The Magazine

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
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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.