With friends like the Saudis, who needs enemies?
July 9, 2002 10:07 PM   Subscribe

With friends like the Saudis, who needs enemies? "There is, then, no real need for us to be frightened by the loss of the kingdom's oil friendship. But we should be concerned by the evidence of its strategic enmity. It may be true that the Saudis are neither Iraqis nor Iranians nor Libyans; but it is quite dangerous enough that they are Saudis."
posted by homunculus (24 comments total)
What country were the September 11th hijackers from again?
posted by Aikido at 10:53 PM on July 9, 2002

Thanks for the appropriate use of quotes; that's been bungled a few times too many lately.

Liberals, of course, have never regarded the Saudis highly. But they seem to freak out at the idea of us treating the Saudis as an enemy regime. Well, frankly, many have trouble with the idea of "enemy" per se, so that's not surprising. Washington has maintained the veneer of friendship, as the regime has furiously rolled out public relations campaigns, but as Riyadh has made clear that our alliance with them only operates in one direction -- us protecting them -- we have perfunctorily begun moving our command center at Prince Sultan Air Base to Qatar. That's going to severely reduce the leverage they have with us, even if they believe they can count on Arabists in and out of the State Department and oilmen in and out of the White House and Congress.

Of course one unspoken reason they've been severely reluctant to support our operations and long-term goals in the band stretching from Iraq to Siberia is that to the extent that our interests in the region are accomplished -- greater democracy, greater stability and rule of law, greater access to oil -- that all tends to saw big gouges in the post under the Saudi catbird seat.

It's a tricky position to be in for us as well. We are engaged in a policy that has as its explicit aim the elimination of the threat posed by Saddam, one way or the other. If Iraq is no longer a military threat to Saudi Arabia, we will have one fewer reason to maintain troops there and treat them with deference.

We are in the perilous and difficult process of creating a quasi-democratic system in Afghanistan. We are bending Pakistan to stamp out radicalism.

With the government of Iran, our interests are in many ways in direct opposition, yet the aims of the people of Iran are dramatically different. We've resisted making moves to openly support reform movements (which are, broadly speaking, under 30, pro-American and pro-royal) because at the moment we need to play nice with Tehran so that they don't overstep bounds in Afghanistan. But we clearly cut a sweet deal with Moscow, who broke off a longstanding program of support to Tehran's nuclear programs. That has the theocrats isolated and paranoid {though Ledeen's been hyping this meme for a while, and there hasn't been any significant movement}. Our best policy there, for the time being, is hands-off.

A similar day may come for the House of Sa'ud, but it will be a long time coming -- there isn't any such thing as an open reform movement or broad political dissent. What dissatisfaction there is seems to come from those who resent the austere Wahabbi religious police, or the underemployed. Their groans have been suppressed, their anger redirected at the Palestinian situation.

But the administration may have found a wedge issue. The key success of their plan to oust Arafat by forcing the PA to live up to long-ignored promises of real democracy and governance has been the release of pent-up internal dissension, the Nobody-Likes-Yassir factor, and probably along with that has come the under-the-table promise that the US will refuse to negotiate with anyone who doesn't swear off terror bombings as of yesterday. Make no mistake, if we're a hyperpower, using it to sit on thugs and kleptos of this magnitude is gaining us respect that years of playing the agnostic peacemaker robbed. It's had several secondary effects. First, the muzzling of European meddlers such as Patten and Prodi, who have no real roles in the process but precisely because of this get to voice complaints felt by others. Second, this has to put places like Riyadh into the mindset that if democracy's good enough for the West Bank, why not for them? What it's done is place squarely on the table the idea that democracy is one piece of the long-term solution to terrorism. Third, the Palestinian cause of the shaheeds -- martyrs -- is now looking like last year's summer movie. The Saudi bankrolls for that are going to be declining -- already have, to the extent that money went to less savory causes such as al Qaeda -- and the people who gained favor by doing their 'religious duty' are not going to have that option. To what other cause will they devote their energy? Without the Palestinian distraction, indeed, with Palestine possibly in the next few years providing a shining example of the success of Western ideas, the Saudi oligarchy is looking less and less viable, more and more embarrassing.

