In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, the United States announced that it would pull its troops out of Saudia Arabia, though some remain there. In a January 2009 Gallup poll, 60 percent of Egyptians said their opinion of the United States would significantly improve if it moved all military bases out of Saudia Arabia. Forty percent of Syrians, 39 percent of Jordanians, 52 percent of Saudis, 40 percent of Palestinians, 55 percent of Tunisians, 40 percent of Lebanese people, and 30 percent of Algerians agreed. How many millions of people is that?
President Obama apparently thought it would still be desirable to have a spot in that country where drone strikes could be launched. "The base was established two years ago to intensify the hunt against
al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate in Yemen is known," reports the Washington Post. "John Brennan, who previously served as the CIA's station chief in Saudi
Arabia, played a key role in negotiations with Riyadh over locating an
agency drone base inside the kingdom."
It would've been nice to publicly debate whether the strategic value of a drone base in Saudi Arabia outweighs the potential for blowback. Operating on a four-year time horizon, Obama has a potentially perverse incentive to over-weight short-term outcomes. If he's especially worried about preventing a terrorist attack on his watch, it's easy to forgive that understandable psychological bias, but it would be nice if politicians with different biases helped shape policy.
Of course, the chance of blowback might have decreased if the drone base had been kept secret forever, but what were the odds of that? Zero. Apparently, multiple news organizations knew about this base, so the notion that it was going to remain secret for long seems foolhardy. American presidents always seem to behave as if more secrets will be kept than wind up being kept.
The New York Times gives the timeline for the Saudi base:
The first strike in Yemen ordered by the Obama administration, in
December 2009, was by all accounts a disaster. American cruise missiles
carrying cluster munitions
killed dozens of civilians, including many women and children. Another
strike, six months later, killed a popular deputy governor, inciting
angry demonstrations and an attack that shut down a critical oil
Not long afterward, the C.I.A. began quietly building a drone base in
Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen. American officials said that
the first time the C.I.A. used the Saudi base was to kill Mr. Awlaki in
What has it been used for lately?
There have been at least five drone strikes in Yemen since the start of
the year, killing at least 24 people. That continues a remarkable
acceleration over the past two years in a program that has carried out
at least 63 airstrikes since 2009, according to The Long War Journal, a
Web site that collects public data on the strikes, with an estimated
death toll in the hundreds. Many of the militants reported killed
recently were very young and do not appear to have had any important
role with Al Qaeda.
To sum up, a CIA-constructed drone base located in Saudi Arabia is the launch point for numerous lethal strikes, many of which appear to kill people who don't play any important role in Al Qaeda.
Sounds like the sort of thing that could create blowback, doesn't it?