons than any other developing nation, agreeing to $93.5 billion worth of purchases.
(Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has argued that Trump’s Riyadh bonanza was “fake news,” a misleading mix of Obama-era efforts, but while Trump may have been taking credit for past deals, the weapons have, nevertheless, been offered.)
These sales, often buoyed by U.S. subsidies known as foreign military financing, have continued despite many of the recipients’ dark records of serious human-rights abuses—such as the torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings carried out by the Egyptian military in its campaign against the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula, or the many possible war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in its ongoing bombing of Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen.
Supporters of these sales argue that while these governments may be ugly, if they don’t buy from us, they will buy from the Russians or the Chinese (or the French), and selling them our weapons gives us greater say in how those weapons are used, and greater insight into how their militaries operate. If war breaks out, we’ll be able to work closely with our clients because they’ll be using our technology.
Andrew Exum, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, recently argued in this magazine that progressive politicians should take more credit, not less, for these sales, given the hundreds of thousands of workers employed in the U.S. defense industry and the “millions of American mouths” fed by their salaries.