Why Bother Leaving Saudi Arabia?

The false promise of Middle East disengagement


In a move that will please critics of craven American foreign policy, the U.S. Air Force is reportedly planning to shift its major operations center in the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to Qatar. This move will help the embattled Saud family, according to U.S. officials who tell the New York Times that "a visible American troop presence weakens the Saudi royal family rather than strengthening it because it only fuels the militant elements inside the country."

But what about a nearly invisible American troop presence? By the standards of military installations, the American presence at Prince Sultan Air Base is almost certainly the least obtrusive and obnoxious in the world. The airmen stationed there are more or less confined to the base at all times; they are famously forbidden even to take pictures that would identify the area, for fear that this visual reminder of an infidel presence on Saudi soil would enflame locals; they are shamefully deferential to that barbaric kingdom's medieval strictures.

Nor is there any truth to the claim that the American military presence is offensive because it is close to the "holy" cities of Mecca and Medina; the USAF base is located a mountain range, a desert, and several hundred miles away from these cities. The only way to make the case that there is an American presence in the "holy" land is to acknowledge the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia—a point the zealots making these claims, who don't believe in the existence of nation states at all, do not acknowledge. To believe that the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia is a great religious offense, you'd have to be, well, you'd have to be an insane religious fanatic. And you'd have to be something more than naïve to think that trading this presence for a forceful occupation of a mostly hostile country directly to the north amounts to a homecoming.

Nonetheless, one of the fondest hopes of the war in Iraq has been that it would finally allow us to break our ties with Saudi Arabia, and in the process remove the most visible cause of the fanatics' hatred of the United States. It's a tempting goal in these days when even the most reasonable commentators sound like freelancers for Herb Mallard's Sauduction web site. The most recent sample comes in the May issue of The Atlantic, an article called "The Fall of the House of Saud," by former CIA field officer Robert Baer. Few of Baer's claims will be surprising to Saudi watchers, but his case against the royal family is compelling—all the more so because he does not pretend there are any solutions to the structural problems he identifies. But who needed convincing? No decent person can fail to be sickened by the Saudis and our relations with them.

The question is whether we are today any closer to ending these relations than we have ever been. Click here for a host of reasons why we're not, and here for the reassuring news that "the controversial alliance between Washington and the Saudi royal family is stronger than often portrayed, and will survive the aftermath of the U.S. military ouster of the Iraqi government."

So if disassociating ourselves from the disgusting Saudis is not an immediate benefit of the Iraq war, what about the new batch of fanatics we have inherited—whose fanaticism, if of a somewhat different shade, is at least more photogenic than that of the Saudis? "Only a fool could observe this spectacle and believe that the future of Iraq will be serene," wrote tough-guy reporter Pete Hamill after witnessing clips of last week's bloody self-flagellation exercises in Karbala. Spin-free pundit Bill O'Reilly went Hamill one better. "Where is the worldwide outcry against fundamentalist Islam?" O'Reilly burst out in reference to the same spectacle. "Why is this violent culture deemed an acceptable form of behavior?" Moderate Muslims, he demands, must denounce this kind of behavior. As always, of course, O'Reilly is wrong: At least one major Shiite leader specifically denounced this form of head-cutting during the celebration of Ashura, and strongly urges his followers to give it up. That leader is Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the general secretary of Hezbullah in Lebanon. Would O'Reilly consider Nasrallah a moderate? Could O'Reilly find his ass with both hands and a flashlight?

The leaders of the Bush administration have kept notably cooler heads in the presence of this sort of fanaticism. The beauty of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is that he harbors no illusions about a serene future, for Iraq or for the United States. He knows, even if he doesn't quite come out and say, that we're going to be in the Middle East forever. There will be no disengaging—not from the Saudis, not from the Iraqis, not from the Israelis, not from anybody. This futureless land, where hatred, violence and madness constitute the coin of the realm, is our new home. That guy with the bloody head? He's your new neighbor. Your children's children will be dealing with him. Say marhaba.