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Saudi Arabia’s Missing Missile Mystery | Insight

The Biden administration’s silence on its withdrawal of valuable missile defenses from Saudi Arabia is perplexing, given the kingdom’s unpopularity in the United States.

In a liberal democracy, foreign policy is always a domestic political matter.

That might sound odd, even perverse, but it’s nonetheless true and not factored into analysis of a country’s foreign policy decisions often enough. When an elected leader like President Joe Biden confronts a dilemma in world politics, it is almost certain that the potential domestic response is at the forefront of his own and his national security team’s deliberations. When leaders are transparent with citizens about the foreign policy choices they are making, all is more or less as it should be.

But even in negative examples, when leaders try to hide their choices from the public or mislead citizens because they fear that those choices will be unpopular, the relevance of domestic politics for foreign policy decision-making is still clear. It is precisely because of the concern that decisions will be unpopular that they are hidden. While there are occasional instances in which misleading the public might be justified—to prevent an unnecessary panic, for example—it is always a political risk domestically.

One recent example is President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is entirely plausible that Mr. Biden presented an overly optimistic outlook on the Afghan security forces’ capacity to resist a resurgent Taliban because he wanted to head off a domestic political backlash before his withdrawal. When the Afghan security forces showed no such capacity, and the withdrawal descended—temporarily—into chaos, Mr. Biden paid a domestic political price (although, as Spectacles has written, that political price was highly manufactured by the United States’ media apparatus).

Another even more recent example is highly perplexing. Just two days ago, the Associated Press reported that the Biden administration has withdrawn some of its missile defense batteries from Prince Sultan Air Base in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was not until the AP prompted the Pentagon’s spokesperson that the withdrawal was confirmed.

Saudi Arabia has been locked in a war of its own making for the past six years with the Houthi rebel group in Yemen to its south. After Yemen erupted in a civil war in 2014, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of wealthy Arab countries in the Gulf intervened against the Houthis on behalf of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Six years, a brutal air campaign that has widely drawn accusations of war crimes, and billions of dollars later, the war is in a stalemate. The Houthis, however, have become a serious regional force, utilizing drones and medium-range ballistic missiles—likely acquired with the help of Iran—against Saudi Arabia. The United States’ missile defense systems likely provided a decisive security gain for Saudi Arabia; without those defenses, the Saudi regime may be more vulnerable to Houthi attacks than ever before.

Saudi Arabia is unpopular in the United States, due in part to the abovementioned brutal air campaign and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi covert forces. The Biden administration, like all previous presidential administrations since the second world war, clearly views Saudi Arabia as a strategic if not ideal ally. Domestic political pressure in opposition to the kingdom’s war in Yemen, however, has led to a reduction of logistical support for the Saudi government.

Why the United States appears reluctant to advertise the shift in its force posture, then, is an interesting question. That the change is significant is not in doubt—a former Saudi intelligence director expressed displeasure with the move in a television interview. One possible explanation is that the missile withdrawal was planned in advance, but that domestic dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan led the Department of Defense not to advertise a shift of its position in Saudi Arabia.  

Even if the process of withdrawal from Afghanistan was viewed negatively, the choice to withdraw was a popular one. Ultimately, it seems a mistake to avoid publicly committing to the move in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government is autocratic, belligerent towards its neighbors, and criminal in the conduct of its war with the Houthis. An end to logistical support for its aspirations of regional hegemony may not be an unqualified good, but on balance it is likely to improve the United States’ credibility when it says it is serious about human rights and democracy abroad.

Perhaps more importantly, it may have beneficial effects on that same credibility at home. As it turns out, democratic leadership seems a lot more legitimate when it is less willing to indulge an illiberal, quasi-theocratic monarchy. For the sake of a restoration of confidence in liberal democracy, the Biden administration should be honest, rather than coy, about shifts in its force posture.

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