SAUDI-BASHING has become the new sport in Washington, and with good reason. The news that the wife of the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S. indirectly (and, she says, unwittingly) bankrolled some of the 9/11 terrorists isn’t really news at all—just one more indication that, for all its protestations, Saudi Arabia clearly stands on the wrong side in the War on Terror.
On this week’s Sunday-morning talk-shows, the anti-Saudi bromides talk came from Democratic and Republican senators alike. But the best came from Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, who, had election 2000 turned out differently, would be the lone voice of sanity in President Gore’s inner-circle. While Gore makes his histrionic appeals to appeasement, Lieberman took to the airwaves on CBS’s "Face the Nation," warning Saudi officials that they "have to change, or the relationship that we have with Saudi Arabia is going to change dramatically."
"They've got to decide," he added, "which side they’re on."
But partisanship got the better of the would-be vice president, and so he posed a challenge to the Bush Administration: "Why do my colleagues on the Joint Intelligence Committee … feel that the Administration has … seemed to want to almost defend the Saudis or not be as aggressive as they should be about the Saudis?"
That question’s not only opportunistic, it’s also premature.
For Democrats, the charge that Bush is soft on the Saudis is one that squares nicely with one of their favorites presidential caricatures—the stooge for Big Oil. For its part, the White House does little to blunt the charge when spokesman Ari Fleischer offers laughable comments like, "the president does believe the Saudis have been a good partner in the war on terrorism." But for the time being, there’s reason to believe that Fleischer’s diplomatic kisses to Crown Prince Abdullah conceal a greater strategy, one that will eventually reform the House of Saud, if not bring it down.
Barely a year into the War on Terror, it’s clear that the Administration’s strategy has been decidedly methodical. Due in no small part to the degradation of American military strength during the Clinton years, the war has necessarily been fought in phases. Phase One was the invasion of Afghanistan and the elimination of the Taliban. Phase Two will be the liberation of Iraq. Where the Administration proceeds from there remains to be seen, but all signs point to an onward march. Saudi Arabia is not alone among Middle Eastern countries in dire need of reform—Iran and Syria have also enjoyed a free pass thus far. The leaders of all three countries will eventually have to choose between fanaticism and their survival.
In light of the present circumstances, it makes sense for the White House to refrain from exerting diplomatic pressure (let alone military pressure) on Saudi Arabia. Simple divide-and-conquer strategy dictates the importance of preserving the U.S.–Saudi friendship of convenience at least throughout the invasion of Iraq—especially as there’s hope that the Saudis will let U.S. bombers operate from their air bases.
After the liberation of Iraq, the entire dynamic of Middle Eastern politics changes dramatically—most especially for Saudi Arabia. The establishment of a friendly regime in Baghdad will lessen America’s dependence on the kingdom’s oil supplies and military bases, thus freeing the Administration to put far more diplomatic pressure on the monarchy. The credible threat of force—with attacks launched from new U.S. military installations in Baghdad—should be more than enough to prompt some serious soul-searching among the Saudi royals.
All of which suggests that for Bush, taking it easy on Saudi Arabia isn’t the result of strategic blindness, but tactical forethought. It’s fine and good for Lieberman and other legislators of both parties to denounce the klepotcratic sheiks, but the commander-in-chief must tread more carefully.
Yet there are hints that a long-term Saudi plan is in the works. Back in August, a minor controversy erupted when the Washington Post revealed that a Pentagon Defense Policy Board briefing described Saudi Arabia as "active at every level of the terror chain," charging that the kingdom "supports our enemies and attacks our allies." The White House was quick to deny the findings, but as I wrote in this space, the leak looked a lot a warning shot fired across the Saudis’ bow: Get on the right side of history now, before it’s too late.
The latest round of anti-Saudi saber-rattling from a bipartisan coalition of senators ought to have the same effect. Without compromising the White House’s diplomatic position, it sends a reminder to anyone who’s paying attention in Riyadh that although the kingdom’s complicity in terrorism isn’t among our immediate concerns, we haven’t forgotten about it, either.
"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" was how Bush summed up the state of the war 14 months ago, and so far, there’s no reason to believe he’s changed his thinking.