IF SUCKING UP to the House of Saud were an Olympic event, George W. Bush would be a contender for the gold.
He was at his fawning best last week, when he hosted the Saudi Arabian ambassador, Bandar bin Sultan, for lunch in Crawford, Texas. The ambassador, who showed up with six of his children, was treated to what The New York Times called "the full ranch treatment" – a meal of grilled chicken and biscuits, followed by a personal tour in the president's pickup of the 1,600-acre ranch. The White House PR staff released photos of the two men chatting and Bush's spokesman sang Bandar's praises. The Saudi envoy is "a very seasoned diplomat," Ari Fleischer gushed, "a very affable fellow, very good humor, speaks English better than most Americans."
Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the US Bandar bin Sultan gets "the full ranch treatment" from President Bush in Crawford, Texas, on August 27, 2002.
Hours earlier, Bush had phoned Crown Prince Abdullah and urged him to ignore the growing expressions of anti-Saudi sentiment in the United States – exemplified by the Rand Corporation analyst who had recently told a key Pentagon advisory board that the Saudis "are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader."
Such talk, Bush assured Abdullah, "cannot affect the eternal friendship between the two countries."
Can Bush honestly believe that there is "eternal friendship" between the United States and the country that supplied 15 of the September 11 hijackers? Certainly most Americans don't believe it. A nationwide poll released last week shows that 63 percent of the US public has a negative opinion of Saudi Arabia, up from 50 percent in May. And that's after the Saudis spent several million dollars on a coast-to-coast advertising and lobbying blitz aimed at winning American hearts and minds.
"In the war on terrorism we all have a part to play," says the narrator in one of the Saudi ads. What he doesn't say, but what many Americans have figured out, is that the part being played by Saudi Arabia is not that of a loyal ally or dependable friend, but something closer to a callous and unscrupulous adversary.
Why have Americans so thoroughly soured on Saudi Arabia? It isn't just because most of the Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudis, or because two-thirds of the Islamist militants being held in Guantanamo are Saudis, or because Osama bin Laden himself is (or was) a Saudi.
It isn't just because Al Qaeda's terror network is bankrolled with Saudi money – including, The Times of London reported last week, $300 million in "protection money" paid to Osama bin Laden by senior members of the Saudi royal family.
It isn't just because Saudi Arabia is the world's foremost purveyor of fanatical Wahhabi Islam, the fuel that propels Islamist terror, or because the Saudi media disseminates repugnant anti-American and antisemitic slanders, or because Saudi ambassadors and clergymen sing the praises of suicide bombers.
And it isn't just because the Saudi regime, which owes its survival to American troops, refused to let the United States use Saudi bases for attacks against the Taliban, and says it will refuse as well to cooperate with any military campaign against Iraq.
All of these fuel American antipathy toward Saudi Arabia. But more significant perhaps than any of them is the widening realization that the values and aspirations of Saudi society are fundamentally at odds with the values and aspirations of our own. Virtually everything our civic culture venerates – religious and political tolerance, freedom of speech and expression, constitutional self-government, liberal democracy, equality of the sexes – Saudi culture abominates.
The Saudi princes run an intolerant and repressive totalitarian theocracy – backward, bigoted, and closed. There may be no country on earth with which we have less in common.
"Eternal friendship" between the United States and Saudi Arabia? President Bush undermines his own credibility when he talks that way; he comes across as phony and morally unserious. The root of the American-Saudi relationship for the past half century was not friendship but self-interest – we needed their oil, they needed our protection. But the United States imports far less Saudi oil than it used to and the threats that imperiled Saudi Arabia in years past – Nasserist radicalism, Shiite fundamentalism, Iraqi aggression – have faded. The great threat in the Middle East today is Islamist fascism, and Saudi Arabia is not its target but its source.
For years, US support for the Saudi regime has been justified on the grounds that it was vital to preserve stability in a volatile part of the world. But as Michael Barone observes, "Stability in the Middle East gave us Sept. 11." What is called for now is some constructive instability – a board-clearing upheaval that will dislodge the dictators and fanatics who encourage terrorism and menace world peace. What Saudi Arabia needs most is not the full ranch treatment, but a change of regime.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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