Don’t let Israel and Saudi Arabia drag the U.S. into another war

The banquet hall in the royal palace in Jidda, Saudi Arabia with the aquarium in 1998. Photo provided by Bruce Riedel.
Editor's note:

We have listened to the siren call of war in the Middle East too often in the past. A “New Middle East!” we are told. But the results have been disastrous, writes Bruce Riedel. This piece originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

In Robert Gates’ memoir, Duty, about his years as secretary of defense, he describes a memorable encounter that is relevant to today’s rush to war with Iran.

In July 2007, Gates met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah at his sumptuous palace in Jeddah and, Gates writes, “I lost my cool.” The evening began with a multi-course banquet in a room the size of six basketball courts with an Olympic size swimming pool in the middle. The ceiling above it was painted to look like the stars. The room had on one side a floor-to-ceiling aquarium 75 feet across and 30 feet high with exotic fish inside, including sharks. I’ve been there myself, it’s impressive.

After the meal, Gates and the king met directly. The king railed against Iran and pushed for a full scale American military assault far beyond just its nuclear facilities. He threatened the Saudis would “go our own way” if Washington did not go to war. Iran, he often told visitors, was the source of the region’s problems and must be dealt with by force.

Gates got angry. The king was “asking the United States to send its sons and daughters into a war with Iran…as if we were mercenaries”—as if American soldiers could be bought by a Middle East potentate or state to do its bidding. “He was asking us to shed American blood, but at no time did he suggest that any Saudi blood might be spilled.” America had two wars already in the region and did not need another. In his recollections, the SecDef says, “I was pretty wound up.”

As probably the best secretary of defense ever, Gates was making clear no one should try to push America into a war it doesn’t need to fight to serve another country’s interests. Caution is not weakness. It’s often wisdom. War almost always has unintended consequences, and it’s worth losing your cool to stop one.

Unfortunately we have listened to the siren call of war in the Middle East too often in the past. The pitch is always the same. If we just use force against X, it will lead to a “New Middle East” that is prosperous, at peace, and without terrorism. Twice this fantasy has produced wars that only benefited Iran and helped make it the power it is today.

In 1982 it was Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon who was the self-proclaimed prophet. Israel would invade Lebanon, destroy the Palestinian movement, drive Syria out of the country, impose a pliant Maronite Christian government in Beirut, and then Lebanon together with Jordan would make peace with Israel. A New Middle East would follow. The United States would provide diplomatic cover and peacekeepers to facilitate the transformation. Washington signed up.

Instead, the Israelis got bogged down in Beirut, the Christian government collapsed after a single bombing blew away its leader, the American embassy was blown up twice, and the U.S. Marine barracks was devastated. President Ronald Reagan abandoned the project.

Iran, previously isolated and under Iraqi attack, sent a small detachment of its Revolutionary Guards to Syria and Lebanon where they created and trained Lebanese Hezbollah. After two decades Hezbollah drove the Israelis entirely out of southern Lebanon and destroyed Israel’s client South Lebanon Army. Iran became a powerful player in both Syria and Lebanon. It is now stronger than ever in Beirut and Damascus.

In 2003 another prophet promised a New Middle East. Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi opposition leader, promised George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that a war to depose Saddam Hussein would be welcomed by the Iraqi people, lead to peace with Israel, and open the door to regime change in Damascus and Tehran. Chalabi’s intimate ties to the Iranian Intelligence service were conveniently ignored by the neocons. Victory would be cheap and the region transformed.

Another disaster followed. America became bogged down in a war in Iraq it still cannot escape. No peace with Israel followed. No talks even began. Instead Iran became the preeminent outside power in Iraq.

This time, it should be said, the Saudis had warned America that the war would give Iraq to Iran on a silver tray, further expanding Iranian influence in the Fertile Crescent. 

Iran has risen to regional hegemony thanks in large part to the self imposed own goals of 1982 and 2003. Tehran played its cards smartly but it was more the recipient of others mistakes than the crafter of its own good fortune.

The Trump administration is now violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. The Saudi and Israeli governments have separately cheered on the administration but they both want much more: at a minimum Iranian behavior must be changed forcefully; at most the regime in Tehran can be toppled (although no replacement is available not even a Bashir Gemayel, Israel’s murdered protege in 1982). Iran’s gains must be rolled back in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa.

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, both of whom have been called serial bunglers in the past, are now pressing the United States to do much more than tear up a treaty. Both are facing Iran and its allies in civil wars in Syria and Yemen which have no end in sight. Both are in difficult situations and looking to their American allies for help. Israel has often promised to take unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear program. In a warning eerily like Abdullah’s to Gates, MBS is now promising that Saudi Arabia will acquire the bomb to keep up with Iran.

The lesson of Gates’ meeting in 2007 is highly relevant to today’s situation. The American people would be wise to lose their cool if the administration listens to those who are all too eager to send Americans into harm’s way to pursue fantasies.

The administration made a bad decision to violate the JCPOA. The road to a repetition of the 1982 and 2003 disasters has been opened.