Bush Administration plans to sell $20 billion of sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia and five other Arab monarchies are likely to backfire and produce less regional security. Far from balancing Sunni Arab states against Shia Iran, such massive arms sales may ignite conflicts that will make the current war in Iraq look like child's play.
For more than 50 years, the United States has obsessively played one Persian Gulf country against another, selling arms to allies to protect vital interests, primarily crude oil. Yet this balancing game has repeatedly proved counterproductive.
During the Cold War, Dwight Eisenhower sold arms to Iraq to counter Soviet-support of Egypt, rendering Iraq vulnerable to an anti-western revolution in 1958. Richard Nixon gave the Shah a "blank check" to bolster Iran against "radical" Iraq, but in the process catalyzed Iran's 1979 revolution. Ronald Reagan then backed "moderate" Iraq against "fundamentalist" Iran - and in turn created the aggressive Saddam Hussein war machine that invaded Kuwait.
After ejecting Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, George H.W. Bush sold arms to the Gulf's smaller Sunni monarchies to counter the power of Shia Iran. Yet the US alliance with Saudi Arabia contributed to the rise of al-Qa'eda. The subsequent destruction of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes ironically eliminated Iran's most bitter enemies, leaving Iran even stronger.
The repeated breakdown of balance-of-power strategies for the Persian Gulf stems from profound differences between the historical experiences of Europe and the Middle East. In Europe, power-balancing promoted peace after the 1648 Westphalia Peace which marked the end of wars over religion. Thereafter in Europe, power balancing assumed that the people's highest loyalty was to the nation-state.
But in the Middle East, ties to fragile states remain subordinate to primordial loyalties to family, religion, sect and ethnicity. Power-balancing among such entities is castle building in the proverbial sand.
Massive American arms sales to Arab Sunnis against Shia Persians today are bound to fan flames of wider conflicts. The American invasion of Iraq has undermined the millennial Sunni order while Shia power has increased..
Sunni Arab states now fear the rising power of Shia Iran, Shia domination of Iraq, Shia ascendancy in Bahrain, and the unrest of the Shia minorities in other Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
Of particular importance, the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia deeply resent the discriminatory policies of the Sunni regime. Saudi Shias are concentrated in the eastern province where most of the kingdom's huge oil fields and export terminals are located. Unprecedented Shia empowerment in the region may yet transform the Persian Gulf into the "Shia Gulf," home to the lifeblood of the global economy
Given the failed arms sales and power balancing strategies of the last century, American policy makers for this 21st Century should reject more schemes to divide, balance, and dominate the Persian Gulf.
Instead, the United States should embrace a two-pronged approach that engages both Sunni and Shia states while simultaneously encouraging the integration of Persian Gulf societies into the larger global community and economy.
To these ends, the United Sates should commit itself to develop enlightened, multi-layered plans to advance the complex processes of social, economic and political change within the Gulf societies.
Yet there is no alternative to cooperation with existing Gulf regimes. Bypassing them will not work. Sunni and Shia leaders alike see American efforts to reach around them to reformist groups inside their societies as subverting their regimes.
As an example, the Bush Administration spends tens of millions on propaganda against the Iranian regime while trying to foster civil society development and better human rights conditions. But this approach has backfired as the regime tightens its repressive grip and reformists suffer serious setbacks.
In contrast, the twofold strategy of engagement and integration proposed here not only suggests a constructive way to interact with Persian Gulf countries, it also offers an effective way to counter terrorist acts by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Al-Qaeda's power grows exponentially in conditions of strife as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Failing to learn from experience is a recipe for disaster. A renewed arms race, including nuclear weapons, among fragile Gulf regimes at each other's sectarian throats will lead to a Gulf-wide conflagration that once ignited, would be difficult to control. America and the world would suffer from the unintended consequences of this misguided policy for years to come.
R.K. Ramazani is professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Persian Gulf region, including Future Security in the Persian Gulf: America's Role (1991). The author wishes to thank W. Scott Harrop for assistance in condensing this essay.
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