America's Unspecial Relationship
by Rich Lowry
Until recently, the official position of the government of Saudi Arabia was that it remained unproven whether there were any Saudi citizens involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. They meant "unproven" not in the sense that anyone really doubted that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, but in the sense that the Saudis would really have preferred that no one take notice of that fact. The Saudi reaction to every terrorist attack against the U.S. to which the kingdom has had a connection in recent years has been a mixture of avoidance, dishonesty, and passive aggression.
The Saudis beheaded the suspects in the November 1995 bombing of the U.S. mission to the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh before the FBI could question them. They frustrated the U.S. investigation into the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, almost certainly to cover up evidence of Iranian involvement (the Saudis wanted to keep the U.S. from retaliating against Iran, at a time when the kingdom was cozying up to the mullahs). In general, the Saudis have acted like they have something to hide because they do — the contradiction at the center of their relationship with the U.S. Would it have made sense for the U.S. to be allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War? That is almost, although not quite, the question confronting the United States in its relations with Saudi Arabia. It would be a more precise analogy if the Soviets had funded the international Communist movement at the same time they disavowed any hostile intent toward the West, and, in fact, depended on the American military for their very existence. This tangled arrangement with the Saudis could survive so long as it wasn't subjected to scrutiny — in other words, so long as it existed in the pre-Sept. 11 world.
Mutual strategic and mercenary interests between the U.S. and the Saudis have long submerged the significance of the peculiar, intolerant, and anti-Western beliefs at the core of the Saudi monarchy. During the 1980s, at our request, the Saudis drove down oil prices in an attempt to starve the Soviets of revenue. That was no small thing. Neither are the American business opportunities in the kingdom — oil, weapons sales, etc. — to be lightly dismissed. But such considerations now pale against the cultural contradiction between the two countries. A variant of the Saudi ideology, after all, has incinerated and crushed 3,000 Americans.
The Saudi regime must be made to choose between the aggressive Islam at its heart and its friendship with the U.S. If it chooses the wrong way, we should contemplate the end of the House of Saud. There is no reason — if it comes to that — that one corrupt, self-serving Arabian clan can't be replaced by another.
Saudi Arabia is less a country than a family business, and, in fact, is named after its ruling family. In the 18th century, Muhammad bin Saud determined to conquer all of Arabia in league with a radical Islamic scholar, Abdul Wahhab. As British journalist Simon Henderson has put it, "The strategy was simple: those who did not accept the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam were either killed or forced to flee." Weathering the assassinations and betrayals typical of Arab politics, the al-Saud clan eventually prevailed, with King Abdul Aziz (commonly known as Ibn Saud) founding the modern state in 1932.
Ibn Saud relied on a Wahhabi religious brotherhood as his military vanguard, although the "battles" he fought were hardly worthy of the name. Ibn Saud captured Riyadh from another tribe, for instance, with a raiding party of 50 men. He fathered 44 sons by 22 wives (exclusive of the concubines and girls constantly offered to him as gestures of hospitality), and they have become the ruling flower of Saudi Arabia. It's as if America at its founding had been named Washingtonland, and ruled forevermore by the polygamous spawn of George Washington.
Saudi Arabia was never colonized by Western powers, since occupying large swaths of desert in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula never had much appeal. And so it never experienced any of the beneficial touches of European civilization. It instead has always been characterized by its backwardness and irrationality. Slavery was abolished only in 1962. Sheik Bin Baz, eventually the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa in 1966 ruling that the world is flat. Compared with most modern nations, Saudi Arabia is a lunarscape: no political parties, no trade unions, no movie theaters.
It would qualify as just another Third World backwater if it weren't for its two major exports: oil, of course, but, just as important, Wahhabism. What sets the House of Saud apart from the other, much more benign monarchies in the region is that it is an ideological regime, devoted to the enforcement and propagation of the Wahhabi creed. Wahhabism is a strict Islamic fundamentalism, formulated not in the yeasty mix of ethnicities and traditions that Islam encountered in its initial expansion, but in isolated, culturally arid Arabia. (Stephen Schwartz has written eloquently about it, including in NR — see "Liberation, Not Containment," Nov. 19, 2001.)
