Time to Question the U.S. Role In Saudi Arabia

The terrorist bombings that struck Saudi Arabia on May 12th have raised a number of serious questions regarding American security interests in the Middle East. First of all, the attacks underscore the concern expressed by many independent strategic analysts that the United States has been squandering its intelligence and military resources toward Iraq–which had nothing to do with al Qaeda and posed no direct danger to the United States–and not toward al Qaeda itself, which is the real threat.

More importantly, however, the bombings bring to the fore the question of whether U.S. interests have been enhanced or threatened by the cozy American relationship with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has traditionally been the most important American ally in the Arab or Islamic world. It is run exclusively by a royal family that allows neither public dissent nor an independent press. Those who dare challenge the regime or its policies are punished severely. There is no constitution, no political parties, and no legislature. It was under such an environment of repression that Osama bin Laden and most of his followers first emerged.

Long shielded by the monarchy’s willingness to supply the United States with cheap oil, to subsidize the American arms industry with major weapons purchases, and to make lucrative deals with other major U.S. corporate interests, the United States has allowed this family dictatorship to get away with practices that would have been considered unacceptable from almost any other country.

Traditions of Hypocrisy

Both Democratic and Republican administrations have revealed their blatant hypocrisy by wailing about the plight of Afghan women while being dismissive of the treatment of Saudi women; by condemning the rigid Islamic laws in Iran as human rights violations while defending the even more repressive variants in Saudi Arabia as somehow an inherent part of their culture; by demanding that Palestinian statehood be dependent upon establishing a leadership committed to democracy and accountability while backing the corrupt and autocratic Saudi leadership.

Human rights activists for years have been raising doubts about the close strategic relationship both Democratic and Republican parties have had with the Saudi regime, particularly the massive arms transfers and military training, including its repressive internal security apparatus. Such critics have railed against the regime’s misogyny, theocratic fascism, and links to terrorism, but to no avail. Despite the close ties between Washington and Riyadh, there have never been any congressional hearings–under either Republican or Democratic leaderships–regarding human rights abuses by the Saudi government.

F. Gregory Gause III, a contemporary specialist on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont, notes: “The truth is the more democratic the Saudis become, the less cooperative they will be with us. So why should we want that?”

Such a policy raises both serious moral questions and as well as serious doubts about whether the United States really cares about freedom for Iraq while it helps make possible repression by other Arab governments.

The Wahabbi Tradition

While there is little evidence to suggest that the top leadership of Saudi Arabia supports the al Qaeda terrorist network or other extremists, there has been an undeniably lax attitude toward cracking down on financial support for such dangerous organizations under the guise of Islamic charities, particularly among the Wahabbi elites and even elements within the very sizable Saudi royal family itself.

Wahabbism is a particularly reactionary interpretation of Islam, which–while not advocating terrorism–has contributed to the theological underpinnings for al Qaeda and like-minded groups. The Saudis have funded Wahabbi religious education throughout the Islamic world, often in places where it has not only been the sole religious education available, but sometimes also the only formal education of any kind. The U.S.-backed Saudi regime, then, is more responsible than any other government for the spread of this dangerous turn to the right in Islamic theology in recent decades. The global reach of Wahabbism is made possible in large part to the movement’s generous funding, which is a result of the billions of petrodollars flowing to Saudi Arabia from the West–in particular, the United States.

Fifteen of the nineteen September 11 hijackers were Saudi, most of the al Qaeda leadership is Saudi, and much of the money trail has already been linked to Saudi Arabia. By contrast, none of the hijackers were Iraqi, no one in the al Qaeda leadership is Iraqi, and none of the money trail has been linked to Iraq. Yet the Bush administration and the leaders of both parties in Congress insisted that Iraq–and not the pro-American Saudi government–had to be the priority in the “war on terror.” In fact, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration initially ordered U.S. immigration officials to target immigrants and visitors from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan but not those from Saudi Arabia.

Support for the family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia has been a prevailing theme of U.S. policy for several decades. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abel-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Arabian kingdom that now bears his family’s name, and forged the alliance that remains to this day: in return for open access to Saudi oil, the United States would protect the royal family from its enemies, both external and internal.

Support for the Royal Family

This policy has remained in force under both Democratic and Republican administrations. For example, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan declared “I will not permit [Saudi Arabia] to be an Iran,” referring to the successful uprising that had ousted the U.S.-backed Shah two years earlier. Under Reagan, American trainers provided direct assistance to Saudi National Guard (SANG) units that crushed a popular uprising.

