The New Evil Empire?
From the December 13, 2004 issue: Applying Cold War lessons to Saudi global mischief.
Dec 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 13 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
AS PRESIDENT BUSH prepares to begin his second term, he has an opportunity to turn a page in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. In crafting his policy, the president should draw on American experience with another ideologically expansionist dictatorship--one successfully countered and transformed thanks in part to U.S. policy--the Soviet Union. The president may be aided in this by his former Sovietologist secretary of state-designate, Condoleezza Rice.
There are many telling parallels between the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia. First, the USSR led, and Saudi Arabia now leads, an ideological movement with global reach.
From the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Soviet Union was the standard-bearer of international communism, and Moscow was Mecca for leftists. As the rulers of the world's first Communist state, the Soviet leaders had a reputation to live up to. Saudi Arabia similarly asserts leadership over all of Sunni Islam, the majority form of the religion. Mecca is the birthplace of Islam, and King Fahd, who holds the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Cities, Mecca and Medina, has an eminence he must justify.
Second, both are weakened by hypocrisy. Both Soviet and Saudi ideological claims amount to pretense at odds with social reality.
While Soviet communism pledged to its subjects and acolytes that the revolution would achieve prosperity, freedom, global prestige, and even the human colonization of space, it delivered none of these. Shortages and deprivation characterized Russian daily life until the end of the Soviet system, as did censorship, repression, and forced labor. The economic system that Communist rulers from Lenin onward had argued would catch up with and surpass the West failed to manufacture a single consumer product competitive with a capitalist brand. Who on earth, given a choice, ever bought a Soviet razor or pen or, more recently, computer or car, except in Third World backwaters where clunky Ladas and Yugos were sold at a discount so low as to amount to the dumping of goods?
Saudi Arabia faces the same dilemma. It claims to uphold and exemplify the harsh, purified, stripped-down form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, which is the state religion. Wahhabis are forbidden to mix with other Muslims, and are indoctrinated to hate Shia Muslims as apostates, to angrily despise Christians, Jews, and Hindus, to eschew the pleasures of normal life--from picking flowers to listening to music to smiling. In the phrase so often heard among Wahhabi terrorists from Gaza to Falluja, they "love death by martyrdom more than life."
Yet the House of Saud, the rulers of the kingdom, do not live by stern Wahhabi strictures. If anything, they flout them, with porno videos for entertainment inside their compounds, sex orgies in hotel suites when they go on vacation, and chilled vodka handed out by Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan in Washington and Aspen. Above all, the Saudi Wahhabis who preach the destruction of the Judeo-Christian West and who incite Islamic youths to die in jihad in Iraq and elsewhere depend on the United States for their military and economic security.
Hypocrisy kills the soul and poisons the common identity that binds normal societies. Hypocrisy sapped the intellectual strength of the Soviet Union, just as it is undermining the Saudi way of life.
Third, and perhaps most important, totalitarian systems are weakened by the discontent of those forced to live under them. After 70 years of socialism, Soviet citizens got tired of the whole mess. They wanted out. The slogans and threats that first inspired, then intimidated, their grandparents and parents meant nothing any more.
The same is true in Saudi Arabia. The religious appeal of the old Wahhabism is greatly diminished, and many prosperous and responsible Saudi subjects are no longer willing to accept the constant abuses inflicted on them. Thanks to oil, they have the largest middle class in the Arab world, but they are prevented by Wahhabi extremists from enjoying a middle-class life.
The fourth parallel is the two powers' support for international troublemaking, which is an inevitable outcome of the first three sets of contradictions.
Because they had to prove their revolutionary faith, the bureaucrats of Moscow for decades maintained a gigantic, worldwide propaganda and disinformation effort. In addition, the need to demonstrate their zeal led them to turn over precious hard currency and weapons to every troublemaking gangster or deluded revolutionary in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America who crossed their path--from the Irish Republican Army to the thugs who starved Ethiopia, from Ho Chi Minh to Castro.
The Saudis, similarly, in order to justify their claim of Islamic authority--and to counter the ideological impact of the Iranian revolution of 1979--have sought to Wahhabize Sunni Muslims wherever they are found, from Morocco to Malaysia, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Botswana, from northern Nigeria to Northern Virginia.
In the end, of course, change came to the Soviet Union. By the late 1980s, Moscow could no longer govern in the old way--and neither can Saudi Arabia's rulers today. The question is, What lessons drawn from the Soviet experience are applicable to Saudi Arabia today, as the Bush team ponders strategy for the second term?
ONE POINT is worth clearing up at the outset: Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, oil is not an obstacle to transforming Saudi Arabia, any more than Soviet possession of nuclear weapons was a barrier to change in Moscow. Whoever rules Arabia will continue to seek revenue from oil.
