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Pentagon presses for biggest arms deal in history with Saudis

American-made Israeli F-15s.

Even as it’s bogged down in a war against an enemy in Afghanistan that the US itself once armed, the Pentagon has just asked Congress to approve a $60 billion sale of American weapons to Saudi Arabia, plans for which were first unveiled last month. Reports The Washington Post:

The arms package includes 84 new F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to 70 more F-15s that the Saudis already have, as well as three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. Saudi Arabia would also get versions of a satellite-guided “smart bomb” system, plus anti-ship and anti-radar missiles.

The purpose of the sale—and of Israel’s willingness to let it go through—is to shift the balance of power in the Middle East against Iran. The Obama administration appears convinced that the best way to address Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology is to surround it with neighbors willing and able to attack. According to an analyst at The Atlantic, the deal represents a major shift in approach, from “rollback” to “containment”:

In plain language, the difference is between a policy aimed at stopping Iran from getting nukes (rollback) and one aimed at stopping Iran from using them if, or when, it does (containment). A look at the nature of the weapons Washington is planning to sell Riyadh, which reportedly also include the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system and an upgrade to the Saudis’ Patriot batteries, makes it clear that the package is meant to help one of Iran’s largest neighbors (and a longtime target of Iranian provocation) cope with nuclear-armed and potentially more belligerent Persian state.

It appears that Bush administrations are not the only ones willing to bend over backward to support the oil-rich, absolutist Saudi monarchy for which human rights abuses are a matter of course. At the bottom of the Post article, Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner expresses some reservations about the choice. “It seems to be rewarding a country that hasn’t been particularly helpful to any of our foreign policy objectives and one that doesn’t seem to be well-suited to be a military bulwark against Iran,” he says.

Weiner is also concerned about the timing of the announcement, which helps ensure the deal will pass through Congress without much question:

“This is too important of a deal to be dropping in the middle of an election recess,” he said. “The inescapable conclusion based on the timing is that they did not want Congress to take a hard look at this deal.”

In an article in the Malaysian Star, retired Canadian diplomat pleas for another approach:

What is really troubling about such massive arms spending is that it does nothing to mitigate the real threat – the vicious cycle of poverty and backwardness that has spawned so much instability and violence in the region and beyond.

As the 2009 Arab Human Development Report pointed out, despite its vast oil wealth, the Middle East remains one of the least developed regions in the world with more than 40% of its population living in poverty.

If Arab governments committed as much to economic development, education, health care and democratic transformation as they do to defence, a strong, stable and prosperous Middle East could emerge that would positively reshape the region’s geopolitical landscape.

Then again, by spending so much on weapons, they’re only following the US’s well-worn example.