Weak Realpolitik: The Vicissitudes of Saudi Bashing

Weak Realpolitik: The Vicissitudes of Saudi Bashing

Mini Teaser: As the shock of September 11 wears off and certain conclusions settle in, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has come under unprecedented scrutiny. It's about time.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

About sixty years ago, R.G. Collingwood wrote, "Every new generation
must rewrite history in its own way." Inasmuch as his thinking was
suspended somewhere between hope for a science of history and an
awareness of its practical limits, philosophers of history have been
arguing ever since about what he really meant. But one thing he must
have meant is that what interests us about the past is at least
partly a function of what bothers us or makes us curious in the
present. As Collingwood said, "As far as we can see history as a
whole . . . we see it as a continuous development in which every
phase consists of the solution of human problems set by the preceding

Human affairs generally move so ponderously, or in such complicated
ways, that contemporaries have trouble seeing "history as a whole",
or detecting the phases to which Collingwood pointed. But as a
glacier or a tectonic plate may slip to dramatic effect, so sometimes
major events rattle us into historical awareness. When they do, it is
uncanny how we find ourselves reassessing the significance of dates
as symbols of the touching points of historical phases. On September
1, 1939, 1918-19 suddenly shrunk in significance for Britons and
Frenchmen and 1870-71 suddenly grew. When the Berlin Wall fell and
the Soviet Union dissolved, 1917 suddenly became a less important
date, and 1914 a more important one. September 11, 2001, was such an
event, so it is worth asking how our historical perceptions may
change as a result of it.

To be sure, some movement in our historical awareness may be detected
already. In the past six months many Americans have grown intensely
interested in the Middle East and Islam in general--and in Saudi
Arabia, Saudi Islam, and the U.S.-Saudi relationship in particular.
So far, however, relatively recent matters have monopolized our
attention, and an abundance of detailed newspaper feature series has
contributed to that focus. The seriousness of our historical thinking
is also affected by emotion. We Americans are more than just curious,
and more than merely bothered, about these Saudi subjects. Some are
better described as very, very angry.

For starters, it soon dawned on us that while the targets of initial
U.S.-led military operations would be the Al-Qaeda organization
nestled in the bosom of the Taliban regime, the real source of the
problem lay in our two most tactically significant allies: Pakistan
and Saudi Arabia. As to the former, we knew that Pakistan's military
and intelligence services had created and supported the Taliban, thus
providing sanctuary and foot soldiers for mass-casualty terrorism. As
to the latter, not only were 15 of the 19 terrorists Saudi nationals,
but the open secret that the Saudi regime deflects popular
frustration and opposition away from itself and onto the United
States and Israel became more widely confessed in public. As Sandy
Berger put it once out of office, "the veil has been lifted and the
American people see a double game that they're not terribly pleased
with." Though silent on whether he had been displeased with it while
in office, he continued: "They see a regime that is repressive with
respect to the extremists that threaten them, but more than
tolerant--indeed, the more we find out, beneficent--to the general
movement of extreme Islamists in the region."

It soon occurred to others that even this deflection game--what
George Shultz has termed "a grotesque protection racket"-- was not
the deepest root of the matter. The clerically-run Saudi educational
system inculcates an intense religious and cultural chauvinism into
its youth--and youth under the age of 16 are today about half the
Kingdom's population. Saudi ulema have tutored generation after
generation in what amounts to jihadist incitement against
non-Muslims. The late Hamud al-Shuaibi, a Saudi cleric who followed
Wahhabi Islam to its logical conclusion, put it exactly right: "The
Saudi people follow the sheiks that relay the truth and the ones who
follow Quran and Sunna, not the ones who follow the political side.
Jihad is the highest form of worship. This is a very high station. So
all look for this station. If the government allowed people, all the
Arab Muslims would go to war." This explains why, in a recent poll
conducted by Saudi intelligence and shared with the U.S. government,
more than 95 percent of Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41
expressed sympathy with Osama bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia's political culture, then, is caught in a double-bind
owed to the Kingdom's very origins: the alliance between the power of
the Al Saud and the theology of Abdel ibn al-Wahhab. Saudi society
naturally generates resentment against its own political leadership,
for that leadership's power is far too scant to implement the
jihadist teachings of its own schools. Moreover, the Kingdom relies
on outside physical protection and a welter of sheltering financial
and institutional arrangements with the United States while at the
same time exporting its excess religious zeal in the form of
opposition to that protector. This double bind has been managed with
only modest breakage for most of the last half century, but as U.S.
protection has become more visible since the Gulf War, and as the
excess of zeal has grown from both demographic trends and the
establishment's essentially reactionary approach to economic
liberalization, an always tricky balance has grown more problematic.

