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

The combination--oil riches and the religious legitimacy conferred by
control of Mecca and Medina (and of the hajj along with it)--has
allowed the Saudi partnership of the Al Saud and the Al Wahhab to
overturn the equilibrium of Islamic civilization that had existed for
nigh on a thousand years. The Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam is
neither traditional nor orthodox. It is a slightly attenuated
fundamentalism that dates only from the end of the 18th century.
Though linked to the Islamic past through Ibn Taymiyah, a 13th
century exegete, and to the minoritarian salafiyah strand of
interpretation before him, as recently as fifty years ago the large
majority of Muslims considered Saudi Wahhabism to be exotic, marginal
and austere to the point of neurotic. But an aggressive and very
well-funded campaign of intra-Islamic evangelism has established it
as the paragon of Sunni piety today. This is, in a word, bad; bad for
Arabs, for Muslims, and for everyone else. More than anything, the
ascendancy of Wahhabism within the Islamic world, to a point that is
now beyond the control of the Saudi state, is the core source of the
terrorist attacks of September 11--and of the way that those attacks
have been variously received and understood by Muslims everywhere.

Once we understand "1924" properly, we are instantly sobered by the
new perspective it provides. We see that Saudi society, caught as it
is between its origins and the inexorable press of modernity, is an
inherent threat to the United States and to its allies, Arab and
non-Arab alike; that by its very nature it cannot help but be such a
threat. While we can and should try to persuade the Saudi government
to help us "follow the money" and to do other things manifestly in
its own self-interest as well as ours, we will get nowhere trying to
persuade Saudis to be what they are not. We may not like the way
Saudis think about the non-Islamic world, or what they teach in their
schools, or how they define concepts like charity and terrorism. But
for American Christians or Jews to demand that they educate their
children to become "better" or "more tolerant" Muslims is utterly
futile. Next to the apparently unlimited hubris of those who think it
so easy to change the political culture of the Muslim world with
so-called Middle East Marshall Plans, this presumption--that we have
the right to insist on the reform of other peoples' religions--has to
rank as the most outrageous American foolishness of the
post-September 11 period.

Too many Americans, then, have simultaneously underestimated the
Saudi problem and overestimated the potential near-term efficacy of
American influence in regard to it. On the one hand, as a matter of
first principle, the United States should not "learn to live" with a
Saudi Arabia in perpetuity. A Wahhabi-inspired country controlling
the Hejaz and that much oil wealth will never be desirable from the
perspective of either American interests or values. Arabia has not
always been Saudi or Wahhabi, and some day it will probably stop
being both; should it become prudent for the United States to advance
that day, it would be worth considering. On the other hand, we must
recognize that this time is not at hand. The Saudi version of weak
realpolitik is becoming an increasingly tense management problem, but
it is not just a Saudi problem; it's our problem, too.

As we wait for such a time, there is a lesser but not trivial benefit
to seeing the Saudi problem for what it really is. If we stop kidding
ourselves about the fit and affection of the two societies for one
another, we may grasp the enormous distortion that Saudi money has
wreaked on our common sense about the Middle East. Yes, tens of
billions of dollars passed around hither and yon over a few decades
can do that. But there is hope. Rudy Giuliani provided an object
lesson in how to handle Saudi lucre with strings attached. And if
even oilmen like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney show signs of getting
right about Saudi Arabia, then so can the rest of us.

Essay Types: Essay