The SANG, whose primary function is internal security, is almost entirely armed, trained, and managed by the United States, largely through a network of military contractors. It is noteworthy that al Qaeda’s first terrorist attack, a November 1995 bombing in Riyadh that killed five American servicemen, was targeted at a U.S.-operated SANG training center.

Indeed, one of the targets of the May 12 bombings was a residential compound for employees of the Vinell Corporation, the U.S. firm that has been primarily responsible for training SANG forces. The presence in Saudi cities of these white collar mercenaries, which help prop up the country’s despotic regime, is at least as provocative as the presence of uniformed American forces out in the desert, most of whom are now being transferred to bases in the tiny neighboring sheikdom of Qatar.

Al Qaeda believes that the Saudi regime is corrupt and evil in large part because the royal family has squandered its wealth for personal consumption and exotic weaponry while most Arabs suffer in poverty. That group is further angered by the regime’s tendency to persecute those who advocate for more ethical priorities. It is angry with the United States, therefore, for propping up such a regime. The U.S.-Saudi alliance, in al Qaeda’s view, further illustrates the depravity of the Saudi rulers in their decision to allow American troops and advisers on what they see as sacred Saudi soil in order to keep the regime in power. Such a regime is anti-Islamic, from its perspective, and therefore needs to be overthrown.

So, the first challenge, in the eyes of al Qaeda, is to oust the United States from the region, since it is the U.S. military that is keeping the corrupt Saudi regime in power. Given that al Qaeda is no match for the United States militarily, al Qaeda leadership therefore rationalizes the use of terrorism.

As a result, even putting aside moral arguments against backing such regimes as Saudi Arabia, there are serious questions as to whether the large-scale arms transfers and ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf really enhances American security interests. Rather than protecting the United States from its enemies, these policies appear to be creating enemies. On top of all this, the United States may also be supporting a lost cause.

A Lost Cause?

A secret CIA memo circulated at the National Security Council and State Department that was leaked to the press in the spring of 2002 noted how the “culture of royal excess” in Saudi Arabia “has ruled over the kingdom with documented human rights abuses… Democracy has never been part of the equation.” The study also reportedly describes the House of Saud as an “anachronism” that is “inherently fragile” and that there were “serious concerns about long-term stability.”

One can only think back to the 1970s, when the United States was also sending arms and advisers to prop up another Persian Gulf monarchy despite the regime’s severe repression and warnings that such support could lead to a radical Islamic backlash–Iran.

Traditionally, criticism of U.S. support for the Saudi regime has come from the left. In an interesting twist, however, the past year has witnessed an unprecedented degree of anti-Saudi rhetoric from right-wing think tanks, the media, and some sectors of the administration.

The first round came last spring, after Saudi crown prince Abdullah convinced every Arab government, including the Palestinian Authority, to formally declare their willingness to provide security guarantees for and full diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for the Israel’s total withdrawal from Arab lands seized in the 1967 war. This was the most complete Arab acceptance to date of the “land for peace” formula spelled out in the U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, long seen as the basis for Middle East peace. However, the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington –who support Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s insistence on holding on to much of the occupied territories–rejected the proposal.

This second round of attacks against Saudi Arabia came as that government increased its outspoken opposition to U.S. plans to invade Iraq. The Saudis long despised Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and were the principal backer of the U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991, yet they believe that the recent U.S. invasion was unnecessary, illegal, and likely to destabilize the region. In effect, it appears that it is not Saudi extremism that has resulted in a long-overdue criticism of the regime, but Saudi moderation.

The lesson Washington appears to be trying to communicate is, “If you challenge our policies on Iraq, on Israel, or anywhere else, you may become the next target of ‘the war on terrorism’.”

Will Saudi Arabia be yet another case of where, like Manuel Noriega’s Panama and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States supports a dictatorship for years only to suddenly declare it such a threat that the country must be invaded and the regime overthrown? Such an invasion of Saudi Arabia is already being talked about openly, even as the chaos and resulting dangers from the aftermath of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are becoming increasingly apparent.

Why is it that Washington cannot seem to grasp that that there are more enlightened policy alternatives than the extremes of appeasement and of war?


The U.S. and Post-War Iraq: An Analysis

There has been a disturbing degree of triumphalism following the overthrow–perhaps “evaporation” is a better word–of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the face of invading American forces. Even putting aside the appropriateness of this kind of gloating in the face of such death and destruction–including thousands of civilian casualties–it is striking that few people are asking whether the U.S. or the rest of the world is safer now as a result of this overwhelming American military victory.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has about as much to do with freedom as Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue has to do with marketing swimwear: it is little more than an afterthought, a rationalization, and a cover for the hegemonic designs of the Bush administration and its Republican and Democratic supporters in Congress.

