TCS Daily

Saud-Free Arabia

By Michael Totten - May 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Saudi Arabia helped out in the second Gulf War more than most of us had any idea. Unnamed officials say the Saudis allowed us to use three air bases inside their territory, supplied us with cheap oil, and permitted special forces to launch ground attacks inside Iraq from their side of the border. Great. So there was a point after all to the transparently cynical puff propaganda about our Saudi "friends" and "allies" from the Bush Administration and the State Department.

There was no alternate universe where we could take out Saddam Hussein without help from neighboring states. Support from Saudi Arabia may or may not have been critical, but it certainly wasn't token, especially since our supposed real ally Turkey denied us the use of their space mere days before the invasion. Either way, now that Saddam Hussein is in chains they can't bribe us with basing rights any longer, nor can they hold us upside-down by one foot over an oil barrel. The world's oil market won't need the Saudi contribution much longer. Iraq's is coming online to replace it. At this point there's little sense in pretending to pal around with a corrupt and reactionary crime family.

One of Al Qaeda's chief grievances against the U.S. is that we "defiled" Saudi holy ground with "infidel" boots. The only we reason we polluted their sand in the first place was to keep Saddam Hussein's tank treads out of it. We can remove that plank from Osama's propaganda platform by packing it out. It won't be appeasement. We won't evacuate because Al Qaeda gave us the order. We'll go because we can and because we feel like it. We'll do so in a moment of strength and on our own terms.

The best that can be said about the Saudis is that they were temporarily useful enemies. Sometimes that's how it goes. Joseph Stalin got one heck of a cynical makeover as America's "Uncle Joe" in the allied fight against Hitler. More recently we buddied up with Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov to gain a launch pad against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It would be hard to argue we would have been better off without these alliances, but let's not forget the "friendships" were and are bogus.

Saudi Arabia is not a part of NATO, not a real part of the Coalition of the Willing, not a moderate Arab state, not pro-American, not democratic, not anti-terrorist, not a friend, not a partner, not an ally, and not even a neutral. It's time to let them find another patron and sponsor. The Axis of Evil has a position available.

Saudi Arabia's anti-American grievances are obscene; we aren't Islamic, we have a "decadent" liberal culture, we don't hate Jews, and our women don't cover their faces or heads. We have serious grievances against them whether the U.S. government wants to admit it in public or not. They run a brutal police state, provide financial support for terrorists, brainwash children to hate "infidels," enable the poisonous culture that incubated Al Qaeda, and use gushers of petrodollars to export the most reactionary and jihadist strand of Islam to the rest of the planet.

President Bush's foreign policy is adrift. Perhaps he could flush the Saudi bats out of the attic in his next public address. If the Saudis won't clean up their rank political slum (and there's little reason to believe they will) it's time we publicly declared their country the triangulating back-stabbing terror-mongering rogue state that it is. Give 'em the rogue state treatment while we're at it: termination of diplomatic relations and American support for the democratic opposition -- such as it is.

It would be a risky move, to be sure. The regime is already widely despised on the street, by some because it's too oppressive and by others because it isn't oppressive enough. The danger in leaving the Saudis to their fate isn't that they'll be shunted aside by democratic dissidents but strung up with drilling cable in the oil fields by Al Qaeda.

The upside is we'll be on the right side of history, taking the side of our natural allies against all the bad elements in that society. We'll align ourselves with the liberals against the corrupt oligarchs and against the theocratic jihadists. The downside of playing one evil against the other is that evil wins either way. If "our side" wins we're stuck with the bastards. Meanwhile the people who should be our friends have a reason to hate us instead.

The House of Saud is not going to rule Saudi Arabia forever. If they're smart and lucky they'll follow Britain's lead and downgrade themselves to tabloid celebrities. They could go the way of the Soviet Union and collapse under the weight of their own criminality and incompetence. They also might be violently overthrown and replaced with an openly fundamentalist regime, like Iran in '79.

The Islamist element is strong in that country. A hostile non-Saudi regime may be in our future whether we continue to prop up the venal princes or not. The trouble is if we back the Saudis to the bitter end we'll have no friends there when they fall. And the regime will fall. Dictatorships always do. The Saudi liberal democrats (yes, they do exist) would be hopelessly demoralized and justifiably anti-American.

Fundamentalist government looks a lot better on paper than it does in reality. And it's repulsive enough on paper. If Saudi Arabia does get a clerical regime the people will struggle to throw it off, just as the Iranians are doing today.

If we publicly declare support for democracy there, and if we do it right now rather than after the government falls, we'll have a lot more credibility with the people who matter. We'll be able to look them in the eye and call them friends. We need pro-American dissidents whether the Saudis rule now or the clerics rule later. The last thing we need are Saudi democrats and human rights activists who hate us because we support their oppressors while the monarchy only pretends to be friends as it goes to its well-deserved doom.

Supporting democracy in Saudi Arabia will be a long-term investment of political capital. It will pay off the day we don't have to call it "Saudi" Arabia. And it will pay off no matter who's in charge in Riyadh when it happens.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at He recently wrote for TCS about Liberalism in the Balance.


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