Monday, September 11, 2006

Horse Sense: Insights for U.S. from Saudi Success Against Terrorism

Relating a story about Saudi Arabia and its war on terrorism is, to some extent, easier than doing the same thing for the United States and its involvement in the war on terrorism around the world. In the Saudi case, it really is more straightforward. Although the United States has generally been successful in its war, we have become increasingly overextended. Since 9-11, the U.S. has been successful strategically—we’ve toppled two hostile regimes and prevented further attacks on American soil, but we have also stretched the armed forces thin and placed serious burden on available resources, such that, our capability is limited to respond to other natural and man-made disasters. We are, at least potentially speaking, mired in at least one area. Moreover, the results of our international foreign policy are mixed at best, in terms of people’s perceptions abroad about us. We may not care so much what the French and Germans think, but they’ve been allies in the past, and we’ll need and appreciate their help in the future. We sure would like them to supply troops instead of us in Lebanon today, for instance.
In the Gulf War, the first president Bush put a coalition together, as much for money and resources as for men and military hardware. Saudi Arabia financed a huge portion of our cost back then. The current war in Iraq, from a cost standpoint, is almost entirely born by us. The billions of dollars the U.S. outlays each year, is negative from an economic standpoint, in terms of vulnerability to recession and the ballooning budget deficit and national debt. Acknowledging important qualitative differences, including international responsibility, I would nevertheless contrast our situation with the Saudis this way: they have been able to consolidate their regime and security system without overextending it, and they are also winning the war on terrorism within their borders. Further, Saudi Arabia’s standing among Arab neighbors has not taken the same kind of hit ours has with our friends. Economically speaking, high oil prices have also sent cash there, which the Saudis are properly utilizing for investments in infrastructure, for improving education, and for modernizing their security apparatus.
Since January 2005, there has been a continued, virtually uninterrupted improvement in the security environment of Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, for instance, it was not safe or advisable for an isolated Westerner to be touring about the capital city of Riyadh. The situation is far safer (if not quite advisable) today—statistics bear this out, and the feeling is palpably better on the street. And here is something else that experience fighting the terrorists has taught all credible observers; namely, militant extremists in Saudi Arabia are not even a significant percentage of the population. It is in fact a deviant few who are causing the trouble, and that is a very hopeful situation for us in the United States. What it means is that America’s war on terror must not be interpreted as a war on Islam. That would be the worst mistake we could make. Indeed, terrorism in most religious quarters of Islam is considered an affront to that religion. Many Americans are aware the Wahhabi sect is prevalent among Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, but they have mistakenly taken that to mean that all Wahhabis favor violence and hate Westerners. The notion is utterly false. Wahhabis are conservative adherents within the Islamic faith, and the philosophical and religious roots are much older and deeper than Al Qaeda-brand terrorism. The political birth of Saudi Arabia hinged on a broad Wahhabi religious appeal to the purification of Islam and getting back to true faith, as it were. This is comparable historically to the involvement by religious puritans, both Catholic and Protestant, zealous in their adherence to faith, who also took up arms for political causes. Contemporaneous and peaceful political participation by Christian fundamentalists also comes to mind. Almost no adherent of the so-called ‘hard Christian Right’ in the United States (labeled so by media) recommends or condones shooting abortion doctors, no matter how firmly these same Christians detest the practice of abortion. The point is not that Christianity and Islam are the same things—they are not. But neither does religious conservatism and violence go hand in hand necessarily. Wahhabism and violence aren’t inevitably linked either, particularly in modern political context.
In late 2003, we withdrew combat troops from Saudi Arabia, a move “pitched” by the administration as shifting troops to where they were needed more. Notwithstanding, the Saudis had asked and needed this to happen, because this removed what was for them, politically speaking, generating violent opposition. Counterintuitive perhaps, the security environment improved between 2003 and now. It has become excellent during a period of diminished U.S. troop presence, which provides at least some food for thought concerning the region: it does not always mean things will get better if you station troops in a location. Likewise, it does not always mean things get worse if and when you withdraw them. There are some in government and politics I believe, who have ideological agendas and axes to grind, and who encourage misunderstanding and demonizing of a large swath of Islam. We have enough enemies, however, without inventing any or encouraging more of them to work harder. Peace rather than incessant, generations-long war can be the realistic goal of a visionary American foreign policy. It can be the result of informed, artful diplomacy. Peace can and should be an object of defense planning and military alliances. Peace ought to be a chief political aim of all good government, just as it is the natural longing of man’s immortal soul. Peace is a tenet of American political conservatism and classical liberalism, because war breeds big government and restricts and injures liberty. It is also part of the Reaganesque political faith that there should be peace through strength. Preemption followed by insistent, stubborn human will, whether based upon misinformation, disinformation, myth or shibboleth, amounts to something else entirely.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. Article based and expanded on remarks made to the Temple Kiwanis Club, 15 August 2006 at Temple College. Email:

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