Today Obama vetoed a bill that would permit families of those who perished on 911 to sue the Saudi Arabian government for supporting the hijacker/murderers. Earlier this week, the Senate defeated an effort led by Rand Paul to halt arms sales to the kingdom because of its ongoing war in Yemen.
The Saudis are feeling the pressure and are trying desperately to change the subject–to Iran. The gravamen of the Saudi case is that Iran is a major state sponsor of terrorism. There is, of course, something to this. Iran has indeed been a state sponsor of terrorism, and has directed its campaign against the United States and Israel for decades.
But it is more than a little disgusting to hear the Saudis cast aspersions about terrorism. The modalities of Iranian efforts differ from those of Saudi Arabia. But it is indisputable that Saudi Arabia is responsible for more terrorism that has killed more Americans than the Iranians have been.
Indeed, Iran’s methods are in many ways more conventional and less insidious than those emanating in Saudi Arabia. Iranian terrorism (and unconventional warfare) efforts are indeed carried out at the direction of state organs, and often work through quasi-state organizations (such as Hezbollah). In contrast, the archaic nature of the Saudi state, with its immense royal family with numerous wealthy members, means that the concept of “state support” is much more amorphous. Saudi Arabia is not a state in the western sense, or even in the Iranian sense. This makes Iran in some respects a much more conventional adversary than Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s contribution to terrorism around the world has been demonstrably far greater than Iran’s. The funding of Wahhabi mosques and madrassas throughout the Middle East, Southwest Asia, the Balkans, Africa, and the Caucasus–and Europe and the United States–has inculcated the poisonous Islamist ideology that has created terror. Most of this money has not been spent to support explicitly terrorist groups or terrorist acts. But it has created the ideological and religious infrastructure that has been the catalyst for these groups and acts. However bad as Iran has been, objectively speaking Saudi Arabia and other oil tick states of the Gulf have been far worse. With allies like these, we need no enemies.
Furthermore, the diffuse and ideological nature of the Saudi support for terrorism makes it much more difficult to combat than Iran. Not to say that Iran is an easy adversary, but the very fact that it is a fairly conventional (if revolutionary) state makes it a more addressable foe than Saudi Arabia. The Saudi state may not support terrorism in the same way that the Iranian state does (though it might), but that actually greatly complicates the task of the terrorism that emanates from Saudi territory, Saudi citizens, and Saudi money.
One can sense that the Saudis feel that they are facing an existential crisis, fed in large part by Obama administration policy towards Iran. The Iranian nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions has stoked these anxieties. The Saudis are deeply insecure, in part because there is a large and alienated Shia population in the major oil producing provinces. Iran is a larger and more educated country that has dominated its Arab neighbors for centuries. Low oil prices have gutted the Saudi economy and are placing tremendous budgetary strains on the country.
Fear of Iran drives the bloody–and (typically for an Arab army)–inept and indecisive war in Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia has succeeded in using American technology to kill large numbers of Yemenis (including numerous civilians) with no discernible strategic effect. It also drives the strong Saudi support for the opposition in Syria, because the Saudis view Assad as an Iranian vassal who is an important part of an “Shia crescent” that threatens the Sunni countries of the Middle East, of which Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader: it is clearly their paymaster. The Saudis being Saudis, they have no qualms in supporting extreme jihadist elements: indeed, that is their preference.
This demonstrates the drooling incoherence of Obama policy in the Middle East. Empowering Iran through the nuclear deal has fed Saudi fears that lead them to intensify their various proxy wars against Iran, and the administration has responded by supporting the Saudis in these wars, quite robustly in Yemen, more equivocally in Syria. If the Saudis succeed in Syria this will empower Salafist elements that are viciously anti-American. In essence, the Obama administration has succeeded in stoking both sides in the conflict, which helps explain its clear escalation in the past two years.
The Saudis have oil–the largest reserves in the world. That is the American–and world–interest in Saudi Arabia. But (a) the Saudis want to sell their oil, and (b) protecting the Saudi oil fields does not necessitate supporting or even acquiescing to Saudi Arabia’s support for Wahhabist radicalism that is spreading death and destruction from Southeast Asia to Central Africa and pretty much everywhere in between–and even to the shores of the United States.
Indeed, US policy should be aimed at finding how to contain Saudi influence, rather than enable it. But old mindsets and Saudi money have prevented that. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Saudis insinuated themselves as allies of the US, united with us against common enemies: Iran and the Soviet Union. I remember distinctly that in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, and during the Hostage Crisis, the Saudis portrayed themselves as the moderate Muslims, and the Iranians as the radicals. With Americans held in Tehran, and mobs in the streets shouting “Death to America,” that sounded plausible. Nigh on to 40 years of painful experience have shown, however, that Saudi Arabia is anything but the voice of moderate Islam: it is the wellspring of violent radicalism.
Furthermore, the Soviet Union is no more. Whatever geopolitical rationale there was for supporting Saudi funding of Muslim fighters in the 1980s, it has long past, and in retrospect, looks like the benefits that we gained were not worth the decades of terror that came in the bargain.
In sum, indulgence of Saudi radicalism was based on ignorance of their true character which we should now be well past, and on a strategic situation that no longer exists. The time for indulgence is therefore long over.
But Saudi money has bought influence. It has bought politicians, of both parties: it was nauseating, for example, to see Lindsey Graham’s impassioned defense of Saudi Arabia in his speech against the Paul bill, and of course the Saudis have lavished money on ex-presidents from both parties and potential future ones (namely Hillary). It has bought think tanks. It has deeply corrupted American politics. It is therefore highly doubtful that its influence can be easily purged.
That’s why it has been encouraging to see the the Paul bill go as far as it did, and to see the 911 victims bill pass. Yes, I understand that the concerns that the logic of the the bill could be turned against the US. But it should be a wake up call to DC that many Americans understand the nature of the Saudi regime and the threat that it poses far better than the foreign policy establishment. A wise administration would attempt to find an alternative that would address the sovereign immunity concerns but at the same time make Saudi Arabia pay a price for its multifaceted support for Islamic radicalism and Islamic terrorism around the world. Instead, Obama caves to the Saudis and vetoes the bill, and fights against the Paul bill, and enables Saudi efforts in Yemen and Syria.
Iran is a problem, but it is a nation that can be confronted and contained (if not easily tamed) using conventional American power. Saudi Arabia poses problems that we have yet to find a solution to. And our biggest problem is that we (or at least our “elite”) haven’t even fully acknowledged that it is a problem, in large part because Saudi money has suborned our politics.