At the same time, some contrasts between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union must be kept in mind. The Soviets did not allow their subjects to massacre American citizens on U.S. soil, as the Saudis did, indirectly, by promoting extremism and permitting the buildup of al Qaeda. Nor did the Soviets fear their own disaffected beneficiaries, as the House of Saud fears al Qaeda. The Soviets did not tolerate the presence of activist radicals within their own borders who continually incited their subjects to terrorism. Even today, however, the Saudis continue to tolerate the Wahhabi clerics exemplified by the 26 Saudi imams who on November 5 issued a fatwa celebrating jihadist murder in Iraq.
In sum, by the mid-1980s, Soviet communism was moribund, while today, Wahhabism remains virulent. Therefore, we probably cannot hope for the complete dissolution of the Saudi state. Rather, the aim must be to assist the Saudi royal family to break the link between the state and the extremist ideology that has underpinned it for so long. The Saudi state may survive; the House of Saud may even, after the fashion of the Windsors, retain its wealth and its throne. With or without the princes, violence must be avoided: Bloodshed in the land of the Two Holy Cities would be extraordinarily inflammatory, not just in Arabia but across the Muslim world. A managed transition to normality is far preferable to any revolutionary upheaval in Saudi Arabia.
Another difference, this time propitious: Saudi Arabia has a precious asset that was missing from the Soviet Union in its growing business class. The largest middle class in the Arab world may be capable of leading the Saudi transformation peacefully, and avoiding the hard social bumps suffered when the Soviet Union fell.
That said, several lessons of the Soviet transformation remain urgently relevant to U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia:
(1) At the beginning of the Gorbachev era, the Soviet authorities demonstrated their desire for transparency in dealing with the United States when, as early as 1986, Gorbachev himself admitted to our government the truth about their long history of disinformation and "active measures" against us. Soviet diplomats came to Washington and accepted blame for circulating lying propaganda in the Third World, such as the claim that AIDS had been invented at Fort Detrick and that body parts were hacked out of infants in Latin America for an imaginary black market in the United States. They promised to stop producing such garbage, and they kept their word.
A similar shift toward transparency is necessary in relations between Riyadh and Washington. As their first initiative, President Bush and Secretary Rice should call on the Saudis to produce a "9/11 Commission Report" of their own that can be made public. It must detail every aspect of the involvement of Saudi subjects in the al Qaeda conspiracy, no matter how high they rank in Saudi society.
(2) The Saudi financiers of al Qaeda--including such individuals as the property developer Yasin al-Qadi and the charity head Adil Abdaljalil Batterjee, both designated global terrorist financiers by the U.S. Treasury--continue to walk the streets of the kingdom unmolested. The president and the secretary of state should initiate legal steps so that all of them are arrested and tried.
(3) President Reagan correctly called on the Soviet Union to cease financing international extremism. George W. Bush has the right to ask that the Saudis cease not only supporting al Qaeda but also fomenting Wahhabism internationally in any guise. Above all, Riyadh must immediately silence Saudi clerics' incitement to the Iraqi jihad, and cut off the flow of jihadists from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, if necessary by closing and patrolling the kingdom's northern border.
(4) The Russian state was eventually severed from the Communist party and its ideology. Only then could it become a more or less normal political structure. President Bush should impress upon the Saudis the wisdom of divorcing their state from Wahhabism.
(5) For decades, the United States brought pressure to bear on the Soviet Union in the name of human rights through such instruments as Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. We should serve notice on the Saudi authorities that we will assist in every way possible domestic advocates of peaceful modernizing and democratizing reforms in the kingdom (just as the Bush Doctrine dictates we should do in Iran and across the Middle East).
(6) Finally, President Bush and Secretary Rice must remember Soviet history as they resist the blandishments of the détentists--those who insist that all Saudi subjects idolize bin Laden, or that the only alternative to the present regime is chaos, or that the Saudis will change only through slow evolution and discreet pressure behind the scenes, or that direct engagement will simply insult and alienate them. Secretary Rice will recall that all these arguments were offered in the Soviet case--and all proved wrong. It was not détente that brought down the Soviet Union.
Saudi Arabia, with its commitment to promoting Islamic extremism worldwide, remains the key to defeating the terrorists we face. It is also a society in crisis. President Bush can choose to deal piecemeal with Islamist terrorism. Or, like Ronald Reagan confronting the Soviet Union, he can take on the problem itself, directly, carefully, calmly, but firmly, by dealing with its Saudi source. With Condoleezza Rice at his side, the president can apply the lessons of experience to the core challenge of his new term.
Stephen Schwartz is the author of The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and its Role in Terrorism.