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

U.S.-Saudi disagreement over Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy had passed
through a dramatic stage in the weeks just before September 11, and
Saudi complaints after September 11 make little sense without an
awareness of that drama. To understand either, however, some
background is necessary.

While Saudi Arabia has for decades been ritually referred to by
Americans and Europeans as "moderate", there has never been anything
the least bit moderate about its basic view of Israel. Saudi
religious figures and most Saudi citizens see Israel and Zionism in
ways indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda or the Iranian mullahs at their
worst (which they frequently are). They accept unquestioningly a
passion-play version of the conflict that is entirely one-sided and,
given the closed nature of Saudi society, few Saudis have ever even
heard any other account. Israel stands irredeemably guilty of
"original sin", Palestinians are ever and always mere innocent
victims, and no wild Arab press exaggeration--or pure invention--of
dark Israeli deeds is too bizarre to be believed. Partly on account
of their educational indoctrination, too, many Saudis are avid
consumers of anti-semitism, both vintage imported versions from
Europe and fresh creations from the pens of contemporary Arabs. It
may make at least back-page news in the United States when an
official of the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs refers to
American Jews as "brothers of apes and pigs" and calls on America to
"get rid of its Jews", but it is occasion for nods and yawning inside
the Kingdom.

In light of this, it seems odd upon a moment's reflection that the
Saudi political establishment has always supported Yasir Arafat, the
leader and symbol of secular Palestinian nationalism, rather than
Islamist alternatives, like Hamas, whose religious-based views are
closer to those of Saudi clergy and society. That it has done so
illustrates how the Saudi internal dilemma projects itself onto Saudi
diplomacy. To be saddled with the political leadership of a weak
state means to be simultaneously pragmatic in private and
ideologically spotless in public. While the royal family would
probably accept any settlement over Palestine that would satisfy
Arafat and the nationalists, the Kingdom has been very reluctant to
take an active public part in any diplomacy that might in the end
legitimate Israel's existence, within any borders whatsoever, for
fear of the internal reaction it might provoke. (Crown Prince
Abdallah's "speech in the desk" comment to Thomas Friedman about
possible Saudi normalization with Israel might signal a lightening of
that reluctance, but as of this writing, in late February, it is too
soon to say.) For the Saudi leadership, in any event, Arafat is as
moderate a figure as it dares to support.

This is why, despite longstanding and obvious differences between
U.S. and Israeli views of a settlement, despite Arafat's having
visited the Clinton White House more often than any other foreign
dignitary, and despite the fact that the U.S. government has provided
more financial support to the Palestinian Authority than has the
Saudi government, Saudi leaders still say publicly that U.S. policy
has been "absolutely, 100 percent" biased toward Israel during the
second so-called intifada. Such a view sounds self-evident to most
Saudis because it is accompanied by a parallel belief that any
support for Israel is unjustified because Israel's very existence is
illegitimate. Over the past 17 months of Palestinian-instigated
violence, most Saudis see the Israeli state as terrorist and the
Palestinians as blameless targets and martyrs.

Whether Crown Prince Abdallah and his court privately hold the same
attitude is not clear. But it is clear that, both before September 11
and since, the Saudi government has acted as it has because it is far
more afraid of its own domestic shadow than of Washington's glare. It
knows that its own internal peril paradoxically gives it enormous
strength in its dealings with the United States because as difficult
as the Saudi status quo is, serious people in Washington realize that
all the available alternatives are worse.

It is from this mix of motives and assessments that the Saudis
brought considerable pressure on the Bush Administration last spring
and summer to change its standoffish public diplomacy with regard to
Palestinian-Israeli troubles. An August 24 press conference in which
the President laid the major share of blame for the
Israeli-Palestinian impasse on Arafat touched off a particularly
intense Saudi effort. By early September, that effort resulted in two
promises: one very deferrential one from the United States to put its
views of a settlement into the public realm, and one from Chairman
Arafat to do what needed doing to resume negotiations toward a
ceasefire if not a settlement.

