When US President Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, he inherited, like many of his predecessors, a turbulent Middle East. Oil prices had jumped from $3.39 per barrel in 1972 to $21.59 in 1980. Iran's zealously anti-American leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had recently overthrown the American-friendly shah. The Soviet Union was reinforcing its position in Afghanistan and was a step closer to the Persian Gulf. In the words of the then US representative to the UN, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, it had "progressed from a continental power to a global one."
What few realized at the time, or even today, was that these events would set the stage for the next two decades of strong US-Saudi relations.
Reagan wanted not only to contain the Soviet Union, but also to "reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world." These goals, enunciated in what would become known as the Reagan Doctrine, sought to raise the costs of Moscow's foreign policy efforts by championing democracy, out-spending the Soviets on defense, and supporting anti-Soviet insurgencies in the developing world.
The problem for Reagan was that his doctrine was expensive and America was exhausted. It was still recovering from the Vietnam War and there was little public support for new adventures in the Third World. But Reagan believed that his predecessors' failure to turn back Soviet advances in Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere in the mid-1970s had only emboldened the Soviet Union.
To high-level Reagan administration officials it became clear that in order to roll back the communists "you had to be able to fund it and we simply couldn't do that alone." CIA Director William Casey set out to find others who would provide arms and money. The possibility of Saudi assistance was raised very early on in the administration, and Riyadh's support helped advance the Reagan Doctrine.
Saudi Arabia had its own reasons for helping America fight the Soviets. First, and very simply, it could afford to do so, since the kingdom was awash in cash. Saudi Arabia invested some of this money into developing its own domestic infrastructure and security forces. But there was more than enough left for politically beneficial overseas operations.
Second, the United States was instrumental in protecting Saudi Arabia's oil fields and the Saudi leadership wanted to remain on good terms with Washington.
Third, Saudi Arabia was gravely concerned about the advancing Soviet Union. Riyadh interpreted Moscow's Afghanistan adventure as part of a Soviet-directed campaign to encircle the Arabian Peninsula with radical regimes and subvert the oil-rich monarchies. For decades, Moscow had backed an anti-monarchical insurgency in Yemen, on Saudi Arabia's southern border. In the north, the kingdom worried that the Soviets would take advantage of the destabilizing Iran-Iraq war. To its west, Riyadh was concerned with the downfall of America's ally in Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and the 17,000 Cuban troops, and Soviet aid that poured in afterward.
Also ominous for the Saudis was Soviet penetration into Angola and Mozambique. As one senior Saudi official recently told me, "from 1974, Saudi Arabia's activities in Africa expanded dramatically - at a time when American activities in the rest of the world were shrinking because of Watergate and the restrictions placed on the government, particularly (on) CIA activity."
The Reagan administration figured out how to integrate Saudi Arabian global concerns and surplus cash into American foreign policy. In Afghanistan, the kingdom literally matched US contributions dollar for dollar. Eventually Washington and Riyadh poured about $3 billion into that broken country. Saudi Arabia also put $32 million into Nicaragua to fund the Contras, a fact that emerged during the Iran-Contra scandal. It funneled money into Ethiopia's neighbor Sudan, in order to pressure Ethiopia's Mengistu government. Saudi Arabia assisted Angola's rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, by providing Morocco with financial assistance to set up a training camp for UNITA forces. Savimbi later acknowledged that his biggest donors were Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Yet Saudi Arabia provided more than just funding. It also became an ideologically compatible American partner in the battle against "godless communism." In a neat division of labor, America attacked communism and Saudi Arabia targeted godlessness.
During his tenure, Reagan regularly rattled off a list of conflict countries that were of concern to the US: Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. What few realized, was that Saudi Arabia was either directly or indirectly involved in four of these five countries. The close partnership inspired Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, to confide to a journalist that, "if you knew what we were really doing for America, you wouldn't just give us AWACS, you would give us nuclear weapons."
Why, then, has there been a sudden interest today in the connections between the House of Bush and the House of Saud? Clearly the two families have had a number of overlapping interests. But exclusive attention to the Bush family misses other ways in which the contemporary US-Saudi relationship became entwined. To understand this, we have to look back to Ronald Reagan, and his determined desire to rid the world of the Evil Empire.
Rachel Bronson is a senior fellow and director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of the forthcoming "Thicker than Oil: Ameica's Uneasy Relationship with Saudi Arabia." She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.