Arab Arms Deal Faces Fight in Congress

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The Bush administration this week plans to offer several Arab states in the Persian Gulf region an arms deal totaling $20 billion. Some Democrats in Congress are already trying to stop it.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Bush administration has not formally announced a deal with Saudi Arabia, we should mention, but already some Democrats in Congress say they will try to block it when it comes.

Let's get some analysis, as we do every Monday morning, from NPR's Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who's leading the opposition?

ROBERTS: Well, a couple of New York congressmen, Democrats Weiner and Nadler. But there are likely to be others once the deal is announced. And there are a couple of reasons for it: there's a lot of concern about the role that Saudi Arabia is playing in Iraq right now, and whether it's arming terrorists and whether the terrorists are going over the border from Saudi Arabia into Iraq. But also, that the Saudis were overly represented among the hijackers on September 11th and these are New York congressmen.

And then with any Saudi arms deals over the decades there's been a concern about Israel. Israel has a tremendous amount of concern about more weapons going into Arab nations in the region. And the administration is seeking, according to reports, to assure Israel that there will be language that none of the Saudi arms could be used against Israel.

But that is always a concern that is reflected in the Congress. And you heard in Guy Raz's piece that this is mainly being done to contain Iran, and of course that was for many years what the previous administrations were doing by bulking up the government in Iraq. So there is also some concern about here we go again and trying to keep the region - any nation in the region from getting too strong. It just becomes a huge arms race.

INSKEEP: This is one of many issues, and maybe Iraq is another where it might be worth asking if Democrats are all on the same page.

ROBERTS: No. And I think that Iraq is certainly another one, worthy or not. And there's a real question of what the Democrats want to do here. You saw in the last couple of weeks the debate on the Senate floor and where some Republicans seemed to be ready to move to work with Democrats, particularly two very influential Republicans - Richard Lugar, the former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; John Warner, the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee. And the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, moved to vote on the Democratic plan of withdrawal of troops by April of next year and then said no more votes on Iraq. So he sort of pulled the rug out from under these bipartisan deals that were going on in backrooms.

Now, you know, the Congress is going to go out for recess. By the time they get back in September, it will be time for the report from, or soon will be time for, the report from General David Petraeus from Iraq, so it will be a whole other Iraqi argument going on at that time. And the Democrats will have this recess to try to figure out whether they want to work with the Republicans or not.

INSKEEP: Democrats are also figuring out what they want to do about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Some lawmakers want a special prosecutor to investigate him.

ROBERTS: And Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy yesterday on "Face The Nation" said that he was not ready to do that yet, but he wants to give Alberto Gonzales a week to correct the record. And he says that before he moves that he will consult with Senator Arlen Specter, the highest-ranking Republican on that committee. Senator Specter was also on that program. He says that today he will be briefed on all of the secret surveillance programs and that then we'll have a better sense of whether the attorney general has been lying or not. But Senator Specter said, as he said over and over, that he'd like to see the attorney general go.

What's happening more and more, and you're hearing this from the Judiciary Committee members, is that they're seeing disaster at the Justice Department. There have been pieces written in newspapers by Justice Department officials, a lot of complaints voiced by them. And I think that that's what you're beginning to see is that as the Justice Department seems to be unraveling, more in Congress are going to be calling for the attorney general's head.

INSKEEP: And in just a couple of seconds, what are the implications if Democrats don't have a unified position on issues like that?

ROBERTS: Well, I think they just - are trying to find their way with their approval rating very low in the polls at the moment. What they really need to do is go home for this recess with a list of accomplishments, and they've got this week to try to get that done.

INSKEEP: Okay. We'll be watching. Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: That's NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts who joins us every Monday for analysis.

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Gates, Rice Taking Arms Offer to Saudis

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The White House is set to offer Gulf Arab countries as much as $20 billion in new, sophisticated weapons as part of a larger plan to block Iran's influence by developing a stronger strategic relationship with allies in the region.

Iran will be high on the agenda this week as both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embark on a weeklong trip through the region.

The official visit follows President Bush's somewhat cryptic announcement last week that seemed aimed at putting Iran on notice that the United States would be arming Tehran's strategic adversaries Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"To protect our interests and to show our commitment to our friends in the region, we are enhancing our military presence, improving our bilateral security ties, and supporting those fighting the extremists across the Middle East," Mr. Bush said.

Gates and Rice have an ambitious agenda, including discussions of air and missile defense systems, according to Peter Rodman, who was until recently the Pentagon's chief liaison to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

Rodman says that since Iraq has shown signs of implosion, Arab states — particularly Saudi Arabia — have started to get nervous about Tehran's increasing influence in the Persian Gulf region.

To counter the concern, the Bush administration has been holding out the possibility of selling the Saudis lots more weapons.

Rodman sees it as "a way of saying to them: 'Look, we are relevant to your security, you face an Iran threat, and we are here to reassure and in that way to contribute to the stability of a vital region.'"

It is basically a way for the administration to pursue its policy of containing the Iranians, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This 'quote unquote' containment of Iran will likely express itself in heavy militarization of the [Persian] Gulf," he said.

The United States is also working out deals with several Persian Gulf states for U.S. military access to their bases.

Over the past several months, Bush administration officials have been arguing that the Persian Gulf countries are actually terrified of Iran and terrified of what they see as Iran's growing influence in Iraq.

"They're afraid, first and foremost of the spread of Iranian influence in the region and they see the government of Iraq as basically a client of the Iranians," said Gregory Gause, who teaches Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. "The second thing they're afraid of is the spread of civil conflict in Iraq."

When it comes to Iran, countries such as Saudi Arabia play a double game; they nurture the relationship in public, but in private, the Saudis express a common concern over Iran with the United States.

"Privately I find a remarkable degree of strategic consensus," Rodman said. "Publicly, it's hard for them to say a lot. For the Arabs, they're neighbors of Iran, they have traditional relations with Iran, they talk to the Iranians but privately they are very worried."

To mitigate that worry, the administration figures a few dozen fighter jets, some missiles and an early warning radar site might just do the trick.

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