White House Eyes Billions in Arms for Mid-East

The Bush administration is expected to ask Congress to increase military aid to a number of Middle Eastern countries. On the list are Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other nations bordering Iraq and Iran.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Debbie Elliott is away.

The Bush administration is reportedly preparing to announce the $20-billion package of arms deal for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors to counter Iran's growing influence in the region. According to reports in today's New York Times and The Washington Post, the sales would include advanced satellite-guided bombs, the type of weaponry the United States doesn't generally sell to Arab states. The sales are subject to congressional approval.

The arms sales will likely be on the agenda this coming week when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Also on the agenda in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's role in Iraq.

Bush administration officials have complained privately about the presence of Saudi fighters among Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and about lack of Saudi's support for the American-backed government in Baghdad.

One man who has followed arms sales and the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf for many years is David Mack. He's a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, now vice president of the Middle East Institute.

Ambassador Mack, thanks for joining us.

Mr. DAVID MACK (Vice President, Middle East Institute): You're welcome.

LYDEN: Would you please give us a sense of the sides of this arms deal to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the other Gulf states?

Mr. MACK: Well, in proportion to arms sales that have been made to countries in this region in the past, such as the British arms sale with Saudi Arabia, these are not out of proportions.

LYDEN: What about smart bombs?

Mr. MACK: The smart bombs are something that's been desired by countries in the region as a way of making certain that the United States would meet its commitments to take out Iranian missile installations, for example, that are viewed as threatening, that would be land-to-land missiles targeted at Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. There's always been a commitment by the United States to do that in principle. But naturally, people are suspicious that at the end of the day, the United States would not meet this commitment.

LYDEN: Are these states feeling insecure?

Mr. MACK: These states feel an existential threat from Iran and they feel an existential threat arising from the failure of many U.S. policies toward Iraq. They do take the view - and I believe that's the view that's shared by most analysts - that Iranian influence has grown proportionately over the years as U.S. policy toward Iraq has not been successful and as the United States did not succeed in reenergizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

LYDEN: The guided missiles that are being sold to these Gulf States, is this going to allay fears of the Iranian arms buildup?

Mr. MACK: Well, the arms sales by themselves are not going to deal with the Iranian problem. It's only a coordinated strategic approach involving the United States, the states of the area and some other outside parties, perhaps, that will enable the states to feel that they have a secure relationship vis-a-vis Iran, and can stand up to Iranian intimidation.

LYDEN: Sounds a little bit like an arms race or trying to balance an arms race.

Mr. MACK: It's a little bit like the NATO states and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

LYDEN: U.S. officials have complained off the record that Saudi Arabia isn't playing a constructive role in Iraq. Do you think that arms sale to the Saudis will translate into Saudi support for the Iraqi government?

Mr. MACK: I don't think there's a one-to-one equation there at all. But I do believe that, for the Saudis, the single most important issue is whether the United States aids in bringing into power a government in Baghdad that will not be too much under Iranian influence.

Right now, they view the Maliki government as a government that, for various reasons, is strongly subject to Iranian influence and, therefore, a government which will increase the Iranian strategic weight in the region.

LYDEN: Simultaneously, a very large increase in defense aid to Israel is being proposed. Does that mean that this arms sale to the Saudis and others is going to be a hard sell on Capitol Hill?

Mr. MACK: Well, it's always hard to measure how Congress will react to things like this, particularly given the weakened state of the Bush administration. However, I believe that there's been considerable advance consultation with key members of Congress. And overall, in the U.S. government, there is a nonpartisan consensus of - that the United States has a vital interest in making certain that the states of the Arabian Peninsula do not have their security threatened by an outside power, whether it's Iraq or Iran.

LYDEN: How eager are these various states to obtain these weapons?

Mr. MACK: Well, it has to be said that this was not their first choice. They would far prefer to see their strategic requirements met without additional very large expenditures to themselves. However, they have come to the conclusion that they're going to have to play a much greater role in their own defense, albeit in cooperation with United States, than they've been able to do in the past.

LYDEN: They weren't supposed to have to worry so much of that Iraq.

Mr. MACK: That's right. Or Iran. We were going to take care of these things for them.

LYDEN: David Mack is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Thank you very much for being with us, David Mack.

Mr. MACK: You're welcome.

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