And yet, you'd have to be crazier than a Jewish deli owner in Riyadh to think what America needs most is another Saudi Arabia. If you recall, the 9/11 hijackers were overwhelmingly Saudi. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi. Al-Qaida's bankrollers are often Saudi. The Saudi government funds the exportation of Saudi-style Wahhabism, which is serving to radicalize Muslims around the world, particularly in places like Pakistan.
Of course, Iraqi culture is very different from Saudi culture, and a pious Sunni theocracy isn't in the offing in Iraq. But that misses the point. Even Jordan - which is a far cry better than Saudi Arabia in virtually every respect - suffers from high levels of anti-Americanism and support for terrorism. The man who ran al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, was famously a Jordanian militant.
American "realists" tend to speak fondly of Saudi Arabia in part because they think the internal nature of regimes doesn't matter. All that matters is how states operate on the international stage. Unfortunately, this isn't true.
Liberals are right when they say "root causes" are a problem. Where they're wrong is where they emphasize poverty. Princeton's Alan Krueger and countless others have shown that the relationship between poverty and terrorism - at least among actual terrorists - is mythological.
The real root causes lie in the nature of the regimes themselves. Poor countries do not create terrorists, bad societies do. And while government alone can't make a good society out of a bad one, a bad government is unlikely to create a good society. Indeed, the denial of civil liberties within the context of a free political system is a bigger problem than poverty when it comes to terrorism. "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed," Krueger told the Wall Street Journal, "malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."
At this point I'm in favor of whatever modest success we can eke out of Iraq. But we should keep in mind that "strong states" alone do not a drained swamp make.
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