It’s Not My Fault They’re Kissing

My friend Blake Hounshell (he’s actually a friend, not “my friend” in the Washington sense) has a post up at FP Passport observing President Bush’s and Saudi dictator King Abdullah’s latest canoodling. In that post, Blake argues that

if you’re a gasoline-consuming American, you’re deeply complicit in this marriage, too. So laugh all you want at Bush, but he kisses Saudi cheek for thee—just as U.S. presidents have done for decades.

To which I would respond “baloney!” There’s nothing about the fact that we–or Europe, or China, or Japan–consume oil that mandates that we play kissy-poo with Abdullah or anybody else. There are a few theories why we would want to kiss up to the Saudis, and none of them hold water. The first is that the Saudis, who control 25% of the world’s proven oil reserves, make production decisions based on political relationships rather than economic considerations, and therefore when we kiss up to them, we increase the likelihood that they’ll make production decisions that are in our interests (and in contravention of their own). Like now, for example, the president is pleading that OPEC members increase production so as to tamp down the price of gasoline in the U.S.

As my colleague Jerry Taylor is wont to point out, however, “no amount of ‘get tough’ rhetoric or ‘pretty please’ diplomacy has ever affected OPEC production decisions, despite what American politicians would have you believe.” So that theory needs reworking.

There’s also the belief that we need to keep a close relationship with the Saudis to shore up our position in the region and resume the pursuit of our *ahem* traditional goal in the region of “promoting stability.” But this theory, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Our traditional posture in the Middle East has essentially amounted to a transfer payment from U.S. taxpayers to the Saudi Royal Family and the oil companies it runs. (Kuwait and the GCC countries, too.) Essentially we cover a substantial amount of the cost that it takes to defend these countries from prospective predators. But one has to ask “What would the Arabs do in the absence of an American security commitment?” 75% of the Saudi government’s revenue comes from oil. 45% of the country’s GDP comes from oil. Are we to assume that, absent a U.S. security commitment, the Saudi royal family is just going to cower in a defensive crouch and leave that money on the table for any rogue actor in the region to swoop in and take? Seems unlikely. The royal family seems much more interested in preserving itself and expanding its wealth than that.

To the contrary, it seems more likely that they would spend more, and get more serious about defending themselves from outside threats. Now, one could make the argument at this point that the Arabs in recent years have not proved themselves to be particularly formidable opponents on the battlefield, which is persuasive to a point. But even if, say, Iran made the remarkably rash move of launching a war against Saudi Arabia, Saudi’s defense budget dwarfs Iran’s and Saudi’s military technology is decades ahead of Iran’s. Even if they were to begin losing a conventional conflict against (hypothetically, again) Iran, standoff forces like long-range U.S. bombers could zoom in to restore the status quo ante without batting an eyelash.

So I’m left wondering why, exactly, it’s American gasoline consumers who are forcing U.S. presidents to suck up to Abdullah and the Saudi Royal Family. Any theories are hereby welcomed. In the meantime, please do give a read to Eugene Gholz’s and Daryl Press’s Policy Analysis titled “Energy Alarmism: The Myths that Make Americans Worry about Oil” for much more detail, and data that informed my arguments above.