The shocking allegations of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul have led to a rare open debate among politicians, pundits, and business leaders about the strategic wisdom of U.S.-Saudi relations. When the debate subsides, however, it’s unlikely to have transformed America’s long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf kingdom’s regional allies, in any substantial way.
The reason is simple: geography—more specifically, the U.S. military’s peculiar relationship to it. For decades, the United States has professed several vital (and lesser) national interests in the Middle East. These interests include assuring the free flow of oil and natural gas, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, preventing the emergence of ungoverned areas that terrorist organizations can utilize, containing Iran, and enhancing the capacity of regional militaries to defend their own territory.
American political and military officials have consistently contended that the military should have the predominant role in achieving these interests. And, to ensure that military forces and assets can operate with sufficient latitude in the region to achieve said interests, those forces need reliable and predictable access to the airfields, ports, facilities, and airspace located on the sovereign territory of Persian Gulf countries. Cyber-capabilities or smaller, less-lethal units operating from naval assets in international waters are not an adequate or reliable substitute. Across Democratic and Republican administrations, direct and stable military access to the Middle East has been a far higher foreign-policy priority than any competing moral or ethical consideration in the region.
This is the conclusion I reached over the past year researching U.S. military policy in the Middle East, the results of which were recently published by Chatham House. This included speaking with dozens of current and former military officials, diplomats, and executives from contractors that provide security services to regional militaries. I also reviewed the best publicly available information from government and nongovernmental sources, compiled data on U.S. military deployments and security cooperation programs, and applied the latest academic findings on the measurable impact of deployments and operations.
My central finding was that the United States’ regional alliances consisted of a relatively simple exchange: Washington provides security cooperation, weapons, and logistical support, and in return, regional governments offer assured access to their territory for the U.S. military. This might seem unsurprising—but the biggest revelation of my conversations was the depth, breadth, and scope of this reciprocal relationship. It isn’t simply transactional and temporary, but built upon decades of close personal contacts between U.S. military leaders and their regional interlocutors. These relationships extend beyond the Americans’ active-duty service and have allowed Middle Eastern governing regimes to receive a pass from human and political rights concerns. To some extent, the relationships now exist to serve themselves, rather than U.S. interests.
Security cooperation programs are the routine touchpoints between U.S. military forces (and contractors) and their Middle East counterparts. For example, in 2017, 9,007 officers from Middle East countries received instruction—on subjects including tactical combat skills and civil-military relations—at Defense Department educational institutions, primarily within the United States. Weapons and munitions sales are also an enormous and visible element of Washington’s collaboration with regional militaries. For two decades, the United States has been the largest weapons exporter to the Middle East, and from 2013 to 2017, 49 percent of all U.S. weapons by value went to countries in the region. Security cooperation also includes numerous examples of U.S. logistical and analytical aid for operations conducted by local militaries: America’s expedited munitions and fuel shipments to Israel five days into its war against Hezbollah in 2006, a joint surveillance and intelligence cell to support Turkish airstrikes against forces associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, and, most notoriously, the combat search and rescue, in-air refueling, and intelligence analysis that the U.S. military has provided to the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.
There are also less-recognized, informal cooperation activities that retired military officers provide to Middle East governments. After stepping down as the commander of U.S. Central Command, now-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while also on the board of directors for defense contractor General Dynamics, served as an unpaid military advisor to the United Arab Emirates, from June 2015 until August 2016. Retired Gen. James Jones worked at Ironhand Security LLC with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, while retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Moore Jr. consulted for Stark Aerospace Business Development, based in Israel. More shocking is Stephen Toumajan, who retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2007 and is now a two-star general within the UAE military’s Joint Aviation Command. These activities enhance the capacity of local security services, which, in turn, enables and sustains the close relations that reliably permit U.S. military access.
As a result, U.S. military policy is not based on any objective evaluation but is immensely influenced by regional governments. These distortions are intensified by U.S. public relations firms. These firms arrange meetings to represent the interests of regional governments with members of Congress, administration officials, research fellows at think tanks, editorial boards, journalists, corporate executives, and any other influencer. (Trust me, if you publish columns that run counter to the perceptions they seek to promote, these firms will reach out directly and repeatedly in an effort to change your mind.) As of June, according to the Foreign Agents Registration Act website, Saudi Arabia was being represented within the United States by 28 PR firms; Qatar, 24; the UAE, 16; Iraq, 15 firms and individuals; Israel, seven; and Egypt, three.
President Donald Trump repeatedly decries the cost and futility of America’s role in the region, declaring in June: “I say it so much and it’s so sad, but we have $7 trillion in the Middle East. You might as well throw it out the window.” Despite Trump’s strident belief that Middle East governments are “ripping off” taxpayers, and that the United States should be reimbursed for its troop presence, he has ordered no noticeable shift in military policy toward the region. In fact, the military’s footprint has only increased since he entered of office, from 40,517 troops in the Middle East in June 2017 to 54,180 four months later. Moreover, despite rhetorically pushing for them, the Trump administration has received no reimbursements from Middle East governments in exchange for U.S. forces being stationed in the region.
While nobody can predict how the domestic political fallout of the Khashoggi slaying will unfold, it is improbable that Trump will take any steps that risk U.S. military access and, by extension, the vast number of missions that U.S. forces have been tasked to fulfill in the region. Indeed, late last week, just as the gruesome allegations of Khashoggi’s death were being revealed, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford met with his Saudi counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Fayyad Al-Ruwayli, in Washington. The Pentagon announced alongside the meeting notice, “The U.S. and Saudi Arabia share a long-standing partnership and are committed to peace and security in the Middle East region.” Due to America’s many vital national interests that presidents have declared in the region, that partnership, and those with neighboring allies and neutrals, are a military necessity—no matter how implicated the United States has become in the actions of those partners.