One of the great stories of the 90s has been the surge toward mature self-governance, both in terms of open democracy and the rule of law which permits private, diversified capital investment. As one nation after another has chosen this route, others have seen the fruits and chosen to plant their own orchards. The Arab world is highly prone to culture-sweeping fads, as documented by critics such as Fouad Ajami. Half a century ago it was secular nationalism and elements of Western political movements from fascism to socialism. A generation later, that movement have singularly failed its people, the fad became Islamism. The challenge for the West is to make Islamism a singularly failed philosophy, and make sure that the Arab world gets to taste the orange juice and wake up.

The "oust Arafat" movement may seem a mere pique, a strategy playing to the Sharansky wing. But it has the potential of starting a war of memes that will turn the historical curiosity that is the Saudi regime into a truly modern land. How we get there is going to be something that more than one president will face, a consistency of policy something like our attitude toward Russia. And one day, there will be a moment, and I hope we're ready to seize it.
posted by dhartung at 11:26 PM on July 9, 2002

Damn you, dhartung. I always feel better after your posts. :)
posted by donkeyschlong at 12:02 AM on July 10, 2002

Building on one of Dhartung's themes, it is often said that the Palestinians are in some bizarre way the keystone of the middle east. Their situation has the potential to engulf the region in either flames or modernism... of course it would have been a lot better to build a democratic, secular state under different conditions (say, oh, building a truly fair deal for the Palestinians from the outset with respect to international law and the wishes of 99% of the planet) but this is what we're stuck with due to the failed policies of both sides. If Bush is serious and can force the other side to respond to any genuine moves on the Palestinian side, and a democratic, free-market state is built on the West Bank and Gaza, with the entire Arab world watching, there will be a good chance for real change. If the situation festers like this, however, the militants only have more power as they exploit the genuine suffering of a stateless people in order to whip up support for their undemocratic, repressive ideas.
posted by chaz at 12:33 AM on July 10, 2002

"The challenge for the West is to make Islamism a singularly failed philosophy, and make sure that the Arab world gets to taste the orange juice and wake up."

Why must the West make Islamism a failure? Why can't the West let it sink or swim on its own merits? Need every nation kowtow to the American way or risk being nuked? Don't you have faith that Islamism will fail of its own accord... or are you afraid that it will succeed?
posted by five fresh fish at 12:39 AM on July 10, 2002

I think the valid fear, five fresh five, is that the inevitable collapse of Islamism will create a vacuum, and potentially a hospitable environment for something even more devastating, unless we present a more progressive template.
posted by donkeyschlong at 12:58 AM on July 10, 2002

I think the valid fear, five fresh five, is that the inevitable collapse of Islamism will create a vacuum - emphasis mine

Excuse me? "Inevitable collapse"? Like the inevitable collapse of any other big 5 religion, correct? Islam is not under any thread of collapse. However, what the West is trying to do is eradicate the extremism that is bred from Islamic ideals.

Why must the West make Islamism a failure?

The better answer to that question is that the West is not trying to kill an entire religion. However, Turkey being a fine example, secular Islamist governments are the goal. More control by the outside world, more stability within the country itself.

The challenge for the West is to make Islamism a singularly failed philosophy, and make sure that the Arab world gets to taste the orange juice and wake up.

dhartung, do you truly believe that? Because by that logic, Christianity should have been destroyed a millennium ago. Secularism was born from the idea of separation, not removal of religious thought entirely.
posted by BlueTrain at 1:10 AM on July 10, 2002

BlueTrain, do you even grasp the difference between Islam and Islamism? They're not the same thing.
posted by donkeyschlong at 1:29 AM on July 10, 2002

(Just to clarify -- the distinction for me is that while Islam is as good or bad as any other religion as a personal philosophy, it is just plain as bad as any other religion as a form of government. Ergo the distinction between Islam and Islamism. At least that's how I've come to understand it. If anyone wants to clarify, please go ahead. But I am fairly certain they're not the same thing.)
posted by donkeyschlong at 1:32 AM on July 10, 2002

My definition of Islamism is synonymous with Webster's definition of Buddhism.

