This is another old analysis from 2019 which was part of a broader chronicle of media comments and exchanges.
Democracy Now: Andrew Bacevich: The US Saudi Relationship is a Principle Source of Destablization in the Middle East
The video is as the title suggests based largely on the point that the US should have a different relationship with Saudi Arabia because the US is no longer dependent on middle east oil. Bacevich position is that energy independence should bring more accountability to Saudi Arabia and lead to reduced tension with Iran. He reduces the importance of the region to oil, and my comment seeks to broaden the basis for the importance of the region and the preferential treatment given to Saudi Arabia.
1st Comment Orion Simerl: The strategy is much deeper than ensuring access to the resources of the oil rich region. He calls the policy towards the region by the United States misguided because it has led to the destabilization of the region. However, from a strategic standpoint, destabilization is a desired goal especially for regimes not under the influence of the United States.
If we remove the sanctions from Iran that have been in place to different degrees since 1980, with the exception of 2 years under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the independent oil and gas abundant nation achieves a much greater level of development. Iran becomes not only a great influence in the region, but an influence globally. This influence is a detriment to the US because Iran is not subordinate to US interests. Iran’s development would have been accelerated had the US not supported the Iraq invasion of Iran, which US support was key in prolonging.
The removal of Qaddafi in Libya we all know had nothing to do with humanitarian intervention but was an undertaking to remove an obstacle to US interests abroad, more specifically to Western European interests in Africa, primarily France. What applies to Libya applies to the middle east.
Saudi Arabia is important because it is a subordinate state, and even more so, because it has the most desirable form of government for subordinate states, authoritarian with power emanating from a few individuals. Some may argue Saudi Arabia is not subordinate citing the war in Yemen, the assassination of Jamal Kashoggi or even the sheltering of Saudi citizens in the US from US law. But none of this is detrimental to US interests despite the political “challenges” these kind of incidents create.
Saudi Arabia is subordinate in the sense that they do not challenge US interests. They are not concerned with Israel and their illegal settlements and plans for annexation in the West Bank, the siege of Gaza, the denial of the Palestinian’s right to self determination, or the war crimes committed against the Palestinians. They are not supporting revolutions or resistance from people attempting to free themselves from governments who put the interests of the US ahead of the interests of the people. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is still important in the absence of energy dependency.
To go further, what happens in Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait if the US does not bomb civilian infrastructure and does not push for the murderous and strangling sanctions in the 90s? We can speculate Iraq under Saddam may have continued in military conquest but it is unlikely given the lessons learned from the invasion of Kuwait. Even in the absence of the normalization of relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraq still maintains stability, an increased level of development, and is a force of influence globally that opposes US interests in the developing world.
US intervention in Syria was intent on weakening Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as weakening Syria which was also a non-aligned state. When I refer to intervention in Syria, I am referring to denying the progress that may have taken place through the constitutional reforms passed through referendum which were undermined by the US and Europe: arming, training, and providing diplomatic support for militants. That intervention led to the civil war.
Denying Palestinians statehood is important in the sense that no good can come out of the existence of another non-subordinate state, regardless of how far away they would be from having any influence beyond their borders.
In a middle east without US influence and intervention the growing power of each nation encourages cooperation among these nations. As I often state the goal of US foreign policy is market access and advantage or geostrategic purposes related to market access and advantage. The middle east is still important to the US not because the US requires access to their markets, but because these nations if allowed to develop in the absence of US interference would likely become an obstacle to US goals globally.
Saudi Arabia is important as a purchaser of military arms, an importer of US goods, a holder of a significant amount of US bonds, and as an investor in US industry.
Andrew Bacevich’s Response:
Dear Orion Simerl,
You are distorting my view, but that’s okay. Good luck with your book.
Conclusion: If I were responding to someone who I thought was distorting my view, I would point out how they distorted it. Feel free to watch the interview, but below is a summary and the excerpts from the program and how they relate to how I represented his view.
Amy Goodman mentioned the appointment of General Abizaid to be the ambassador to Saudi Arabia. She quoted Abizaid in 2008 admitting the invasion of Iraq was about oil, and provides the terms by the United States for the region by saying “we’ve treated the Arab world as a big collection of gas stations. Our message to them is keep your pumps open, prices low, be nice to the Israelis, and you can do whatever you want out back. Osama and 9/11 is the distilled essence of everything going on out back.”
