The deadly shooting at a US naval base has raised concerns about the United States’ close military ties with Saudi Arabia. Liam Glen writes on the US military’s questionable involvement with foreign forces.
On December 6, a member of the Saudi air force carried out a mass shooting in Naval Air Station Pensacola, killing three. The shooter was in the US as part of a formal training program.
According to official statements, the Defense Department currently trains 5,181 foreign students from 153 countries. Documents from 2015-2016 show that these encompass a range of states. There are many on the list with questionable records on human rights and related issues, but few of them have the same level of US support as Saudi Arabia.
The close ties between the US and the absolutist kingdom are a perennial cause of concern. But this tragedy further prompts the need to reexamine this alliance which goes against everything for which America claims to stand.
The Unreliable Ally
Most details are still unknown, but if nothing else, the shooting reveals severe flaws in security and the vetting process of US and Saudi authorities alike. This is especially true as the shooter allegedly hosted a dinner party that included videos of mass shootings just a few days before the incident.
While hard evidence is currently lacking, the FBI presumes that this was an act of terrorism. It is unsurprising that radicalization would occur within the Saudi military ranks, given that the government has long been a promoter of Salafism, a fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam of which jihadism is the most radical form.
Officials, of course, have been quick to assure that the vast majority of Saudi soldiers have no connection to jihadism or any other terrorist ideologies. This is certainly true, but in this situation, the merits of individual soldiers do not matter so much as the institution to which they belong. And the Saudi government is resolutely untrustworthy.
The de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has distanced his regime from religious extremism, but he has made up for this by doubling down on authoritarian tendencies.
The murder of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, believed by the CIA to have been ordered by Mohammad bin Salman, turned the American foreign policy consensus firmly against Saudi Arabia. But the kingdom still finds a strong defender in the Trump administration, which refuses to loosen ties in any manner.
Devastation in Yemen
When it comes to US training of foreign militaries, the foremost question should be what those militaries are being trained for. In the case of the Saudi air force, to which the shooter belonged, the answer is highly concerning.
Since 2015, the Saudi military has been embroiled in the bloody civil war in Yemen. It leads a coalition backing the Yemeni government against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels and various other factions.
As with most wars in the region, no side can claim the moral high ground. But if there is any villain, it would have to be the Saudi coalition, whose indiscriminate airstrikes are responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in the conflict. In addition, the destruction of infrastructure threatens to kill many more from famine.
While the conflict has no direct bearing on American interests, the US continues to lend aid to the Saudi military. When the United Nations stated that the US, Britain, and France are potentially complicit in war crimes for their roles in arming and training Saudi troops, it should have been more than enough reason to change course, but President Trump instead went as far as to veto a Congressional resolution calling for an end to US involvement in the war.
Tragic Consequences of Realpolitik
Controversies such as this have defined US foreign policy debate for decades. In previous years, the School of the Americas, a military training scheme with a suspicious number of students who went on to become human rights violators, was a major target of protests. Its modern incarnation, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has been equally divisive.
As Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign continues, the American military faces additional questions over its training of the Egyptian troops who have allegedly gone on the suppress dissidents in the country.
As a global power, the US will inevitably find itself entangled in elaborate schemes with distasteful bedfellows. In response, it must be the duty of the citizenry to hold the government to the upmost scrutiny and weigh the costs of benefits of these actions. In the case of Saudi Arabia, few can still argue that the kingdom’s strategic partnership should grant its leaders free reign to violate international law with such impunity.