The argument of pro-war conservatives that a new, reformist government in Iraq could catalyze the forces of liberalization throughout the Middle East has often been dismissed as wishful thinking masquerading as strategic thought. Well, sign up another adherent to the wishful thinking -- the Saudi monarchy.
The Saudis have been desperately maneuvering to engineer a coup or an exile deal for Saddam Hussein that would avert a U.S. invasion and presumably elevate another Baathist strongman -- Saddam Hussein lite -- to power in Iraq. As The New York Times recently reported, "many Saudis have begun to realize that if Mr. Bush succeeds in removing the Iraqi leader, the potential emergence of a new Iraqi state ... could set the winds of change sweeping through the region."
Change makes the Saudis very nervous -- as it should. The Saudis are perpetually nervous to begin with, since they are sitting on top of the world's richest oil reserves, while they themselves are incredibly weak. They are intimately connected to a virulent, anti-modern variant of Islam, and run an economy that is positively Soviet in its arbitrariness and stagnation.
Rather than deal with their problems frontally, the Saudi strategy has been to try to maintain their freedom to keep driving their country into the ground with political and diplomatic straddles. The biggest has been between their relationship with the United States and their relationship with haters of the United States, whom they extravagantly fund.
This straddle produces professions of cooperation from Saudi diplomats (oh, how Saudi media flack Adel al-Jubeir loves the United States!) at the same time the Saudis engage in such subterfuges as sneaking out of the United States a Saudi woman subpoenaed to testify in connection with the 9/11 investigation (oops -- this sort of thing just happens).
The coming invasion of Iraq has the Saudis straddling harder than ever. Reports say that Crown Prince Abdullah has decided that after the war, U.S. troops will leave the kingdom (pleasing his right), while he will create a democratic assembly (pleasing his left) -- perfect for those who like their Islamic tyrannies not too cold, but not too hot.
Ending the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia has, of course, been one of Osama bin Laden's chief demands. But it still makes sense. American troops were only stationed in Saudi Arabia beginning in 1991 to serve as a tripwire if Saddam invaded again. With Saddam gone, that purpose evaporates. In any case, Qatar and other Persian Gulf state-lets can accommodate U.S. military needs.
As for reform, Abdullah talks about it every six months or so, because it seems a useful way to ease pressure for real democratic change. The United States should, in this pregnant moment, begin pushing Abdullah toward a much more far-reaching radical break with the kingdom's radical Wahhabi clerics.
Abdullah might not be up for it. He is nearly 80 years old. He is not yet king, as the ailing King Fahd still barely occupies the throne. And he is distrusted by much of the rest of the royal family, who don't really consider him one of them (he has a Syrian mother).
But Abdullah has strengths, including the loyalty of the Bedouin-based Saudi national guard. And he might be forced to move, if he thinks the survival of the Saudi monarchy depends on it.
The founder of the contemporary Saudi state, Ibn Saud, faced a similar choice in the late 1920s. He had conquered the Arabia peninsula on the backs of murderous al-Qaidalike fanatics called the Ikhwan. They began to attack British interests in the region, which prompted the Brits to give Ibn Saud a choice -- crack down on the Ikhwan, or lose British support.
He reluctantly -- and painfully -- dumped the Ikhwan. Abdullah too could break with his fanatics. But only if he feels threatened by the new geopolitical alignment in a new post-Saddam Middle East. The U.S. message to the Saudis should be: Nervous now? You haven't seen nothing yet.