Friday, May 26, 2006

Saudi Arabia and counterterrorism

MIlitary analyst Anthony Cordesman testified on 11/08/05 to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the topic of whether Saudi Arabia should be considered supportive or hostile to the United States.  An adapted version of his testimony appears in Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe in the War on Terror?  by Anthony Cordesman Middle East Policy Spring 2006.  (His testimony as presented to the Committee can be found at this link.)

He stresses throughout that a utopian insistence on immediate democracy in Arab countries - the ideological goal of the neoconservatives - is highly risky.  (Whether "democracy" means more to them than "pro-Bush-administration" in practice is a different question.)  He writes:

At a minimum, workable "democracy" means taking the time to create government with strong checks and balances. It means priority for human rights and the rule of law over the simple
act of voting. It means creating functional political parties capable of both serving the
nation and looking beyond one man, one vote, one time. Pure democracy has never
worked in any state. Sufficiently crude democracy is little better.

Juan Cole has just reported on some of the practical difficulties in the Bush policy as it's actually implemented in the case of Egypt in The Egyptian sphinx lashes out at Washington Salon 05/25/06.  As that and other examples show, the notion that democracy equates to elections is a dangerous and unrealistic one.

Cordesman provides a general summary of the long-term economic and demographic issues facing the mostly Muslim Middle East and North Africa (MENA) area.  He emphasizes that rapid changes to conditions the US considers desirable is not a realistic approach for American counterterrorism strategy:

We can only win the “war on terrorism” if we accept the need to work systematically and consistently with friendly regimes and moderates and reformers in the region for evolutionary change. If we posture for our own domestic political purposes, call on other faiths and cultures to become our mirror image, or demand the impossible, we will further
undercut our influence and breed more anger and resentment.

Many Americans across the political spectrum are rightly skeptical about Saudi Arabia's influence in the Islamic world.  Most of us that hear about the Puritanical version of Wahhabi Islam practiced by the majority of Saudis are disturbed by its many violations of human rights and dignity.

But we also need to be realistic about Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.  Conservative hawks are fond of equating Bin-Laden-type jihadism with Wahhabism.  This is not the case.  The Sunni jihadists' religious views are more usually radical, violent Salafist Islam.  Salafism is untraconservative in many ways, too, but it is not the same as Wahhabism.

The Saudis did play a role, though, in the creation of today's jihadism:

We need to remember that the United States put intense and consistent pressure on Saudi Arabia to aid Islamist freedom fighters in Afghanistan during the Cold War and that the United States then saw Saudi support of Islamists as a counterbalance to communism. We both were slow to see the risks of what we were doing and how extremist might take advantage of such efforts – just as Israel once made the mistake of aiding Islamists as what it hoped would be a counterbalance to the PLO.

Bob Dreyfuss elaborate on this topic in relation to American policy in his Devil's Game (2005).

Cordesman reminds us that the Saudis did actively cooperate with the US in the Iraq War:

Saudi Arabia has worked with the United States to mobilize Iraq’s neighbors in support of Iraq. Last year, it floated the idea of sending peace-keeping troops from Arab and Muslim countries not neighboring Iraq to Iraq to help with security (the United Nations welcomed the idea; the United States was lukewarm). Currently, it is working within the Arab League to try to bring Iraq’s various factions together to agree on a common future. This move has been welcomed by the United States.

And he discusses a number of ways in which the Saudis have actively supported counterterrorism efforts.  I was struck by this comment on the limits of fighting terrorist groups by following the money, aka, forensic accounting:

Saudi Arabia can still do more to fight terrorist financing – although U.S. Treasury experts have come to praise Saudi cooperation when they initially condemned it. We should understand, however, thatgovernmental efforts to control terrorist financing have sharp limits and have probably reached the point of diminishing returns.

Individuals in Saudi Arabia and many other Arab and Islamic countries will continue to support such organizations or their fronts, and regional governments can only do so much to limit such funding. Merrill Lynch’s estimates that the capital controlled by wealthy individuals in the Middle East rose by 29 percent during 2003-2004, to a level of approximately $1 trillion, raise serious questions about how much governments can do. Much of this capital is in private accounts outside the region, terrorist operations are only moderately expensive, and Merrill Lynch projects a further 9 percent annual rise in such holdings from 2004 to 2009.

Cordesman cautions against a too-easy acceptance of the favored neocon model that the key to beating terrorism (besides killing large numbers of people in preventive wars) is to free the populations from their current autocratic rulers:

More broadly, we [the US and Saudi Arabia] are two very different societies and cultures. Saudi Arabia has a population and a mix of clerics that are much more conservative than its ruling family, the Al Shaikh family (the descendents of Muhammad al Wahhab), and most top Saudi officials, intellectuals and businessmen.  The stereotype of political development in the West - a progressive people pushing against the resistance of a conservative regime - does not fit this society. Saudi Arabia also is very much a consensus society, and this means progress
is often slow and indirect.

He discusses a number of ways that the Saudi rulers are trying to promote a version of Islman mass encouraging to violence and terrorism:

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a three-year program to overhaul its educational system. Materials deemed offensive are being purged from textbooks, new teaching methods are being introduced, and programs to retrain public school teachers are being put in place. This is a multi-year effort and is extremely politically sensitive and difficult. Some outside pressure helps. Too much outside pressure fuels resistance and efforts by Islamic extremists.

Similarly, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs is in the midst of a program to put in place better monitoring of what is taught at religious schools and what is said in mosques. To date, Saudi Arabia reports that over 2,000 imams have been disciplined or dismissed for preaching extremism and intolerance. Saudi Arabia might well be able to take more action and take it more quickly, but my visits to Saudi Arabia – and talking to U.S. embassy officials and critics of the government – confirm that the effort is real.

He also relates that:

In September 2005, Saudi Arabia convened a conference of Islamic scholars at the initiative of King Abdullah. Representatives came from all over the world, including the United States, to discuss such issues as “extremism, intolerance, dealing with the other, the role of a Muslim minority in a non-Muslim state, the issuing of fatwas, terrorism....”

The recommendations of the scholars formed the basis of the Extraordinary Summit of members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which was held in Makkah in early December 2005.  This event was an important milestone in shaping thinking in the Muslim world about these issues, because Saudi Arabia, as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is the most important Islamic nation.

Along with China and Japan, "the Saudi government has been one of the largest buyers of U.S. debt instruments".

And the following is yet another sad commentary on the incompetence of the Bush administration.  Although it was surely motivated in part by the Saudis desire to cater to their friends of the Bush dynasty.  Cordesman writes:

Saudi Arabia quietly donated over $100 million to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The supplies are bought in the United States and distributed directly to those who need them.  In some cases, this aid arrived before federal or state aid arrived.  (my emphasis)

My own perspective is probably a bit more "Wilsonian" than Cordesman's.  An emphasis on human rights is important for American foreign policy, for moral as well as pragmatic reasons.  But the Iraq War has should have vividly reminded any Americans who have been paying attention of the severe risks of arrogance about imposing the American will onto countries and cultures and people of whom most of us understand very little - not even their language.

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