WASHINGTON -- Two weeks after the revelation of the extraordinary briefing on Saudi Arabia to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, the Saudi government is still upset. It in no way is satisfied with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's disavowal of responsibility for the bizarre incident. The Saudis see a Bush administration sharply divided about them, as with much else in Middle Eastern policy.
Senior Saudi officials had hoped that Rumsfeld would unequivocally reject and apologize for the briefing by Rand Corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec, which described longtime ally Saudi Arabia as a terrorist nation that is "the kernel of evil" and the U.S.'s "most dangerous opponent" in the Middle East. Instead, Rumsfeld separated himself from the affair, characteristically indicating what bothered him most was that contents of the briefing were leaked.
Few accounts of the bizarre incident paid much attention to the centrality of former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle, the Rumsfeld-appointed Policy Board chairman and a staunch friend of Israel. Perle's arrangement of the Murawiec briefing is seen in both Washington and Riyadh as part of a campaign to recast long-standing U.S. policies with strong, though certainly not unanimous, support in the White House and the Defense Department.
Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, conservative journalists and politicians have pounded on Saudi customs and mores that had not seriously disturbed a relationship between the two dissimilar countries over the past 60 years. Beneath that buzz was a proposed new strategic concept: forcible removal of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, which in turn would undermine the Saudi regime -- the domino theory in reverse. The proposed American imperium would produce a democratic Middle East, safe for Israel.
As a step toward this grand design, Murawiec's briefing of July 10 lacked Perle's usual sophistication. Murawiec, a French national who was for many years associated with the extremist Lyndon LaRouche's organization, is no Middle Eastern specialist and has never visited Iraq. Yet, his identification of Saudi Arabia as the leading terrorist state drew criticism from only one Policy Board member present, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The private briefing became public Aug. 6 with publication on The Washington Post's page one of a dispatch by Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks. The briefing's intent became clear with the comment by former U.S. disarmament chief Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Policy Board who was not present July 10. "I think it is a mistake to consider Saudi Arabia a friendly country," said Adelman, who is on close terms with both Rumsfeld and Perle.
Indeed, there are high-level Saudis who do not want to be friendly to the United States. The Murawiec briefing helped not only Perle and fellow American conservatives but also anti-American elements in Saudi Arabia, whose popularity is growing. After the briefing, the mass circulation publication Okaz described the Pentagon as filled with "either Jews or allies of the Zionist lobby." Saudi officials then reiterated refusal to permit the Kingdom's use for an attack on Iraq.
Israeli-Palestinian violence has undermined old U.S.-Saudi ties. Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi ambassador to Britain, raised an international uproar last April when he released a poem praising a female Palestinian suicide bomber.
Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi foreign policy adviser, was in Washington last week denying allegations that he represents a terrorist nation as alleged in a $116 trillion damage suit filed by families of Sept. 11 victims. "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia absolutely does not fund terrorism," he said on CNN. "It goes against our faith. It's against our laws. We have done everything we can in this war on terrorism."
Al-Jubeir specifically denied Saudi funding of the Hamas organization conducting suicide bombing against Israel. "We have done everything we can to try to clamp down on any money going to any evildoer, including Hamas," he said. Israeli accusations of Saudi complicity in suicide bombings have been spread through Washington, but they are not substantiated by U.S. intelligence.
A succession of American presidents dating back to Harry Truman have balanced support for the state of Israel with friendship for Arab nations headed by oil-producing Saudi Arabia. George W. Bush faces a choice of whether he wants to continue that policy or venture down the road charted by Richard Perle.