Since the late 1970s, when radicals briefly seized Mecca's Grand Mosque — giving the regime a scare — and as declining oil revenues have eroded standards of living, the regime has forged a social compact with the Wahhabi clerics. It has co-opted them into the government by giving them, as Tel Aviv University research fellow Joshua Teitelbaum has noted, "extensive responsibilities in areas important to them, including the judiciary; religious education; guidance and the spread of Islam overseas." This last area of responsibility, when combined with buckets of cash from oil revenue, is a toxic mix. Imagine Mullah Omar with billions of dollars of "walking-around money."
Saudi Arabia has become the biggest funder of madrassahs — radicalizing Islamic schools — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Yemen. It is the biggest supporter of the North American Islamic Trust, which builds the mosques and appoints the imams in the U.S. Similar outfits exist in most other countries in the world — all of which gives the Saudis crucial leverage over the character of Islam. Meanwhile, lavishly funded Saudi charities provide a breeding ground for radicals, and sometimes have direct connections to terrorists. The Saudis, in short, have created a radical Muslim network from the Philippines to Chicago.
In the wake of Sept. 11, all of this should be unacceptable. And so should the traditional American deference to the regime. Unfortunately, the U.S. — which publicly maintains that it is now getting at least sullen cooperation from the Saudis — has yet to get entirely beyond the days when Texas oilmen viewed the kingdom as an exotic playground where obsequiousness always paid off in hard cash. In 1990, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops gathering in Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom, President Bush was forbidden to say Thanksgiving grace on Saudi soil. (He instead sat down for Thanksgiving dinner with American sailors on the USS Nassau — in international waters.)
For eight years, Clinton administration policy in the region was itself a sophisticated form of groveling, buying into the Arab idea that nothing was wrong in the Middle East that couldn't be fixed by a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. The administration reasoned that such a deal would take away the "excuse" the Arab governments had for not reforming, and free up resources hitherto devoted to the military to domestic change. But this policy got it backwards. It is the nature of the Arab regimes itself that is the problem, not the fact that they have a ready scapegoat for their failures in Israel.
The Bush administration isn't going to make the same mistake. It risks instead falling for a different delusion: that stability requires accepting the Arab status quo. But, as the indispensable Daniel Pipes points out, the notion that Middle Eastern regimes are perpetually on the verge of collapse is outdated at best. A series of coups rocked the region in the 1950s. But with the exception of Iran, since the 1970s continuity in power has been the rule. Presidents and kings die in office, and a dictator like Syria's Assad is able to pass the mantle on to his son.
The House of Saud conforms to this general picture of stability. It has proven adept at maintaining its power for the last 70 years. There are something on the order of 6,000 princes, an enormous ready-built nomenklatura with an incentive to maintain the current system. They also constitute essentially a dictatorship by committee, operating by a rough consensus that doesn't prevent internal power struggles, but does ensure a certain basic stability.
Saudi protests, therefore, about how the regime is threatened by the radical unrest created by the presence of U.S. troops on "holy" soil should not be taken too seriously. Such complaints, among other things, are galling, considering that the Saudis have always depended on foreign protection. After World War II, it was the British who defended the Gulf states until the early 1970s. Then the regime turned to French commandos to help crush the radicals who took over the Grand Mosque in 1979. And, of course, there were the Americans in the Persian Gulf War.
The controversy over the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, however, is important. It is part of a strategic shift in the region that is making old assumptions obsolete, and so making current U.S. policy a basket of contradictions. Foremost among them is the fact that U.S. troops are in Saudi Arabia to protect the House of Saud from an Iraqi threat the princes no longer really fear. When they invited 500,000 Americans to defend them in 1990, these royals feared for their lives. Now, with the Iraqi threat no longer looming, they probably won't let us use Saudi bases for the only task we need them for — toppling Saddam Hussein.
This might be because the Saudis worry that the U.S. is not really serious about confronting Saddam; so they prefer not to risk being identified with a lackluster effort that doesn't finish the job. But things, in the long run, might actually be worse for the Saudis if we do finish the job in Iraq. Installing a functional, Western-oriented government in Baghdad would dramatically increase U.S. leverage in the region.
