Riyadh Revisions: Administration Policy on Saudi Arabia Has Lurched from an Excessive Embrace of the Regime to an Ill-Informed Democracy Campaign. How Can the U.S. and the Saudis Play a More Constructive Role?

Article excerpt

IN JULY 2OO2, A RAND CORPORATION RESEARCH ANALYST named Laurent Murawiec gave a briefing on Saudi Arabia to the Defense Policy Board, a blue-ribbon group of former secretaries of defense, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an assortment of nongovernmental experts. The meeting was chaired by Richard Perle.

Murawiec was one of the itinerant peddlers of the national-security world, an authority on everything and nothing. He was, however, at one with the zeitgeist. His PowerPoint presentation that day began with the conventional wisdom about the Arab world: Centuries of failure had driven Arabs to the depths of despair and the heights of envy; humiliated, with nothing to show for themselves since the golden age of medieval Islam, they had lashed out against the West.

He then focused on Saudi Arabia: The country's rule, he said, had been usurped by Wahhabists whose mission in life was to draw blood from the West. "Saudi Arabia," Murawiec explained, "is central to the self-destruction of the Arab world and the chief vector of the Arab crisis and its outwardly directed aggression. The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader. Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies; a daily outpouring of virulent hatred against the U.S. from Saudi media, 'educational' institutions, clerics, officials--Saudis tell us one thing in private, [but they] do the contrary in reality."

Nevertheless, Murawiec said, the situation was not entirely hopeless. Although "the role assigned to the House of Saud [by the British] ... has become obsolete--nefarious," the Saudis' position could be taken away. "There is an 'Arabia,'" he assured his audience, "but it need not be 'Saudi."

Murawiec's policy prescription, bearing the authoritative seal of the RAND Corporation, was to present the Saudis with an ultimatum:

* "Stop any funding and support for any fundamentalist madrassa, mosque, ulema, [or] predicator anywhere in the world;

* Stop all anti-U.S., anti-Israeli, anti-Western predication, writings, etc., within Arabia;

* Dismantle [or] ban all the kingdom's 'Islamic charities'; confiscate its assets; and

* Prosecute or isolate those involved in the terror chain, including in the Saudi intelligence services."

Why would the House of Saud accede to these demands? Because, said Murawiec, "what the House of Saud holds dear can be targeted," and here he listed oil installations, dollar investments, and Islamic holy places. He then capped his proposal to seize Mecca and Medina by dismissing the Saudis as "lazy, overbearing, dishonest, [and] corrupt."

After the briefing leaked, administration officials acknowledged to reporters that it indeed reflected a change of attitude toward the Saudis. According to one official, "People used to rationalize Saudi behavior. You don't hear that anymore. There's no doubt that people are recognizing reality and recognizing that Saudi Arabia is a problem."

The new view of an untrustworthy Saudi Arabia was widely shared by the Bush administration's recruits responsible for Middle East policy, such as Bill Luti, the retired Navy captain who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs and as the vice president's assistant on Middle East policy. (The joke about Luti was that he eoneluded every thought with the phrase "Fuck the Saudis.")

The attitude coexisted uneasily with the views of career diplomats. If the discomfort at the State Department was palpable, one can only imagine the consternation in Riyadh, as the realization sunk in that George W. Bush did not march to the beat of the family drum. All told, this was a startling turnabout from the intimate relationship between the House of Saud and the Bush family.

MURAWIEC'S BIZARRE PERFORMANCE WAS IN FACT AN EXTREME expression of festering bipartisan discontent in Washington with Riyadh's behavior as an unreliable ally. …


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