Tuesday, February 15, 2011

With Friends Like These

Something happened last week, which was not widely reported (though we mentioned it in Thursday’s Short List).  King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had a testy exchange with President Obama, cautioning Obama not to humiliate Mubarak.  This part actually has been reported widely, but there was a second part people have not devoted much time to.  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pledged to provide $1.5 billion in aid to the Mubarak government if the Obama administration decided to drop its aid.  This pledge may no longer be valid, but it’s worth coming back to because of what it means to the U.S. concept of allies in the Middle East.

It also ties in to a column David Ignatius wrote in Thursday’s Washington Post.  Mr. Ignatius considers the blind spot the CIA has developed because of their reliance on “liaisons.”  Liaisons are members of the intelligence apparatus in foreign countries.  In Egypt, it’s the General Intelligence Service. It goes by a similar name in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  While in Pakistan, their intelligence service is called Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.  Basically, Ignatius considers how the CIA has been relying on these liaison relationships to provide intelligence on terror threats.  These relationships have had their ups and downs, but has provided the U.S. with vital intelligence (and often legal cover) in dealing with various threats.  But, the reliance on these relationships has left the CIA blind to the unrest and discontent within the countries of our allies.  Part of the terms of the relationships, often times, makes it nearly impossible for the CIA to recruit its own sources or assets in the country.  The agency is beholden to these relationships.  It is a problem that has plagued our efforts in Pakistan for years.

These two pieces together should necessitate a reconsideration of the terms of these alliances.  That’s a big ask, but we need to learn from history.  In Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, there is a lot of consideration of the interplay between the CIA, ISI, and Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Department (GID), and the more you read the more you get the sense that the ISI and the GID are trying to keep the U.S. on the leash.  The CIA was tossed some red meat, and ISI and GID were tossed some cash, but the larger objectives weren’t the same.  In addition to this lack of alignment in objectives, the Saudi regime routed money to jihadists training in Pakistan and Afghanistan long after the Soviet Union’s withdraw.  It has been widely reported that the money coming from Saudi Arabia was used to found madrases in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We need to reconsider the terms of these alliances for several reasons.  First, what we want and what the intelligence services of our allies want are not in alignment.  Second, the reliance on the foreign intelligence services has made us blind to what’s going on inside these countries, while at the same time perpetuating distrust and anger in the people of these countries against the United States.  Third, even if we are able to disrupt some terror cells, these allies, specifically Saudi Arabia, is more then happy to publicly break with us, while still enjoying the shade of our security umbrella.

It’s impractical to break these alliances.  It’s not in keeping with the nuance of diplomacy to simply withdraw, but perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to take stock.  What is it we want to accomplish in the Middle East?  Are our current allies aligned with what we want to accomplish?  The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are being called part of an Arab Spring.  If that is true, if these revolutions give momentum to the disaffected within the borders of our Middle Eastern allies, the U.S. will be challenged with the same dance we have had to dance regarding Egypt.  It’s time to consider our dancing partners and if we are taking complimentary steps.

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