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U.S. Faces Dilemma on Saudi Policy

Author: Michael Mandelbaum, Christian Herter Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
July 30, 2003
Newsday

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The 28 pages the White House deleted from the 850-page report Congress released last week on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, illustrate the most acute dilemma confronting American foreign policy: what to do about Saudi Arabia. None of the choices is entirely satisfactory.

According to press accounts, the report's missing pages describe support provided by officials of the Saudi Arabian government to several of the hijackers of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Critics have charged that the Bush administration has suppressed this section of the report out of fear that, in view of its close ties with the Saudi royal family, the administration would suffer embarrassment and political damage from revealing it.

President George W. Bush met yesterday with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, but he refused to declassify the 28-page section - citing the need to protect intelligence sources.

In truth, every American administration since that of Franklin D. Roosevelt has maintained close ties with the Saudi rulers, and for a single, simple reason: oil. The Saudi kingdom contains an estimated 25 percent of the world's easily accessible reserves of the petroleum that the American economy - and the economies of all industrialized countries - need to function. For six decades, the United States has maintained a bargain with the Saudi rulers: support for their regime in exchange for access to the oil they control.

But the rule of the Saudi royal family rests on another, internal bargain. The regime has embraced as its official ideology a radical form of Islam known as Wahhabism, which preaches intolerance for, indeed hatred of, all others - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - who do not subscribe to its precepts. It is as if, says the eminent historian of the Mideast Bernard Lewis, the U.S. government were promoting the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Wahhabi ideology pervades Saudi society. Both Saudi officials and private citizens have used the kingdom's oil wealth to promote Wahhabism all over the world. They sponsored the schools that taught the leaders of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which welcomed the al-Qaida terrorist network on Afghan territory before being ousted by the United States in 2001, and funded mosques in Western Europe where al-Qaida operatives were recruited. Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 professed to be inspired by Wahhabi teachings.

So the regime that the United States has faithfully supported presides over a society and sponsors organizations that produce anti-American terrorists, which creates a dilemma for American policy makers.

Opposing the Saudi regime might lead to its replacement by one even more unfriendly to the United States. But continuing support for the rulers in Riyadh while ignoring their official ideology, as in the past, risks allowing global terrorism to flourish. In response to this dilemma, three distinct courses of action are available.

One involves reform in the Saudi kingdom. Some Saudi officials have expressed a commitment to reducing the power of the Wahhabi clerics, changing the educational curriculum and opening the political system to wider participation. American officials hope that if democracy is established in neighboring Iraq this will, by example, move other Arab countries in the direction of greater social tolerance and political openness.

But the benign effects of a new Iraq will be felt slowly and gradually, if at all. And Saudi rulers have powerful incentives to oppose serious change because it could dilute their power and call into question their practice of diverting much of the revenue from the kingdom's oil to their personal use.

A second option is to muddle through, hoping that an unreformed Saudi Arabia can nonetheless keep under control the bin Ladens that its society and school system produce. This is the administration's preferred option, and its decision to remove American troops from Saudi territory is designed to eliminate a major source of Wahhabi-inspired anger at the United States. If this approach fails, a third possibility is likely to receive serious consideration.

If the world cannot live without Saudi oil but concludes that it also cannot live with the current Saudi regime, it may decide to separate the two, putting the Saudi oil fields under some sort of international control. They might be administered by the United Nations, with the proceeds going to the world's poorest countries rather than to the Saudi ruling family. This would cut off the funding for terrorism that, until now, has emanated from Saudi Arabia. It would represent a sharp departure from existing international rules and procedures. But if Saudi-funded terror continues, proposals of this kind will rise to the top of the international agenda.


Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World," is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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