Yet the other rationalizations simply did not have much credibility. The supposed threat to American and regional security from the much-talked-about Iraqi arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) appears to have been a ruse. No such weapons have been found thus far, likely validating the assessment of many independent strategic analysts, key Iraqi defectors, and former chief UNSCOM weapons inspector Scott Ritter that Iraq’s WMD program had been effectively dismantled.

Likewise, no significant Iraqi link to the al Qaeda network has been established. Even before the invasion, Bush administration claims of Iraqi backing for terrorist groups contradicted prior assessments by the State Department and various U.S. intelligence agencies. Now, despite the capture of many thousands of Iraqi documents and the interrogation of Iraqi intelligence officials, there appears to have been no significant Iraqi support for terrorist groups for more than a decade.

There was never any debate about the repressive nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the genuine relief that many Iraqis feel regarding the end of the pervasive climate of fear that had gripped the country for a generation. At the same time, it is significant that Iraqi celebrations over the regime’s collapse have been relatively muted. A few hundred celebrants in a city of five million should not be portrayed as representing the sentiments of the population as a whole. Indeed, outside of some Kurdish areas of Iraq, there has not been much gratitude expressed by the population in response to the U.S. invasion. Though some American analysts have drawn analogies to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, those 1989 celebrations were much larger and more enthusiastic. There is a big difference between tearing down the statues of an ousted dictator yourself and having it done by an invading army.

Distrust of the U.S.

Even putting aside the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have engaged in anti-American demonstrations in recent weeks–some of which have been met by gunfire from U.S. occupation forces–there is a pervasive sense of ambiguity among ordinary Iraqis regarding the U.S. invasion and occupation. What few Americans are willing to recognize at this stage is the fact that most Iraqis–including strong opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime–simply do not trust the United States.

Such mistrust is not unfounded. Consider the following:

* Washington backed Saddam Hussein during the height of his repression in the 1980s, concealing Iraqi atrocities–such as the chemical weapons attack against Halabja and other Kurdish towns–and supporting Iraq in its invasion of Iran.

* The U.S. targeting during the 1991 Gulf War bombing campaign went well beyond what was necessary to force Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait. It included the destruction of key sectors of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, such as irrigation systems, bridges, and water purification plants. There were also thousands of accidental noncombatant deaths from bombs and missiles that landed in civilian areas.

* The U.S.-led economic sanctions that followed the war made it difficult for Iraqis to obtain spare parts to repair the damage to their civilian infrastructure and to provide medicines and other necessities for the general population. Although Saddam Hussein certainly shares the blame for the humanitarian disaster that resulted–estimates of deaths from malnutrition and preventable diseases run well into the hundreds of thousands–most Iraqis believe that U.S. policy actually strengthened Saddam’s grip on power and caused unnecessary suffering among ordinary Iraqis.

* The recent U.S. invasion resulted in additional thousands of civilian casualties, both from the initial air assaults as well as from actions by American occupation forces, who have shot into vehicles of unarmed civilians approaching roadblocks and have fired into crowds of demonstrators.

* U.S. occupation forces failed to live up to their obligations under the Fourth Geneva Conventions to maintain order, to provide adequate health care and other basic services, and to protect antiquities in the face of chaos and looting. Nothing could be more emblematic of U.S. priorities, in the eyes of many Iraqis, than the way U.S. forces immediately secured oil fields and the Iraqi Oil Ministry yet stood by while looters snatched priceless artifacts from museums and cleaned out hospitals of crucial medicines and equipment.

* Washington has thus far refused to allow the United Nations to play a significant role in the political restructuring of Iraq, insisting that it be primarily a U.S. role to chart the country’s future. This raises concerns among many Iraqis, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. will reorganize their country pursuant to America’s economic, strategic, and ideological interests without adequate input by the Iraqi people themselves.

* The historical failure of the U.S. to support democracy in the Arab world raises serious questions as to whether Washington is really interested in democracy in Iraq. The U.S. still maintains close military, diplomatic, and economic ties with repressive governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, and other Arab countries, and Washington is a major supporter of Israeli occupation forces in the Arab-populated West Bank and Gaza Strip.