3 a : doctrine : theory : cult - taken from the definition of the root, -ism

I have no negative or positive connotations implied with my use. What's your definition, donkeyschlong?
posted by BlueTrain at 1:36 AM on July 10, 2002

whoops, sorry, missed your comment in preview...so basically you're stating that the "inevitable collapse of Islamism" means, "inevitable collapse of Islamic-based govt."? Well, in that case, yes, I'm in full agreement.
posted by BlueTrain at 1:39 AM on July 10, 2002

Bin Laden no longer exists: Here is why - The Arab News. (Saudi Arabia)
"Of course, we cannot produce the body or pinpoint the grave. What we have in mind is Bin Laden’s death as a political operator."

Does an article like this indicate the Saudis really are backing out on the Bin Laden cause, when we consider everything mentioned above?
posted by sheauga at 1:55 AM on July 10, 2002

That, Blue, is exactly what I meant. I think it's foolish to rail against any particular religion to the exclusion of others; it's the misapplication of religion that I find objectionable. Islamist governance has been an abject failure, and its time must pass.

And admittedly, there are people in this country who would like to see our government become more "Christian," and they are just as horrifying. It's just that we've learned to marginalize them. So will the Muslim world in due time. I'm sincerely waiting on Iran and Iraq to come out from under their rocks, for starters, since progressive attitudes have considerable traction among their populaces, and I see similar auspices for the Palestinians now that Yasser seems to be receding into the sunset.
posted by donkeyschlong at 1:58 AM on July 10, 2002

Islam is the name of the religion, Muslim is the descriptive, and Mohammed is the prophet. Much like Christianity, Christian, and Jesus of Nazareth; or Buddhism, Buddhist, and Buddha.

Islamism used to be the result of misapplying "rules" of English grammar, donkeyschlongs definition is a fairly recent development.

There's a (kinda) fascinating article describing the current situation of French Islam here [via kausfiles]
posted by jaek at 2:41 AM on July 10, 2002

Nice analysis Darthung. I would take exception though to the easy labelling of Liberals disliking treatment of Saudi as enemy regime. It is after all the oil and commercial interests of the (usually) GOP that wants things as they are in Saudi Arabia.
I remain sceptical as to real democracy coming to that region. The ordinary folks seem more prone toward wanting a religiously-run state and the despots seem intent on keeping control for their own interests.
Two (by now) cliches: 1. In countries where the people like America, the rulers detest us; and in countries where the people hate us, the rulers like us. 2. Most Muslims are not terrorists but most terrorists are Muslims.
posted by Postroad at 3:17 AM on July 10, 2002

A few points in defence of the Saudis:

1) The Saudis have progressed from a tribal desert community to a modern consumer society in 30 years .. the same change that took the West over 200 years and involved violent social upheaval and war. They have managed to avoid both.

2) Saudi Arabia is home to two of the three holiest places in Islam and as a result hosts almost 2 million pilgrims per year, many of them destitute and supported entirely by Saudi charity. This position means that religion has a special place in Saudi society.

3) Saudi Arabian intervention to stabilise the price of oil is enormously expensive for the Kingdom and is the foundation of the economic stability of the West.

4) Sitting on top of the worlds largest oil reserves, a strategic resource of primary importance for the West, makes Saudi Arabia a target. It is not surprising therefore that the West should shoulder some responsibility for defending it.

5) The government of Saudi Arabia has been unequivocal in its condemnation of the terrorist attacks on the USA.

Saudi Arabia has been a loyal friend of the USA (much to the annoyance of us Brits who had quite other plans) since its foundation. There are those who would change this situation, for reasons of their own. Be careful before you make common cause with them.

