Have American Forces Become Saudi Mercenaries?

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President Donald Trump holds a sword and dances with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace, Saturday, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), a vocal critic of President Donald Trump, accused the president a few days ago of selling U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia. She commented on what Trump said in an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham the day before that he had pressured Riyadh to compensate the U.S. for a recent deployment to the Middle East. 

“We have a very good relationship with Saudi Arabia. I said, listen, you’re a very rich country. You want more troops? I’m going to send them to you, but you’ve got to pay us. They’re paying us. They’ve already deposited $1 billion in the bank,” he said.

“He sells troops,” Amash tweeted in response.

What Trump was likely trying to convey, however inartfully, is that he is not letting America’s allies take advantage—if they want protection (which is exactly what the expanded U.S. defense presence in Saudi Arabia, announced back in November, is designed to be), then they will have to pay their fair share.

Amash, however, tends to have a point—our men and women in uniform are not mercenaries, bought and sold to the highest bidder, nor should they be considered as such. Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, who served for fifteen years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, stated that this is what today’s national security zeitgeist has wrought: the idea that Saudi Arabia is an ally (and the only backstop to Iran), so despite all of the billions the kingdom has in oil money, the United States is obligated to help defend it, at any cost (and you better believe, while the Saudis might be footing the bill, we’ll be paying on the back end by putting our people and interests further into harm’s way).

In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against both passionate attachments and inveterate antipathies to other nations. He rightly perceived that both strong sentiments would lead Americans to put the interests of another nation ahead of our own or to lure the U.S. into unnecessary conflicts for reasons that had nothing to do with our security. The most relevant passage of the address says this:

The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation [bolded for emphasis].

A couple of months ago, President Trump authorized to increase the relatively light U.S. military presence in the kingdom from an advisory mission of about 800 to approximately 3,000—this was in reaction to the assault on the Saudi oil facilities on September 14, 2019, which both the Saudi and American governments accused Iran.

U.S. military officials say one important aspect of the deployment is the presence of American forces in more locations across the kingdom. The rationale is that Iran has demonstrated its reluctance to target American personnel, either directly or indirectly, in part because Trump has made clear that would trigger a military response.

Does this then mean that our men and women are not only sent overseas to defend another country, but used as human shields, too?

Trump has taken a transactionally hard line from when he first took office, nay, from his predecessors. Is this, however, America’s role? Based on what the Father of our Nation stated as he left office in 1797, I answer in the negative. Not to mention, the Saudi royal family is no hapless supplicant—they have plenty of money to splurge on their princes,  and have caused enormous instability in the region by their suppression of any democratic reform, throwing their weight around knowing Washington has had their backs. They might be crying austerity today, but the royal house of Saud lives in a kind of opulence most only sees in Hollywood movies. Yet they are so incompetent that they cannot build or maintain a proper army to save their lives. Hence, they depend on outsourcing, and it appears as if we are the ones they continue to hit up.

For the record, I applaud Trump’s anti-Iranian stance—the ayatollahs and mullahs have to go. But he cannot have it both ways—the Saudis are just as bad, if not worse. All one has to do is look at their human rights violations, their terrorist activities on September 11, 2001, in addition to the Pensacola shootings last year. To quote Vlahos, “[i]t is time to claw back from this toxic relationship, and the first place to start is to transform our current mission of  paternalistic “power projection” to one of “national defense.” Who cares what the House of Saud wants to buy—it’s not what the American taxpayer pays for, and amen to Amash for putting it in such bald terms.