* The tendency for American policymakers to view freedom as encompassing not just political liberties but also commercial “economic freedom” limits the ability of other nations to protect their domestic industries and natural resources from control by powerful foreign corporations. Already, American companies are being brought in for what the Bush administration refers to as “reconstruction,” and they appear to be settling in to play a major ongoing role in the Iraqi economy for many years to come.

As a result of all these and other factors, there is clearly a growing degree of resentment toward the American military presence in Iraq. A significant number of Iraqis are still sympathetic with the principles of the long-ruling Baath Party, which is rooted in Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism, and socialism. Although Saddam Hussein was to Baathism what Josef Stalin was to Marxism–both came to power through advocacy of a populist and egalitarian ideology that was subverted by a brutal totalitarian governing apparatus and a cult of personality–the original ideals of the movement still have widespread appeal.

Filling a Power Vacuum

Perhaps more significantly, the power vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam’s dictatorship has cleared the way for social and political organizations led by Shiite clerics, who–unbound by the more egalitarian structure in Sunni Islam–can take advantage of their hierarchical organizational structure to mobilize quasigovernmental institutions. Centered in the mosques, which even Saddam Hussein’s dreaded secret police could not totally disrupt, these Shiite clerics–unlike most secular opposition leaders–were able to survive the repression. In many respects, the situation in Iraq today parallels that of Shiite-populated Iran following the collapse of the autocratic regime of the shah in 1978-79, when Shiite komitehs were able to effectively build the infrastructure of a new government based along theocratic lines, even though the revolution itself was broadly based. Within slightly more than two years, hard-line Shiite leaders solidified their control over Iranian government and society, resulting in an extraordinary wave of repression that has been weakened only gradually in recent years.

Although leadership by Shiite clergy and their supporters does not necessarily mean that Iraq will follow the radical and repressive model of Iran, Shiite Muslims do constitute the majority of the country’s population and firmly believe that their time has come to rule Iraq after centuries of Sunni domination. Ironically, there are indications that the U.S. is rehabilitating much of the Baath Party, including Saddam Hussein’s police, as a counterweight to the growing Shiite clerical influence. Even though top leaders of the old regime are still wanted men, U.S. forces are beginning to see the remaining Baath Party apparatus as the only entity in the country with the organization and experience to pose a challenge to the emerging Shiite leadership.

Much of the Baath Party consists of individuals who joined solely for career advancement, to take advantage of various perks, or to try to save themselves and their family from persecution. But most members still believe in the party’s nationalistic and anti-imperialist principles and will join with the Islamists in challenging American rule. Indeed, as the British learned early last century during their occupation of Iraq after displacing the Ottoman Turks, Iraqis harbor a deep resentment of occupying powers from the West.

A Safer World

There is a very real possibility, then, that a low-level armed insurgency could develop in the coming weeks and months, not from loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s regime but from ordinary Iraqis demanding self-determination and an end to the U.S. occupation. For this reason, there may be no one happier that U.S. forces have invaded and occupied Iraq than Osama bin Laden, who now has Americans where he wants them: in the heart of the Arab-Islamic world and resented by hundreds of millions of people who see this invasion as an act of imperialism. Indeed, if there was any logic behind the madness of September 11, 2001, it may have been the hope that the U.S. would be provoked to launch such an invasion and that it would spark a dramatic growth in anti-American sentiment throughout the region.

If this was indeed the plan, it appears to be working. The U.S. has squandered the unprecedented sympathy of the international community in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and faces the prospect of unprecedented hostility today. This shift alone should challenge the assumption that the invasion of Iraq has somehow made the U.S. safer.

Meanwhile, North Korea–once it found itself on the Bush administration’s “axis of evil” list along with Iraq, which it saw was about to be overrun–has decided to break its commitment to halt its nuclear program, apparently in hopes of developing a credible nuclear deterrent to stave off a possible American invasion. Other countries may learn the same “lesson.” As a result, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has probably increased rather than decreased the threat of nuclear proliferation.

Bush administration claims that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would somehow advance the possibility of Arab-Israeli peace appear to be without any foundation. Iraq has in recent years had virtually no role in relation to the decades-old conflict in the lands hundreds of miles to the west. Yasir Arafat and the Fatah leadership have long resented Saddam Hussein’s support during the 1980s and early 1990s of the Abu Nidal faction, which was responsible for the murder of a number of prominent Fatah leaders.

