How low have America’s fortune in the Middle East sunk? So low that we’re staking our hopes for the region on...Saudi Arabia. In the past month, Saudi King Abdullah has emerged as the most energetic dealmaker in the Middle East, brokering a tentative power-sharing agreement between rival Palestinian factions and mediating between the pro-Western government in Beirut and representatives of Hizballah, who want to topple it. Riyadh is also suppressing the price of oil, in what many observers see as a bid to undermine Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by starving his government of cash. And the Saudis have quietly backed the U.S.’s troop surge in Iraq. Every place in the Middle East that matters, it seems, Riyadh is leading, and Washington is following right behind.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For many Americans, one of the key lessons of Sept. 11 was that the U.S.-Saudi alliance had become an extremely dangerous affair. The 9/11 commission called Riyadh “a problematic ally.” Congress tried to impose sanctions, and President George W. Bush demanded that the monarchy embrace political reform. “Saudi Arabia used to have a lot of apologists in this country,” declared Eliot Cohen, a member of Bush’s Defense Policy Board, in 2002. “Now there are very few.”
The Iraq war was designed, at least in part, to free America from Riyadh’s grasp. A friendly government in Baghdad would make the U.S. less reliant on Saudi oil. And a democratic government in Baghdad would pressure the kingdom to open its political system. Either Saudi Arabia’s regime would change, or its relationship with the U.S. would change, or both.