The rising vitriol against Saudi Arabia is reducing the likelihood that Washington will be able to address the real problems we have with that country.
A recent briefing by a Rand Corp. analyst to the prestigious Defense Policy Board is a perfect example. In the July 10 presentation, it was argued that the Saudi financing of militant Islamic groups around the world should be Washington's chief foreign policy concern. If Saudi Arabia does not tamp down on such problematic behavior, the briefing recommended that Washington consider seizing the nation's oil-rich eastern province. In the definition of the problem, the briefing was absolutely correct. The solution— targeting eastern Saudi Arabia— is not only far-fetched, it is seriously counterproductive. It reduces U.S. ability to get Riyadh to even tacitly sign on to a campaign against Iraq, fuels the anti-American belief that Washington is recklessly planning to take over the entire Middle East, targets those who might actually be willing to help us and overlooks other policy alternatives that could get the job done.
The Rand report could be dismissed if it were a one-off briefing by a two-bit organization. But going after the Saudis is becoming the issue du jour. Britain's New Statesman recently reported that the dismemberment of Saudi Arabia is being bandied about "Whitehall [and] Westminster."
Make no mistake: Terrorist financing is indeed a very serious problem, the costs of which Americans only began to feel on Sept. 11. Evidence from East Africa, West Africa, Central Asia and East Asia suggests that schools and mosques funded by Saudi money are dramatically changing indigenous religious landscapes.
Financing often comes from charitable donations, largely of Saudi origin, both by those who know what they are financing and by those unaware of the end point of their contribution.
The focus of U.S. policy should be to make sure this is monitored and controlled by the regimes responsible. Just as the Saudi government carefully controls the opposition within Saudi Arabia, it must now take responsibility internationally as well. Saudi royal family members who serve on charitable boards must be held responsible for what goes on abroad in the institutions that they fund.
But threatening the dismemberment of Saudi Arabia undermines a number of key U.S. interests. First, it will embolden Iraq. If Washington intends to move against Baghdad, it would be useful to build as much support in the neighborhood as possible. It is mind-boggling that as we gear up for a serious military operation against Iraq, the Defense Policy Board is receiving briefings on invading Saudi Arabia.
Anti-Saudi rhetoric in Washington adds fuel to the anti-American fire abroad. Washington has quite a full plate as it is. Iran is a part of the "axis of evil," war plans are being drawn up against Iraq, Pakistan's stability is precarious and a Pakistan-India war threatens, efforts to rebuild Afghanistan are only beginning and the president has called for "regime change" in the Palestinian Authority. Now hardly seems the time to threaten the Saudis. Which of these other goals are those calling for an aggressive Saudi policy willing to give up to accomplish it?
Finally, the Saudi royal family is the wrong target. After a fire in a girls' school in March, Crown Prince Abdullah wrested control of girls' education from the religious establishment. After Sept. 11, an unprecedented debate was sanctioned between the House of Saud and the religious establishment over the appropriate distribution of power in Saudi society. Like it or not, the current regime is the friendliest partner that we have in the kingdom.
Asking the Saudis to take on terrorist financing would be enormously costly to them. The crown prince would have to directly challenge the religious establishment, as well as key members of his own family.
Washington should push anyway but be realistic about what it is asking. Inflammatory rhetoric will only back the crown prince into a corner. Targeting the eastern province would not produce the cooperation we rightfully expect and desperately need.
Rachel Bronson is director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.