Regarding the widely publicized allegation that the Iraqi government was paying money to the families of Palestinian terrorists who are killed, the amount of money Saddam Hussein offered these Palestinian families was far less than what they normally lose in the destruction of their houses by Israeli occupation forces, as is the normal fate of families of terrorists. Nor is Iraq the largest donor to these families; U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia contribute even more money. Finally, the bulk of the Iraqi money goes to families of Palestinian civilians and militiamen killed by Israeli occupation forces during clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not the families of terrorists. These financial donations were largely part of an effort to gain Iraqi sympathizers among this highly politicized population and encourage support for the tiny pro-Iraqi Palestinian faction known as the Arab Liberation Front. It probably had no impact on the number of suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism against Israelis. Like other opportunistic Arab dictators, Saddam Hussein has long given lip service to the Palestinian cause but has actually done little in practice.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has merely highlighted Washington’s hypocrisy in demanding that Iraq disarm its weapons of mass destruction and abide by UN Security Council resolutions while refusing to insist that Israel do the same.

Still, in proving that the U.S. can decisively defeat any Middle Eastern government that challenges American prerogatives, policymakers hope that–as a result of the Pentagon’s overwhelming and devastating display of force–those who oppose U.S. hegemony will somehow now meekly accept American dictates. However, the more likely result will be an increased sense that the nation-state is incapable of resisting American hegemony, and it is therefore up to nonstate actors utilizing various forms of asymmetrical warfare–such as terrorism–to fight back. And, as has already become apparent in the ongoing and protracted war against al Qaeda, defeating a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells is a lot more difficult than defeating the Republican Guard.

An Alternative Security Agenda

In summary, even putting aside the serious moral and legal issues raised by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, America is probably less secure as a result. What, then, can the Bush administration do now to advance America’s security interests?

* The U.S. should turn interim governance of the country over to a United Nations administration that will pave the way for Iraqi self-rule. There is precedence for just such a UN role in the two-year transition of East Timor from its devastating 24-year occupation by Indonesia to independence this past fall. With the entire international community, including other Arab states, represented in the world body, UN efforts to build up a functioning civil society and representative political system would be more likely to succeed. The eventual Iraqi government would have far greater legitimacy in the eyes of both Iraqis and the international community if it developed under UN administration; otherwise, it would appear–rightly or wrongly–to be simply a puppet regime of the United States.

* The U.S. should support the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East. Such regionwide disarmament regimes have already been established in Latin America and the South Pacific. A WMD-free zone throughout the Middle East has been endorsed both by U.S. allies Egypt and Jordan and by the potentially hostile regimes of Iran and Syria.

* U.S. security operations in the Middle East should be restricted to the real threat: the al Qaeda network. This would primarily require improving intelligence and interdiction, with the use of force restricted to small targeted paramilitary operations where appropriate. Since such efforts would be greatly enhanced through the cooperation of Middle Eastern states, pursuing policies that are less inclined to alienate the governments and peoples of the region would seem logical.

* The U.S. needs to vigorously support a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, recognizing that security for Israel and rights for Palestinians are not mutually exclusive but are in fact mutually dependent. Although Washington should continue to insist that Palestinian violence–particularly acts directed toward Israeli civilians–cease unconditionally, the Bush administration must also insist that Israel live up to its international obligations by withdrawing from its illegal settlements in the occupied territories, giving up control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to establish a viable Palestinian state, sharing Jerusalem as the co-capital of both countries, and negotiating a fair resolution to the plight of Palestinian refugees.

* The U.S. must support the establishment of democratic governments throughout the Middle East, which will require–among other things–suspending military and economic aid to all countries that engage in gross and systematic violations of internationally recognized human rights. Although Washington should not try to impose its form of democracy on other countries, a natural evolution toward greater political pluralism in the region will far more likely emerge if the U.S. ends its current support for autocratic governments and occupation armies. As President John F. Kennedy warned, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

To set right U.S. policy toward Iraq would not only put the United States more into line with international law and international public opinion, it would be in the national security interests of the country. There is also a more fundamental question as to who we are as a nation. Today’s debate regarding the U.S. role in the world in many ways parallels one that took place just over a century ago when the U.S. invaded the Philippines. Leading intellectuals of the day, such as the writer Mark Twain, formed the Anti-Imperialist League, whose central question was, “What kind of a nation should we be: a republic or an empire?”

The bottom line is this: The U.S. must pursue a foreign policy based more upon human rights, international law, and sustainable development and less on military conquest and occupation, arms transfers, and the profiteering of U.S.-based corporations. Developing such a new posture in the Middle East would not only be more consistent with America’s stated values, it would also make us a lot safer.