It's strange that people here who would defend to the death their neigbours right to be different, to follow different values and to make their own way in the world won't extend the same privilege to nations.
posted by grahamwell at 3:20 AM on July 10, 2002

It's a paradox that Iran has become an enemy of the West and the Saudi Arabia has become an ally. Iran is one of the most enlightened (in the Western sense of the word) muslim regimes in the Middle-east with a democracy women who are critical of the regime - and with rights for women surpassing most other muslim states. There is quite a way to go before human rights activists are going to be happy with Iran (but hey! the same aplies to the U.S.) yet they are leagues ahead of the corrupt, cruel and decadent dictatorship of the Saudi.

The U.S. should pull out of Saudi Arabia - it would have the added benefit of stopping the ilk of Osama Bin Laden to claim his crimes are righteous because of the "occupation" by the U.S.
posted by cx at 3:34 AM on July 10, 2002

2. Most Muslims are not terrorists but most terrorists are Muslims.

Ah, Postroad -- you were almost balanced with this post, but you couldn't resist. The terrorists we happen to be fighting are Muslim, yes, but to say that most terrorists the world over are Muslim is a ludicrous statement, ignoring the domestic situations of countless nations. Need I even enumerate the numerous terrorist organizations in active operation worldwide that aren't even remotely Islamic?
posted by donkeyschlong at 3:40 AM on July 10, 2002

One thing that dhartung didn't mention (and I agree with most of what he did mention) is that King Fahd's health is declining, though it's proved fairly resilient in recent years, and because Saudi Arabia's court is reminiscent at times of the Ottoman throne, there's a lot of manoeuvring for influence once Fahd finally kicks the bucket. It's not just that dissent is suppressed, though that's certainly true, but that the 'powers behind the throne' are difficult to challenge in a coherent way. Add to that the expressed fear that the Sauds represent the best bulwark to tribalism, and you have the depressing sense that Fahd might be the country's Tito.

I'd also suggest that adding Iran to the 'axis of evil' didn't help the paranoia of the theocrats there, but probably made them less isolated in Iran by making them appear isolated by the USA. As for the 'inevitable collapse' of Islamism: well, Christianism is more powerful in the US than it's been for decades, and the alliance of the Jewish lobby with messianic Christians, particularly in the Bible belt, raises a few questions.
posted by riviera at 5:06 AM on July 10, 2002

"Liberals, of course, have never regarded the Saudis highly. But they seem to freak out at the idea of us treating the Saudis as an enemy regime."

Waayyy too broad a brush stroke there, as in "liberals are always evil and wrong, conservatives are always correct and good."

"with Palestine possibly in the next few years providing a shining example of the success of Western ideas"

Can I borrow that crystal ball please? I can't see that happening, even if Dubya did borrow his ideas from the jewists.

What's up with this Lou Dobbs "Islamists" thing guys? Can you say Christianists?

Congrats on the voluminous post otherwise dhartung. I only wish I had the time to expound on such issues.
posted by nofundy at 8:27 AM on July 10, 2002

Threads like this are why I love Metafilter.

There's an interesting editorial on the Washington Post about Saudi Arabia's 'Female Problem'.
posted by homunculus at 10:20 AM on July 10, 2002

One thing that dhartung didn't mention (and I agree with most of what he did mention)

I can't wait for dusk -- there must be a blue moon!

Thanks, riviera. I have no doubt that Fahd's death will destabilize things within the royal family a little, but in general Abdullah, who remains quite vigorous, seems to have things well in hand as Crown Prince. There's every expectation that the brothers will elect him King to succeed Fahd. (Note to the confused: Saudi Arabia does not have a primogeniture law. Right now, the eligible royals are the living sons of King Abdul Aziz, who died in 1953 -- and has been succeeded by four of his sons, many of them now aged. Talk about a prescription for conservative rule.)

