SHANNON, Ireland – The Bush administration said Monday there is no trade-off in its plans to sell billions in sophisticated weaponry to oil-rich Persian Gulf states whose cooperation Washington is courting in Iraq.
“There isn’t an issue of quid pro quo,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of the proposed sales to Saudi Arabia and other nations that have until recently committed little other than rhetoric to the U.S.-backed democratic experiment in Iraq.
The sales, along with an aid package for Israel and Egypt announced Monday, are the fruit of years of partnership and a recognition of the region’s strategic importance, Rice said. Although she did not mention oil, that is the region’s chief export and the origin of the historic U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.
“We have the same goals in this region concerning security and stability,” and many of the same concerns about the progress of political unification in Iraq, Rice told reporters as she left for a lobbying tour of the region with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The administration announced the proposed U.S. arms package, estimated at more than $20 billion, the morning that Bush’s two top national security aides left for meetings with Saudi King Abdullah and other leaders.
The administration framed the weapons sales, which must be approved by Congress, as a way to strengthen relatively moderate regimes against extremist regimes and ideologies. An increasingly ambitious Iran is the chief opponent.
The meeting today, at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, is the first time Gates and Rice have joined for a diplomatic visit, suggesting an almost last-ditch effort to get Iraq’s Arab neighbors to fulfill their promises to help stabilize the war-ravaged country.
Gates and Rice have little more than a month to cobble together the diplomatic and military progress needed to show Congress that Bush’s latest strategy in Iraq is working and deserves more time.
Military commanders in Iraq have urged caution in dialing back the buildup of nearly 30,000 U.S. forces in the past six months – bringing the total U.S. commitment in Iraq to about 157,000.
Gates visited Egypt earlier this year to press a similar message of greater support for the Iraqi government.
U.S. officials want “to reassure all of the countries that the policies that the president pursues in Iraq have had and will continue to have regional stability and security as a very high priority,” Gates said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said the weapons should be defensive. He added that if the United States refused to sell the arms, then other states would step in to do so.
In 1986, congressional disapproval helped persuade the Reagan administration to cut back an arms package to Saudi Arabia.
The new sales to Arab countries will be balanced with a more than 25 percent increase in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years, enabling the Jewish state to hold its military edge over neighbors with which it has no peace deal.
Israel on Sunday reversed long-standing opposition to boosting Arab military might and said it understood the rationale behind the plans – chiefly the threat posed by Iran.