What the general is saying is these terms where as long as we have access to their oil, and they are nice to Israel, that they can do whatever they want in the region, led to the environment where radical Islamists could train, strategize, and coordinate 9/11. What’s interesting about that statement itself is it fails to take into account the sanctions against Iraq, which was the true cause of 9/11. (Osama Bin Laden Interview 1997 CNN). This isn’t to say the sanctions were the only cause of 9/11, only that the sanction had the most significant influence on the decision to carry out the attack, and without those sanctions, it is unlikely the other reasons specified by Bin Laden would have caused 9/11.
Bacevich said “Well, apparently he’s forgotten that commentary because he’s now basically reciting the line, again with regard to Saudi Arabia that this is a strategically important country. What he said in 2008 is clear in the implication, and this is simply factually correct, that the American way of life that we once thought was dependent upon Persian Gulf oil, is not. That we don’t need Persian Gulf oil, and that fact has not sunk in with foreign policy establishment, and provided a basis for a fundamental reevaluation, not only of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but a reevaluation of the larger assumption, that the Persian Gulf really, really, matters to the well-being of the United States. It doesn’t, and were we to accept that fact, then the possibility of rethinking US policy in the region would become evident. Not simply, reevaluating the relationship with Saudi Arabia, but reevaluating the assumption that Iran is somehow the great enemy, that now threatens stability in the region.”
What did I say his view was “Bacevich position is that energy independence should bring more accountability to Saudi Arabia and lead to reduced tension with Iran. He reduces the importance of the region to oil, and my comment seeks to broaden the basis for the importance of the region and the preferential treatment given to Saudi Arabia.”
I wrote Bacevich’s position is energy independence should bring more accountability to Saudi Arabia, which is the same as we don’t need Persian Gulf oil… provide(s) a basis (for a) fundamental reevaluation of our relationship with Saudi Arabia”. He said Abizaid’s assessment was “factually correct… in the implications”: do whatever you want in the back if oil’s cheap, “Osama is the distilled essence of what is going on out back”. Reevaluating that relationship seems to be for the purpose of bringing Saudi Arabia to account for the spread of militant Salafi extremism, which is reinforced by another set of statements he made.
Prior to the quote from Amy Goodman, Narmeen Shaikh quotes Bacevich quoting the general in an article he wrote, the essence of which is Trump is appointing one of the few people who had the correct understanding of the region: the partnership with Saudi Arabia allowed Saudi Arabia to finance and spread Salafi jihadism in the region. She asks why he thinks Trump would appoint someone to a job description that boils down to kissing Saudi Arabia’s ass, when he’s been critical of the regime compared to most US officials.
Bacevich responds “Based on general Abizaid’s testimony at his confirmation hearing, he has abandon the analysis he had made in 2003 2004, just the clip you played showed him basically reciting what has been the standard line in US Saudi relationship going back decades, that is to say, this partnership as he called it, is of great strategic importance to the United States. Then he went on to cite in a notably passionless way, the complaints we have about Saudi policy and promising to give them due attention. What is so striking, I think, is here we are in 2019. So many years after the debacle that George W Bush launched in 2003, and the conversation, the debate such as it is, still remains superficial, and I think avoids confronting some of the basic contradictions. At the center of the contradiction, is the conviction that somehow or another the United States has a vital interest in maintaining a partnership with Saudi Arabia. Virtually nobody within the foreign policy establishment is willing to examine that notion. And it’s past time that we did examine it critically. “
Once again, he’s saying Abizaid changed course, and implies that he isn’t serious about addressing the complaints. It’s pretty clear though he thinks the relationship with the Saudi Arabia should change, and that change is intent on increased accountability. He states “at the center of the contradiction, is the conviction that…the United States has a vital interest in maintaining a partnership with Saudi Arabia”. Of course, he goes on to identify that contradiction when he responds to Amy Goodman saying “that the American way of life that we once thought was dependent upon Persian Gulf oil, is not.”