Another point. I didn't think it was required to be explained any longer, but Islamism is not Islam. It is the term used by English speakers in the Middle East for the political ideology based on implementing shari'a and in some factions overthrowing all secular government and in a still smaller group restoring the ancient Caliphate, i.e. one indivisible government for all of Islam on a religious basis looking to a leader sanctioned by a religious council. Daniel Pipes on distinguishing between Islam and Islamism. It is far more accurate than the sloppy analogy suggested by the once-common American term Islamic fundamentalism. (Since all Islam is based on the text of the Koran, it could be said that all Muslims are, from a Christian point of view, fundamentalists; this is a deep subject and I will not pursue it.) When BlueTrain above refers to the "secular Islamist" government of Turkey, there is a gross contradiction in terms. Islamists cannot be secular. The accurate term for a government of a largely Muslim country is Islamic. Turkey does, however, contain Islamist political parties, and if they can't manage the instability caused by the decrepit Ecevit holding on as premier, there's every chance that an Islamist party could form the next government there. Their claims of loyalty to Turkish secularism will then be put to the test.

So, BlueTrain, I was not calling for the demise of an entire religion, damnit.

To return to personal opinion: I consider Islamism to be a variant form of fascism. (Hitchens brilliantly linked the two ideologies shortly after the attacks with the term Islamofascism.) Just as the West saw to it that fascism failed in World War II, and communism failed during the Cold War, we have little choice but to ensure that Islamism does not flourish: if we do not, then the world faces a Clash of Civilizations and continued war.

sheauga: There were always those in Saudi Arabia who didn't like Osama; of course, partly he was a threat to the monarchists. Right now, the pivot point in that country comes between the world of the monarchy and the world of the imams; and Bush's support for the regime may to some extent be seen as an attempt to deepen the gap between the two, to isolate the religious powers from the secular politicians and make their interests continue to diverge. It's possibly too hopeful, I would agree with critics, but it's possible that in this gap a populist force might arise. It doesn't exist now, so we can't ally with it. For a time it might make sense to ally the populists with the royalists. Who knows -- we might get a Spain. But no matter what it is far more important that we prevent the Wahabbi imams from gaining by our moves, than that we prevent the royals -- doomed in the long run -- from gaining temporarily. The former are dangerous to us, while the latter are not. (Faced with a choice between a danger and a mere liability, I'll take the liability.) As I said, it's a tricky business, and it's not being managed as masterfully as I've laid out, but by a combination of smaller policies -- and it will be buffeted by factional infighting on our side. And if there's a major war that arises, all bets and best-laid-plans are off.
posted by dhartung at 12:21 PM on July 10, 2002

And admittedly, there are people in this country who would like to see our government become more "Christian," and they are just as horrifying. It's just that we've learned to marginalize them.

By, um, appointing them to the Supreme Court?
posted by rushmc at 1:00 PM on July 10, 2002

I don't know how, but somehow I was saying the name "Victor Davis Hanson" in my mind just based on the quote. The man is a confirmed blowhard, we've discussed some really chilling aspects of his previous articles before on MeFi, and I doubt it's worth trying to pick apart the moments when he makes sense from the majority of what he says.

You know what? While the cultural influence of Saudi-funded religious education has come under a lot of well-deserved scrutiny lately, the real problem with the Saudis is very simple: (1) They have a corrupt and hypocritically pseudo-religious regime, leading to a populace sympathetic to extremists who promise to bring down the scourge of righteousness on the whole lot of overfed thieves and lechers. While some such kind of scourge would undoubtedly be a good thing, the fact that the U.S.A. is gung-ho in the regime's corner causes those angry people to assume that the antidote will necessarily be anti-American. Naturally, the West is therefore scared shitless of democracy in Saudi Arabia, and will do everything possible to prevent it, thus redoubling the populace's hatred of the USA and their lamentably confused idea of what the people should do if they get the power. (2) This whole process is a model throughout the Arab world, as well-educated and moderate real-people-on-the-street in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt see the Saudi regime as a corrupt and hypocritical example of what Islam is not -- a perfect reflection of their own corrupt and secular regimes (identically thieving and valueless and tyrannical), again leading to the belief that the democratic will of the people, "real Islam" is the answer. Only in Iran is the population not dreaming of an Islamic solution. Everywhere else, Iranian-style Islamic revolution is the strongest current form of democratic progressivism. That's what I've heard from the horse's mouth, anyway.
posted by Zurishaddai at 1:31 PM on July 10, 2002

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