Just as recognition of these realities was penetrating minds in and
around the Beltway, Saudi behavior fed the growing sense of American
disquiet. First, Saudi leaders refused to publicly acknowledge that
the United States might use Saudi bases against Al-Qaeda and the
Taliban, and for a while it was not clear if the U.S. military would
even have unfettered unpublicized use of them. At the same time, the
Saudi government raised barriers to U.S. law enforcement agencies'
efforts to learn about the Saudi terrorists of September 11.
Americans were incredulous at being told by Saudi officials, long
after it had become even remotely plausible, that few if any of the
terrorists were Saudis but had stolen Saudi passports and identities.
When subsequently asked to help U.S. officials in the critical task
of "following the money", Saudi officials at first denied, pace Mr.
Berger, that any public or private Saudi money had financed any
terrorist organization. This raised the question of whether the
Saudis were lying, which would have been bad, or whether they were
clueless as to what was going on under their noses, which would have
been worse. The New Republic bluntly summed up the emerging
conclusion: "In fact our Arab 'coalition partners'--particularly
Saudi Arabia--are actively sabotaging our efforts to identify the
wider terrorist international, made up in large part, of course, of
their citizens."

Before long, too, recognition of the inadvertent but unmistakable
Saudi complicity in September 11 begged the re-interpretation of
older data into something of a pattern. The Saudis had impeded the
U.S. investigation into the Riyadh and Khobar Towers bombings that
killed 23 American soldiers in November 1995 and June 1996. Saudi
Arabia is one of the few countries that has refused to participate in
an FAA-run airplane manifest agreement that lets U.S. officials know
who is arriving into the United States from abroad. The Saudis have
at times been unhelpful to sensitive U.S. Arab-Israeli diplomacy,
actively dissuading Yasir Arafat during and after the summer 2000
Camp David summit, for example, from accepting compromises over
Jerusalem that are a sine qua non for a settlement.

More pointedly with regard to Al-Qaeda and company, the Saudis
refused to take Osama bin Laden into custody in 1996 when the
Sudanese government offered, with American encouragement and support,
to deliver him there. As egregious, in April 1995 the FBI learned
that Imad Mughniyah was on a flight from Khartoum to Beirut that was
scheduled to stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. FBI agents rushed to
Jeddah to apprehend Mughniyah, who was responsible for the 1985
hijacking of TWA flight 847, during which a U.S. Navy diver was
murdered in cold blood, and for the October 1983 bombing of the U.S.
Marine complex in Lebanon. But the Saudis refused to let the plane
land. (Mughniyah went on to become an important liaison between
Hizballah and Al-Qaeda, and is even now helping to host escaped
Al-Qaeda terrorists in Lebanon.)

As all of this history was being revived, reviewed and discussed,
together with post-September 11 developments themselves, the Saudis
shouted foul. They claimed, most pointedly, that a conspiracy was
being mounted against them by the American media, averring sotto voce
that this was because so many Jews occupy high positions in that
media. Very much related, the Saudis sought to excuse their own
reticence to help the United States by alleging, in the person of
Crown Prince Abdallah himself on January 28, that Saudi reluctance
flowed from justifiable anger throughout the Arab world over
America's "absolute" support for Israel.

Now, Saudi attitudes toward Palestine and Israel, and toward Jews in
the American media, may seem like side points considering all the
other things that have impinged on U.S. and Saudi interests since
September 11. But they are not. The Saudi leadership's approach to
Palestine helps define its predicament, stuck as it is between the
demands of its own society and its need for friendship and protection
from the United States. Moreover, this predicament has been, and will
remain, a central and uncomfortable fact in the American war on

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