The first statement I make about his “views” is completely accurate according to his words, even if accountability doesn’t completely embody everything he meant in an unspecified change in the relationship, it is at least one aspect of it.
From the same premise I stated he said it would lead to reduced tensions with Iran. He stated “Not simply, reevaluating the relationship with Saudi Arabia, but reevaluating the assumption that Iran, is somehow the great enemy, that now threatens stability in the region.” There’s no place I’ve distorted his view.
The second sentence in my summary of his view “He reduces the importance of the region to oil, and my comment seeks to broaden the basis for the importance of the region and the preferential treatment given to Saudi Arabia.”
I don’t mean to be so repetitious, but to reiterate Bacevich said “we don’t need Persian Gulf oil, and that fact has not sunk in with foreign policy establishment, and provided a basis for a fundamental reevaluation, not only of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but a reevaluation of the larger assumption, that the Persian Gulf really, really, matters to the wellbeing of the United States. It doesn’t, and were we to accept that fact, then the possibility of rethinking US policy in the region would become evident.” He believes oil is the central governor of policy in the region, claims the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is not of “vital interest”, and is therefore not very important. If it seems like I am making the statement non-vital interest to mean not important, where it could be argued there is some room for leeway, by claiming there is importance in non-vital interests. However, these statements come behind Bacevich stating Abizaid is “reciting the line, again with regard to Saudi Arabia that this is a strategically important country.” His statements are intent on contradicting this line of “the foreign policy establishment”, which further confirms my summary of his view that he reduces the importance of the region to oil.
I omitted a portion of his quoted material for concision and because it didn’t take anything away from the quote. He said “. At the center of the contradiction, is the conviction that somehow or another the United States has a vital interest in maintaining a partnership with Saudi Arabia.” What is important to this point and the part I omitted is “somehow some way”. That is what my comment is, the how and the way Saudi Arabia is important to the United States. He thinks, the foreign policy establishment cannot understand that the US is no longer dependent on middle east oil which is why they think the relationship with Saudi Arabia is important.
Either he is right, and the people who decide middle east policy haven’t realized that “we don’t need Persian Gulf oil”, and this is why the partnership with Saudi Arabia still seems important, or “the foreign policy establishment”, recognizes what I’ve posted in my comment, and those are the main reasons why Saudi Arabia is a partnership of strategic importance. 18% of all US arms exports are purchased by Saudi Arabia making them the single largest importer of arms. They import goods manufactured by American companies, hold a decent amount of US bonds, have investments in American companies, and do not impose influence that undermines US influence in other countries, and Saudi Arabia exercises influence over other countries in the region on behalf of the United States. These are some reasons why “the United States has a vital interest in maintaining a partnership with Saudi Arabia.”
What’s bad about this is people will watch the show, and then recite his reasoning on the middle east thinking they know something. Their position on the middle east and Saudi Arabia is the foreign policy establishment doesn’t understand we don’t need middle east oil. They do understand we don’t need middle east oil, but foreign policy doesn’t reduce to needing middle east oil, which is the point of contention, and the point Bacevich was making on DN, and the view he claims I distorted.
On the broader subject of this book, I think it is easier to say “you’re distorting my view”, than it is to admit your assessment may have been too narrow.
It is important to understand a few things here. First, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 it was about the oil, as well as removing Saddam and installing a more palatable regime, because as I mentioned in the comment, Saddam was bent on undermining US influence in other places, most notably in the Palestinian territories; which has implications for Israel and US companies who have investments in, or relationships with Israel or Israeli based enterprises. Second, although the US is not dependent on oil from anyone, oil is still a motivator in places like Venezuela because of the proximity to the US, and because of the type of oil Venezuela has is heavy and many US refineries are geared towards refining that type of oil. I mention Venezuela because it serves as an example of foreign policy that is still motivated by market access to oil, despite the American way of life not being dependent on it.
Clearly conscious denial in his refusal to acknowledge or clarify his views. It is easier to say you are distorting my views than it is to say my views may be distorted and distorting other views. He has the obvious interest of maintaining his reputation, but more important is the values and sequencing responsible for the position to begin with.
