Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Go to Work for Saudi Arabia

Photograph Source: Secretary of Defense – Public Domain

You remember General James “Mad Dog” Mattis.  Mattis, who retired from the US Marine Corps in March 2013, served as President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense in 2017 and 2018. That, we knew. What we didn’t know was that in 2015 Mattis served as a military advisor to the UAE.

We know this now thanks to an exposé in the October 18 Washington Post. The Post revealed that since 2015 at least 500 retired US generals and admirals have had their golden years enriched serving as paid advisors to the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern states not known for democracy or human rights.  (Mattis refused payment, according to the Post.)  Most of these high-ranking retired officers are involved in “upgrading” Persian Gulf militaries, the Post says.

Retired US military can work for foreign governments if they receive permission from the State Department and their branch of the armed forces.  While these relationships are not illegal, they ought to be.  Middle East Eyecommented that “The revelations add to concerns about the extent to which foreign countries, including many with authoritarian governments, have expanded their influence over US institutions.”

These concerns loom all the larger given the lavishness of the retired officers’ compensation.  The Post states that “salary and benefit packages [reach] six and, sometimes, seven figures.”

So, it’s not surprising that the federal government fought the Post‘s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for two years and only surrendered 4,000 pages of documents after the Post sued the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and US State Department.  A similar investigation was conducted by nonpartisan non-profit group the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Plus ça change…

The Post revelations come at a bad time in US-Saudi relations.  On March 8, President Joe Biden imposed a US embargo on Russian oil and natural gas in response to Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.  Gasoline prices soared, reaching a peak of $5.01 per gallon (national average) on June 14, 2022, before declining steadily over the Summer, bottoming out at $3.67 per gallon on September 20.  It looked like everything was going to be all right.

But other nations can use oil as a weapon too.  On October 2, OPEC+ (the 13 members of OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, together with 10 nonmembers, led by Russia) announced that it was cutting oil production by 2 million barrels a day: the largest OPEC+ production cut in two years.  Saudi Arabia and Russia have become de facto allies.  Higher oil prices will provide funds Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin desperately needs for his failing war on Ukraine.  Higher gas prices translate to more misery for US consumers already struggling with the worst inflation (8.2%) in four decades.  Soaring inflation could put paid to Democrats’ chances in the November 8 midterm elections.

The Post bombshell has prompted some members of Congress to back punitive measures directed at Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ7) has introduced legislation to withdraw all US troops and defense systems from Saudi Arabia.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA17) have introduced legislation to immediately pause weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps the most interesting legislation being considered is the No Oil Producing and Petroleum Exporting Cartels Act (NOPEC).  The brainchild of Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, NOPEC would revise US antitrust law to allow the US Attorney General to bring lawsuits against price-fixing by OPEC.[1]

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on October 11 that President Biden would reevaluate the US-Saudi relationship and would work with Congress on a response to the OPEC+ production cut.

We have been here before, many times.  Like a horror movie whose protagonist is condemned to endlessly repeat the same behavior, futile demands arise every few years to reset/reassess/reappraise/reimagine the US-Saudi relationship.

But not reject.  No, not even the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist residing in Virginia, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 was enough to make the US break with the Saudis.  (During the November 20, 2019 Democratic presidential debate, Biden had vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s assassination.)

In early 2021, it seemed like the Biden Administration would take a sterner line towards Saudi Arabia.  Even before he entered office, Biden called for a reassessment of the US-Saudi alliance.  He called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” during the November 20, 2019 Democratic presidential debate and to sell no more weapons to the kingdom.  In his first major foreign policy speech as president on February 4, 2021, Biden promised to end US support for “offensive operations” in Saudi Arabia’s massively destructive war on Yemen.  The US has been the Saudi-led coalition’s silent partner in the war since 2015.

Biden does not have the chummy relationship that President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner had with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.  Biden has broken all his promises on Saudi Arabia, yet Bin Salman has not forgiven Biden for his past affronts.  Biden was rebuffed by the prince when he traveled to Riyadh in July to plead for the Saudis to ramp up oil production.  Nor would the Saudis agree to postpone their production cut until after the US midterms as the kingdom claims Biden asked them to do.

With luck, the OPEC+ production cut combined with the revelation about retired US admirals and generals will finally cause the US to break with Saudi Arabia.  Congress may even be angry enough to pass the War Powers Resolution (WPR) introduced this Summer to end US assistance to the Saudi-led war on Yemen.  I had assumed that Biden would veto the WPR because not doing so would constitute an admission that his Yemen policy had failed.  Now, I am not so sure.  If the US wants to strike back at Saudi Arabia, enacting the WPR is a superb way to do so.


[1]  Today, the problem is that crude prices are too high.  In 2020, the problem was that crude prices were too low.  An oil-price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, who were not then the buddies that they are now, sent oil prices plunging below $0 a barrel for the first time in history.  Conservative Republican senators from oil-producing states threatened punitive measures such as tariffs and removing US troops from the kingdom.  US-Saudi relations, however, soon returned to normal.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.