A decent government in Iraq could become a model for the Arab world. It would provide a boost to reformers in Iran. And it might chasten Yasser Arafat, who typically moderates his behavior at times of Western assertion. It thus would serve to embarrass the Saudis — who, in comparison with a reformist government in Iraq, would look more backwards than ever — and possibly disrupt the Iranian-Palestinian radical axis on which the Saudis have increasingly looked favorably.
Here is another contradiction: Our allies the Saudis, both by resisting U.S. efforts to confront Saddam and by moving closer to Iran, are beginning to operate in opposition to the decade-old U.S. policy of "dual containment" (of Iraq and Iran) in the Persian Gulf. The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah, is deeply suspicious of the United States. Islamist opposition groups have tended to exempt him from their criticisms of the royal family, and he has undertaken significant efforts to warm relations with Iran.
A successful U.S. effort to topple Saddam and install a friendly regime in Baghdad could cut through this tangle, by making the U.S.-Saudi alliance far less important. In many ways, Iraq seems a more natural candidate for friendship with the U.S. than does Saudi Arabia, despite the Saddam interlude. Iraqis have traditionally been a sophisticated and commerce-oriented people, with few of the traditions of Islamic radicalism of the Saudis. Also, the Iraqis could withdraw from OPEC and begin fully pumping oil into the world market (see my "Really Big Oil," Dec. 31, 2001), thus reducing Saudi market power and one of the incentives for the U.S. to appease the regime.
As for U.S. troops, it is yet another of the contradictions of the current situation that it is Osama bin Laden's prescription that makes the most strategic sense in the long run: pulling out of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis wouldn't let us fly missions against the Taliban from Saudi territory, and are resistant to letting us fly bombing missions to enforce the no-fly zones in Iraq. What use are our bases? In a post-Saddam world, the U.S. could withdraw its security guarantee from the Saudis, fulfill its basing requirements elsewhere — Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, even Iraq — and give the Saudis some time to think about the Bush doctrine: Supporting and tolerating terrorists makes you a terrorist.
This new U.S. posture in the region would give us the leverage necessary to force a wrenching change in Saudi Arabia: an end to the subsidies that spread radical Islam throughout the world. Such changes are possible, as Musharraf has demonstrated in Pakistan. But Musharraf has acted only under extreme pressure from the United States and India, of the sort the Saudis are unlikely to feel absent this new dispensation.
Perhaps the Saudis will actually work to bleach the Islamist poison out of their system and eventually assume the character of a non-ideological and reforming monarchy, such as Jordan. But the Saudis are more likely to scratch and claw in defense of the status quo. They will raise the example of Iran. Does the U.S., they will ask, really want to push the House of Saud overboard the way it did the shah?
But there is a distinction to be made. It would be a mistake to risk the continuation of the House of Saud in pursuit of a general Western do-goodism, say pushing for women's rights. But getting the Saudis to cut off funding for their radical Islamic network overseas should be a central goal of the war on terrorism. If this does endanger the House of Saud — which, again, seems unlikely — so be it. Would it be a disaster if a radical regime took custody of 25 percent of the world's oil? It could certainly mean disruptions in the short term, but any Saudi regime must maintain its oil fields and sell its oil. The first requires Western expertise, the second Western markets.
In any case, a radical Saudi regime — either a mutation of the House of Saud or a radical successor — bent on supporting terrorism and threatening the world economy would be an open invitation for U.S. intervention. There's no reason that the House of Saud should own the Islamic holy places forever. Just 70 years ago, the Hashemites — now on the throne in Jordan — controlled Mecca and Medina, as they had for almost a millennium. The holy cities were taken from them by a combination of inspired banditry and good luck. They could either revert back to the Hashemites or go to some other Muslim authority.
If the U.S. is willing to contemplate such scenarios instead of allowing them to become an excuse for timidity, the chances of the Saudis' becoming warmly compliant to our demands become that much better. Stability in the Middle East may be important, but it should be on America's terms, not that of the Saudis. Certainly not after Sept. 11.
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