Bacevich’s position is a product of national bias, which isn’t an extreme or exaggerated bias, but is consistent with the national indoctrination. Since his bias is consistent with the general underlying bias of the domestic population, it is rarely perceivable to the public, and when it is perceived, many people are ill equipped to illustrate it. His point of view is the foreign policy establishment, people working for the military, pentagon, state department, and other agencies are unquestioningly carrying on a foreign policy with an expired premise. This view has grown out of the idea that the US has good intentions in foreign policy. Good intentions more so as it relates to the interests and security of the population, but also as it relates to the populations of other nations. His perception of US intentions are inferred from the premise of his position that the US isn’t reliant on Persian Gulf oil, and policy makers understanding this would change US foreign policy which is in the interest of the people of the US. The secondary perception of the US having good intentions for the population of other nations is inferred from his comments that imply the US seeks stability in the middle east. Instability is preferable to stability, when stability allows for the development of non-subordinate regimes that will undermine US interests in the region and globally.
His view reinforces the idea that the US government consists of well intended people who frequently make mistakes, because it is the only way to maintain the national bias that the US has the interest of the general population at heart. He takes an interest in general Abizaid, because Abizaid provides him with a basis to reinforce the misconception that the results of US foreign policy are a product of error instead of intention.
My motivation for commenting to address the misconception is for the utility the truth has in changing US foreign policy. The idea that people are harmed because of the place they were born, being places that refuse to subjugate their interests to the interests of the US produces negative feelings. In addition, domestically, foreign policy harms my interest and the interest of the population, by using tax dollars on arms, maintaining a presence in foreign nations, invasions, covert operations to subvert democratic processes, including coups, and many other areas of spending. Public funds are spent to ensure private interests are maintained abroad, that do not serve the interests of the public. It also undermines US security.
When I’m listening to the interview I accept Bacevich’s interpretation that the US is not dependent on Persian Gulf oil. This is true based on the US being a net exporter of oil, both crude and refined products. There is more to it than that in regard to refining abilities and different qualities of oil, but it is true the United States could satisfy its demand for oil without importing Persian Gulf oil. When he asserts that oil is the primary driver of US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia, this contradicts what I know about US foreign policy as it relates to the history of US foreign policy, and how Saudi Arabia represents other foreign policy interests that I identified in my comment.
Some would attempt to apply the same reasoning I applied to Bacevich, where my position grows out of an anti national bias. The difference is I am viewing US foreign policy not based on the public statements of people involved in crafting policy, but the actions, benefactors of those actions, the relationship between policy makers and benefactors, and internal communications. I don’t view information through a lens that colors the information, instead my lens takes shape through information as it is. Much too extensive to qualify definitively here, but relates to understanding how the United States was created to advance the interest of economic elites (Summarized in chapter Founding Intents), and how the organization through the constitution facilitates the interests of industry to power. For over 200 years US foreign policy is a reflection of serving those interests. The expansion into native american territory, the invasion of Mexico to force the sale of the south western states, removing the Spanish from Cuba and colonizing it through the Platt Amendment, the occupation of the Philippines on behalf of hemp manufacturers, intervention in Latin America beginning in the 20th century to present, the support of despots to maintain US interest, use of sanctions, the creation and support of coups, use of the IMF and the World Bank to decide nations economic policies, as well as invasions and threats, where on a case by case basis, although the pretexts change, the motivation can always be shown to be a product of market access and advantage, and removing obstructions to those ends.
The controversy itself is whether US energy independence changes the basis for US policy towards Saudi Arabia. Bacevich believes it does, whereas I recognize that fundamentally it doesn’t, and tangibly, there are other reasons why Saudi Arabia represents important interests for the US: Saudi Arabia is important as a purchaser of military arms, an importer of US goods, a holder of a significant amount of US bonds, and as an investor in US industry. To reiterate, Saudi Arabia is geostrategically important because it doesn’t undermine US interests in the developing world, and exercises influence over other nations on behalf of the United States. Either US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia is motivated by the interests I identified, or US foreign policy is still operating under the misconception that the United States is dependent on Persian Gulf oil as Bacevich asserts.