September 11 intervened before either of those promises could be
kept. But the promised speech from the United States was nevertheless
made, by Secretary of State Colin Powell on November 19, with
significant foreshadowing from the President on October 2 and
November 10. With these pronouncements, a Republican administration
went on record supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian
state. Arafat, however, did not keep his promises to Abdallah.
Instead, he connived to bring Iranian arms and influence into the
Levant, right up to the shores of the Red Sea. In secret league with
Hizballah through Iran, Arafat seemed to be planning a kind of re-run
of the 1973 Middle East War, with Iran playing the Soviet role,
Hizballah in place of Syria on the northern front and the PLO tanzim
in place of Egypt on the southern front. The aim was basically the
same: to cause such danger and fear as to trigger outside
intervention on the Arabs' behalf.

As evidenced by the President's January 29 State of the Union
address, the administration has drawn the proper conclusions from all
of this: that President Bush, at his August 24 press conference, was
right the first time; that Arafat and the PLO are on the wrong side
of the war against terrorism; and that trusting Saudi (and Egyptian)
advice on how to handle other Arab leaders brings embarrassment and
failure. One wonders how the President now reads his hurried,
placating response to Crown Prince Abdallah in late August. After all
of Arafat's special industry since the summer, one may also wonder
how the Crown Prince reads it.

However they read it, it is evident that a combination of new
indignities and old resentments has coalesced into a crescendo of
American criticism of Saudi Arabia. Senator Carl Levin was the first,
on January 15, to raise the possibility of withdrawing U.S. forces
from Saudisoil, but by the time he went public, an attentive audience
in Congress, the Pentagon and elsewhere stood ready to applaud his
view. Privately, some senior former U.S. officials began saying
things only slightly off the record that would have been hard to
imagine six months earlier. At the core of these remarks has been
advice to speak frankly, at long last, and at the highest level to
the Saudis about key matters that divide us. As Brent Scowcroft put
it (for the record), "We probably avoid talking about the things that
are the real problems between us because it's a very polite
relationship. We don't get all that much below the surface." The
developing sense is that we should finally give the Saudi leadership
to understand that they need us more than we need them.

But is that really true, and is there any sense to such a calculation
in the first place? Despite all that has happened since September 11,
there has been a limit to Saudi bashing, and for good reason. While
some experts believe that the United States does not need Saudi
facilities to make war against the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, for example,
most Pentagon officials would rather do with than without those
facilities. Saudi oil still matters greatly to the limping world
economy, too, inasmuch as we have neither a serious energy policy in
this country nor yet a ready substitute for Saudi swing production
abroad (though the Russians are trying and hinting). More important,
if the United States lets loose of the Saudis to sink or swim as they
might, they might actually sink--only to be replaced by a regime that
more resembles the Taliban than, say, the Hashemites in Amman. What
benefit, then--aside from the idle pleasures of rhetorical release,
or the scoring of petty political points--is there in bashing them?

There is none. The point of foreign policymaking is not to feel good
but to do well. A useful step in that direction would be to take up
Collingwood's advice in earnest to rewrite our history.

When we recall our lessons as to what was significant between the end
of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression, we have been
used to naming such items as the Washington Naval Conference,
Locarno, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. From the vantage point of
September 11, however, new historical coordinates arise. In the
wizened, windswept autumn of 1924, the Al Saud wrested ownership of
the Hejaz from the Hashemites, who had lorded over the holiest places
of Islam since the 10th century. With that conquest--which could have
been prevented by a few gunboats and some strong language had British
policy not been otherwise bent--the basic territorial configuration
of what became known in 1932 as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was
established. Meanwhile, in the eastern part of the Kingdom oil was
being found in abundance, and by the 1970s money began rolling into
Saudi coffers in amounts that neither traditional conceptions nor
vaults could hold.

Essay Types: Essay