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Reality check

Mark Steyn says the so-called realists are wrong about the war on terror, and suggests that ‘creative disruption’ is the best way to deal with Saudi Arabia

5 June 2004

12:00 AM

5 June 2004

12:00 AM

Mark Steyn says the so-called realists are wrong about the war on terror, and suggests that ‘creative disruption’ is the best way to deal with Saudi Arabia

New Hampshire

Here’s a headline from Tuesday’s Glasgow Herald: ‘Saudi Security Forces “Allowed the Killers to Escape”’.

Hold that thought for a moment. For two-and-three-quarter years now, there’s been a continuing debate between, loosely, the ‘neoconservatives’ and the ‘realists’. The old realpolitik crowd dispute that the war on terror is a war at all, except in the debased sense of the ‘war on drugs’. That’s to say, terror, like drugs, will always be with us, and the best thing to do is manage and contain the situation through the usual long-established mechanisms — a quiet word with Crown Prince Abdullah here, a modest initiative with M. Chirac there. Insofar as I can remember anything Sir Crispin Tickell or Lord Hurd said in these pages a few issues back, that seems to be the gist of it.

The problem, as some of us saw it, is that the realists aren’t very realistic. Arguably, it’s 40 years of Washington realpolitik in the Middle East that gave us 9/11. I said as much here a couple of weeks afterwards, advocating the dismantling of Saudi Arabia, and I’ve said it on many occasions since. Used to get appreciative notes from chaps at the Pentagon, and even on occasion from the State Department.

But not any more. The current thinking is that the neocons have overplayed their hand, with their insane plans to make the world safe for truth, justice and the American way. The US is said to be suffering from ‘pre-emption fatigue’. No one’s in any mood to liberate Syria or destabilise Iran. According to the Washington Post, ‘Kerry Says Global Democracy Is Not His Top Issue’. If Bush wants to play Woodrow Wilson, Kerry’s happy to run as Henry Kissinger. Indeed, even Bush seems to be moving to a post-pre-emptive strategy. You get the feeling that if they got wind that North Korea was going to nuke Tokyo on Wednesday, the Administration would wait to see what ideas Jacques and Vlad wanted to kick around at the emergency Security Council meeting on Thursday.

The reason for this pre-emption fatigue is, of course, Iraq. The little local difficulties confirm the realists in their belief that restraint, stability, a steady hand on the tiller, etc., are better bets than radical transformation.

Sorry, but no sale, effendi. One thing you notice from a casual glance around the world is that just as many people seem to be dying in those places where we’re pursuing containment as in those where we’re toppling dictators and holding loya jirgas. For example, some 30 people died in various attacks in Iraq on Monday. Bad news, but then what do you expect? It’s a notorious quagmire, on the TV round the clock. But then the same day in Karachi 16 people died in one bombing of a Shia mosque, apparently in retaliation for the assassination of a Sunni cleric on Sunday. Last week there were two car bombings in Karachi. Earlier in May, a suicide bomber killed 24 people and injured 125 at another Shia mosque in the city. The Sunni-Shia civil war that the media keep insisting is about to break out in Iraq is already breaking out — in Pakistan, a nuclear state filled with crazy graduates of Saudi madrasahs.


Speaking of our friends the Saudis, when the latest group of ‘militants’ stormed that compound in Khobar the other day they grabbed an Iraqi-American and asked him, ‘Are you Muslim or Christian? We don’t want to kill Muslims. Show us where the Americans and Westerners live.’ Their final tally suggested a somewhat broad definition of ‘Americans and Westerners’: one American, one Italian, one South African, one Swede, one Egyptian, two Britons, two Sri Lankans, three Filipinos, three Saudis and eight Indians. The British oil executive Michael Hamilton was killed in front of his colleagues from Apicorp (Arab Petroleum Investments) and then dragged through the streets from the back of a car for over a mile.

Say what you like about these wacky Islamofascists but they’ve got it pretty well thought out: desecrate and flaunt the corpses of the big-time infidels; murder the Asian janitors and maids to collapse the support structure of the expat communities; kill the Saudis as a warning to the locals not to collaborate with the foreign devils; and put a big announcement on the Internet declaring that ‘our heroic fighters were able, by the grace of God, to raid the locations of the occupying American oil companies …which are plundering the Muslims’ resources’.

Not a bad day’s work. And how did the Saudi authorities react? Well, as is now traditional, the perpetrators got away. Just as the perpetrators of last November’s terror attack in Mecca got away, and the terrorists in last August’s firefight with police mysteriously disappeared, and the al-Qa’eda members surrounded by the security forces last May managed to shoot their way out. The authorities are ruthlessly efficient when it comes to chasing Saudi schoolgirls who’ve made the mistake of fleeing without first putting on their head coverings and shooing them back into their burning schoolhouse to perish in the flames. But every time they have some al-Qa’eda-affiliated terrorists surrounded, the bad guys mysteriously fly the coop.

What’s going on? Either the Saudi police agencies are totally incompetent, as suggested by their high level of casualties on these occasions. Or a significant proportion are hopelessly corrupt and on the take from the terrorists. Or they’re under the sway of some of the murkier members of the ‘royal’ family. Or they’re following orders from higher up the chain of command, maybe even from the long-time (three decades) interior minister Prince Nayef himself.