The controversy is relevant to the promotion of misconception as meaningful academic advancement, but not enough for me to formally prepare a properly cited paper to add layers of substance to his “views” and my own. The SeqComp aspect of it is the denial, which requires the identification of the value that will be harmed through the acknowledgement that his view is wrong. There are more than a few and probably inclusive of more than one value that is harmed in this situation. Bacevich directing his attention to the general and wherever else it has been directed has led him to a conclusion that is incorrect. I don’t know to what extent that conclusion is central to his understanding and credentials, but it’ll have the same degree of impact on his value of himself and his work. That doesn’t feel good.
What’s more troublesome, is it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the forces that direct foreign policy. Something that is often overlooked is the role of academics in the furtherance of state propaganda. Where the information being offered by representatives of the state like general Abizaid, is little more than an effort to reinforce state positions, and some academics choose to allow this propaganda to serve as the basis of their opinions.
For example “we’ve treated the Arab world as a big collection of gas stations. Our message to them is keep your pumps open, prices low, be nice to the Israelis, and you can do whatever you want out back. Osama and 9/11 is the distilled essence of everything going on out back.” This reinforces the state position that 9/11 was the product of efforts to advance Islam by extremists. Most American’s still don’t know that 9/11 was the product of US foreign policy. As Osama stated in 1997 “American civilians are not targeted in our plan…a reaction might take place as a result of the US government targeting Muslim civilians and executing more than 600,000 Muslim children in Iraq by preventing food and medicine from reaching them. As for what you asked regarding the American people, they are not exonerated from responsibility because they chose this government and voted for it despite their knowledge of its crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and in other places.”
Osama Bin Laden and 9/11 are not the distilled essence of a US foreign policy that left the Arabs to manage the middle east in exchange for peace with Israel and cheap oil, 9/11 is the distilled essence of bombing and sanctioning Iraq under the pretext of containment, effectively murdering a million people, 500,000 of which were children under the age of 5, along with support for Israel in its attacks in Lebanon (which only ceased because of the fierce resistance from Hezbollah), the denial of Palestinian self determination and protection of Israel through the UNSC, and other interference in Muslim countries.
Bacevich can compile data that shows the US does not need Persian Gulf oil, he can quote state propaganda that Saudi Arabia is a nation of geostrategic importance, he can compile data that Persian Gulf oil used to be important to the American way of life, he can show how Saudi Arabia exercises privileges with the US that other countries do not, and he can marry it to the quote from Amazaid that these privileges are responsible for Islamic extremism, and appear that he has contributed something that is critical of foreign policy. In fact all he’s actually done is promote the state line that we need to direct more attention and resources to the middle east based on the idea that being friendly with Saudi Arabia and allowing the nations of the region to decide the future of region will lead to the formation of groups like Al Qaeda and events like 9/11.
The information is true, but the sequencing is flawed. It begins with the actions of Al Qaeda on 9/11/2001, but an act is preceded by circumstances and values, and US foreign policy is responsible for the formation of the value of the act. It isn’t difficult to understand this value formation. If a person is killing children, most people will value action against that person. This value is not only in the idea of purpose where the action may prevent the person from continuing in harm, but in the idea of justice where this person is deserving of harm for harming others. The United States created the circumstances in the middle east that led to the formation of value for harming US citizens, and 9/11 conspiracy theory, the US government, mainstream media, and academics like Bacevich are all responsible for preventing this fact from reaching the public conscious.
There’s another value comparison from Bacevich that is known through my attention to his interview. We know that his value of US foreign policy is less than his value of foreign policy appearing as he wants it to be. If his study of foreign policy was for the purpose of understanding foreign policy, to predict and improve function and how it relates to the people of the United States, he would address the criticism, wouldn’t lie and say I distorted his views, or he would interested in insight that could further his understanding of foreign policy, or further his understanding by understanding the basis for alternate perspectives. This isn’t to say he owes me an explanation, only that if my criticism wasn’t valid, it shouldn’t require more than a few minutes and a few paragraphs to explain; and as an educator, or even as an individual who believes his view is correct, he would be inclined to address the misconception of someone who has an interest in a subject that he claims expertise in. SeqComp is as much about understanding human behavior through inaction in the face of opportunity, where action indicates value priority over the value of other actions that an opportunity presents.