Lessons From the Saudis

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/11/06):

While the nation debates what to do about the disaster in Iraq, I have been pondering a disaster that hasn’t happened — in Saudi Arabia. There are some lessons in the Saudi story that may help clarify the Bush administration’s choices as it nears crunch time in the region.

First, some background: Ten years ago Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States to “expel the infidels from the Arab peninsula.” One theme of his Aug. 23, 1996, fatwa was that for all its military power, America was weak. It had fled from terrorist attacks in Beirut and Somalia, and it would flee Saudi Arabia as well. Bin Laden said of his terrorist cadres: “These youths love death even as you love life.”

The truth of those words became clear on Sept. 11, 2001, when 15 Saudi-born terrorists led a suicide attack on the symbols of American power. And in some ways, al-Qaeda’s game plan has worked: America’s botched occupation of Iraq triggered a ferocious reaction there, and now the American public is losing patience with the war, just as bin Laden would have predicted.

Given these setbacks for America, it’s easy to forget that bin Laden has failed utterly in his strategic goal in the Sept. 11 attacks, which was to topple the ruling monarchy in his home country of Saudi Arabia. The oil kingdom, the real prize in the region, is stronger and more secure than it was five years ago.

Saudi Arabia is, to be sure, not exactly a rock of stability, but its gains are highlighted in a recent study by Nawaf Obaid, a clear-headed Saudi analyst who advises his government. He noted that since May 2003, Saudi security forces have foiled more than 25 major terrorist attacks; they have captured or killed 264 al-Qaeda operatives and arrested 845 other people with links to al-Qaeda. Of the 26 terrorists on the Saudi most-wanted list, all but one have been captured or killed.

Perhaps more important, the Saudis have begun to crack the network of religious extremists that gave al-Qaeda a platform. The Saudi Interior Ministry, once a hidden source of support for the jihadists, now oversees what Obaid calls an “ideological reeducation program” supervised by religious scholars and university professors. More than 400 people have been released from this program, Obaid says.

The House of Saud, the mysterious clan that rules the oil kingdom, is also steering a steadier course under King Abdullah. Almost unnoticed last month, the Saudis announced a new council to oversee the transition to the next generation of leadership. As with many aspects of Saudi governance, the details are murky, but the plan appears to provide a stable legal framework for selecting a successor to the king and crown prince — easing the danger of a future political crisis.

What are the lessons in Saudi Arabia’s move back from the brink of potential disaster? The most important is that the Saudis decided to take charge of their own security rather than relying on an America that many in the kingdom resented. After 2003 the Saudis realized that they faced a deadly terrorist threat and began to fight it aggressively: They focused on national solutions; they reduced the visible, humiliating presence of American troops; they pursued political reforms; they increased oil production.

How does this apply to Iraq? Like the Saudis, the Iraqis will have to save themselves, working within the authentic political framework of their culture, religion and region. The more we try to substitute our will for theirs, with more American troops or exhortation, the more we enfeeble them. As in Saudi Arabia, we must move slowly but deliberately out of the spotlight and into the shadows, with a sustainable mission of training and advising Iraqi troops.

What will contain the Iraqi civil war, in the end, is that none of the regional powers can tolerate a shattered Iraq — not Iran, not Syria, not Saudi Arabia, not Jordan, not Turkey. Nor do most Iraqis want a dissolution of their unitary state. The Iraqis will restabilize their nation when the “nationalist forces” — including ones we don’t like, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Sunni insurgency — make common cause under a regional mandate.

Only the United States can broker the regional conference that will allow a political transition in Iraq. That’s our leverage now — diplomatic clout, more than military power. If the neighboring powers can help apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding in Iraq, America can begin to step away.