It doesn’t really matter which one you pick because they all boil down to the same thing — that the urbane Westernised princes in the Savile Row suits who get put up on CNN to assure America that the situation’s totally under control cannot deliver. And although Prince Bandar, the oleaginous Washington ambassador, is careful not to say anything too goofy in the US media, back home his dad, Prince Sultan, and his uncles sound nuttier by the day. In November 2002, Prince Nayef insisted that no Saudis were involved in 9/11 and that, in fact, the Jews ‘are behind these events’. Nayef sides with the anti-American Wahabi clerics and this was his way of explaining why he wasn’t going to crack down on Islamist terrorists, as they clearly have nothing to do with Islamist terrorism.

Prince Nayef’s half-brother and rival, Crown Prince Abdullah, on the other hand, is the famously pro-American liberal reformer. So last month, when terrorists killed various American, British and Australian expats in the Red Sea town of Yanbu, Abdullah went on state television and said, ‘I am 95 per cent sure that Zionism is behind the attacks, for I believe that [the Zionists] play in the minds of those who are committing the attacks.’

Hmm. With pro-American liberal reformers like that, who needs anti-American clerical reactionaries?

The polite thing among the ex-US ambassadors now shilling for Abdullah on various Saudi-funded think tanks is to ignore any statement that any senior prince tells his own people. We’re supposed to agree to overlook what the House of Saud says in Arabic rather than CNN English. My distinguished colleague Bruce Anderson was doing a bit of this the other day, describing Crown Prince Abdullah as ‘able’. Several adjectives spring to mind for a man who claims that Zionism has the youth of Saudi Arabia in its grip — ‘bonkers’ or ‘desperate’, depending on whether you think he beli
eves it. But ‘able’ would come pretty low down on my list.

This week Magdi Allam of Corriere della Sera advanced an interesting thesis on Abdullah’s I-blame-the-Zionists speech. It’s explained, say Allam’s sources, by a new deal between the House of Saud and al-Qa’eda designed to save their throne. Again, it doesn’t especially matter if that’s true or not. When a hitherto relatively sane man (by the standards of the region’s rulers) starts pandering to the most delusional conspiracy theories of his people, he’s not a good long-term proposition.

Right now, which would you bet on? That Crown Prince Abdullah, Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef and co’s brilliant strategy of denying that there’s a problem, buying off the terrorists, letting them escape and saying they’re all Zionists will be able to reform their failing state or at least hold the lid on? Or that the current spate of attacks will increase and intensify, driving out Westerners, destabilising the oil markets, undermining the economy and gradually, remorselessly conscripting more and more of the population into al-Qa’eda’s ranks? King Fahd is in poor health with short-term memory loss. Fahd’s successor, Abdullah, and Abdullah’s successor, Sultan, are both pushing 80. Nayef is a whippersnapper in his early seventies and covets the throne himself. What would a death out of sequence do to the balance of power in the House of Saud? And who, honestly, has a clue about how deep al-Qa’eda’s tentacles go into the royal family?

And, given that it’s the Saudi government that funds all the madrasahs that form the ideological backbone of Islamist terrorism, is there any point in pretending that the House of Saud and al-Qa’eda are on opposite sides rather than twin manifestations of the same problem? The West backs the Saudi regime as a bulwark against local destabilisation, in return for which they underwrite destabilisation of the West across the entire planet.

Here’s another question for the ‘realists’. Patrick Bishop (in the Telegraph) says we must keep the House of Saud in power at all costs. But what is the ‘House of Saud’? It’s 30,000 strong, and half of them are playing both sides. Supporting the House of Saud is like saying you support the Premier League: it’s insufficient as a choice. Is it worth keeping a House of Saud led by a reformist Abdullah in power at all costs? Maybe. Is it worth keeping Abdullah when he’s abandoned reforms and done a deal with the terrorists? Doubtful. Is it worth keeping the House of Saud in power when they give the throne to Prince Nayef? It’s a mistake to think Saudi Arabia can only be lost when President bin Jihad takes over in a revolution. There are all kinds of intermediate stages at which you can lose the country, and the House of Saud is still nominally in charge. Indeed, you can make the case that we’ve already crossed most of them. In the end, a containment policy plays on your enemy’s terms: you’re trying to stand still, he makes all the running.

That was the lesson of the Nineties: you try to fight a war defensively, you lose. You send the FBI in to look over Khobar Towers as a crime scene, and Prince Nayef obstructs your investigators. You try to lob a couple of cruise missiles at Osama in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence picks them up on the radar and tips him off. That’s the world John Kerry wants to return to. There’s no reason for Bush to join him there. It’s not possible to manage Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Syria and a myriad of smaller problems indefinitely. So manage the smaller problems and, when it comes to the biggest ones, confront them and fix them.

What exactly is ‘realist’ about continuing to back the Frankensaud monster? The present policy is all but certain to wind up delivering the peninsula and its oil into the hands of Osama’s buddies. In one sense, the war on terror is a Saudi civil war which the Saudis cunningly exported to the rest of the world. The trick now is to gift-wrap it and send it back home marked for the attention of Prince Nayef. Given the inevitability of disaster if we stick to a failed containment strategy, how could things be any worse if we went in for some creative disruption? At the very minimum, Washington needs to have solid, detailed contingency plans for securing the oil fields, and making sure the Hashemites are on stand-by to return to Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia can’t be saved, and the more we postpone reaching that conclusion and acting on it, the messier it’s going to be. Whoever you’re backing in November, the quiet life isn’t on the ballot.


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