Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Saudi: Friend or Foe?

I am truly amazed by the amount of discussion about whether the Saudi government, made up exclusively of the sons of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, is a "friend" or an enemy of the U.S.A. (As I write this, CNNs Lou Dobbs just brought the subject up, using those exact words). For the sophisticated observers of the international scene, these words are terms of art. To nations, they have no other meaning. No nation can be a "friend" to another. Some decisions of friendship are purely emotional, nonjudgemental. People can act that way. Nations may not. One may be an "ally" of another. But such an alliance between nations is continually subject to review. If your ally fails to uphold an agreement, the other may retreat from the "friendship." And nations can be untrustworthy, using friendship as a weapon. The Japanese were talking peace with us on the very day of the Pearl harbor attack. Stalin and Hitler were buddies until the day the Wehrmacht smashed into the heartland of the Soviet homeland.

The sophisticated question is: do the al Sauds believe that they have a commonality of interests with the U.S.A. that overpowers their commonality on interests with Iraq, Kuwait, the Palestinians, or the Muslim people worldwide? Logic (and the Western mind craves logic) says that they owe nothing to Iraq, and history shows that no other Arab country has ever come to their aid. Indeed, The Saudi rulers for centuries have established alliances with imperial powers for protection; first the British, and then, in the 1930s, us. (it was pure dumb luck that oil was discovered right after the British showed Abdul Aziz that they didn't care about him anymore) So the only reason we even have this question pending is the Great Mohammedan Nation: does Saudi Arabia feel loyalty to a concept?

Clearly the Saudi leaders like their sinecure, and have no wish to have to work for a living. If we don't protect them, who will. Their armed forces are a joke, with power awarded to their officers on a hereditary, rather than a merit basis. The cream of their Air force is pilots who are princelings, while the mechanics who keep the planes flying are all foreigners. Without a powerful protector, they are toast, and they surely know it. If the Saudis let us down, we could easily install a Hashemite (their previous rulers, and the current family ruling in Jordan) or an al Sabah (rulers of Kuwait). Or we could just leave, and Iraq could take over.

Without doubt a rational leader of Saudi Arabia needs to be allied with a great power, and there is no other to take our place. The question of friend or foe is specious. The real question is, can a government which allies itself with the USA survive in power itself? There is a ferment in the land, with a nascent Islamist movement threatening to become powerful again. Al Qaeda has targeted the al Sauds. Three of them died yesterday. They are frightened. They need to steer a middle path. Will we allow them to? They need the Wahabbi ulema (clerical establishment) in order to give their rule legitimacy. Many of the princes are themselves Wahabbi. They are surely conflicted. But they are weak. What is the U.S. government to do?

Don't believe that any American strategic planner believes that the Saudis are our friends. The Wahabbis are not in their midst. The al Sauds ARE the Wahabbis, and without the link, the theocracy would collapse. The question is how we should handle them (the Saudi government) during and after this conflict. The divide is between those who are willing to declare them hostile now, and those who wish to wait on events.

Diplomacy is a delicate business, with levels of truth. Only an idiot would make the case that the Saudis are on any side but their own, unless one wishes to manipulate or obfuscate the truth to accomplish one's own ends. If we declare Saudi Arabia our enemy today, they would act overtly like our enemy. Meanwhile, as our putative ally, they produce excess oil, which is helpful to anyone who likes the price as low as it is, and they have recently allowed our military operations from their soil.

Don't sell our leaders short. I know that Powell is depicted as an idiot sometimes, but he can't be as foolish or as cowardly as he is shown to be in the press. The other side, Wolfowitz, Rice, and Perle, are overt hawks. When you telegraph your agenda, you make life easier for your enemy. And you make it harder for the Saudis to become our friends when crunch time comes.

Whatever, the whole game will be decided by George Bush, so the one thing we know for sure is that war will have begun, or at least the unmistakable signs of imminent war will be obvious, before election day.