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Our 'good friends,' the Saudis

Editor’s note: Reporter Gareth Schweitzer contributed to this column.

During the Cold War, America was often criticized for supporting dictators and corrupt regimes abroad just because they happened to be anti-communist. The argument had two parts. The first was moral. By supporting tin-horn despots and teacup Hitlers, we were subsidizing evil behavior that could be as bad or worse than what we said we didn’t like about the communists. The second part was practical. By becoming identified as a subsidizer of corrupt, often illegitimate governments, we put ourselves on the wrong side of history.

When those regimes fell, often to radical insurgencies, the United States found itself discredited. Had the United States shown more courage and foresight with regimes run by scalawags like Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua or antique monarchs like Prince Sihonouk in Cambodia, we probably could have avoided the Sandinistas and the Castroites.

Now we are faced with the same set of corrupt, venal characters in Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich sandbox run by a bloated and brutal monarchy that makes Louis XVI of France look progressive. This time, the rationale for our support that gets whispered around the State Department is that if the Saudis are overthrown, their successors would be worse – perhaps radical fundamentalists. You know, “the enemy.” But this time, we can’t claim it’s worth compromising our principles to defeat a much more evil enemy because, in many ways, despite what the oil-crazed Bushies say about them, Saudi Arabia is the enemy.

Consider a few facts: On one hand, we station thousands of American troops in Saudi Arabia to protect “them” (meaning the royal family and their sycophants – not the people); on the other hand, in Saudi government controlled schools, mosques and newspapers, the people are taught to hate Christians and Jews, and that the West is the enemy. On one hand, we say we are fighting against a radical perversion of Islam that degrades women, gays, minorities of every stripe, spits on basic human rights and, like the Nazis, preaches that war is a legitimate means to spread the faith; on the other hand, that brand of far-out Islam – otherwise known as Wahabism – has the Saudis as its number one protectors and practitioners.

It was the Saudis who first subsidized the Taliban and the madrassah hate-schools in Pakistan. It was in Saudi Arabia that Osama bin Laden was born and raised, that 15 of the 19 World Trade Center killers called home. It is Saudi Arabia that has refused to let our government properly investigate the murders of our troops at the Khobar Towers for fear that, once again, the murderers would reveal important Saudi connections. And what happened on the very day of 9-11? Oily Prince Bandar, the smarmy Saudi Ambassador to the United States, successfully pressured the Bush administration to evacuate every member of the bin Laden family from this country, in spite of the fact that, according to published reports, the FBI suspected several of them had important information about their supposedly disowned relative Osama. The FBI never got to interview any of them.

But the price we pay for rump-swabbing the Saudis is higher than even this. It is well known that during the 1991 Gulf War, America was prevented from dealing final justice to Saddam Hussein because of Saudi pressure. In spite of the fact that without our military might, Saddam would today be sitting in Riyadh, the Saudis didn’t want us to topple him. And why not? At the time, the reason given was because everybody feared a “power vacuum” in Iraq if Saddam disappeared.

But what nobody realizes is that the Saudis didn’t fear the vacuum – they feared the possibility that with American influence, that vacuum just might have been filled by a secular, democratic, market-connected regime. Such a regime would have meant the replacement of Saudi Arabia as our most important “ally” in the region. By its example, such a regime would have put fatal pressure on the Saudis to modernize or join Osama in the dustbin of history. The Saudi royal family might then have wound up like Louis XVI and his bride Marie Antoinette.

Of course, the Saudis only want to talk about the Israelis and the Palestinians. Given the amount of money the royal family blows on Rolex watches, Rolls Royces and French Riviera vacations, while fellow Arabs scrape by on a measly few hundred bucks a year, it makes all the sense in the world for them to scream about how Christians, Jews and the West are the enemy. There is only one problem with that picture. Sooner or later, the Saudis will finally meet the enemy and discover what they probably already know: Their enemy is themselves.