Who are we arming now?


Some ‘moderate’ Mideast states to which Bush would sell advanced weaponry are anything but moderate.

The new Bush administration initiative to sell advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and seven other Arab states is being portrayed as an effort to strengthen the military capabilities of countries that share Washington’s interest in containing the growing regional influence of Iran.

Opinion: Who are we arming now?

I leave it to others more steeped in strategic thinking, like William Arkin who writes about such matters for washingtonpost.com to discuss whether this is a good idea or a recipe for blowback (like the military capabilities the U.S. built up in Iran when it was under the pro-American Shah, which were inherited by the current anti-American government, or the military training and assistance poured into Afghanistan when it was fighting Soviet occupation, which ended up benefiting the Taliban and Al Qaida), or the U.S. assistance provided to Saddam Hussein when he was fighting Iran in the 1980s…

I comment only on the persistent use of the term “moderate” to describe the states that will receive the weapons, as in:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:

“I do think that the GCC+2 effort is new and it gives us an opportunity in a new configuration to work with the moderate states and the moderate voices in the region…”

Or Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (breaking with Israel’s usual nervousness about U.S. weapons to the Saudis):

“We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states.”

In what sense is a list of nations including Egypt, and especially Saudi Arabia, described as a collection of “moderates?” Let us count the ways:

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. It is not moderately monarchical, like countries that have a king, but he’s not omnipotent. Saudi Arabia is extremely monarchical. Political power is the private property of the Saud royal family (it’s the only country in the world named for its ruling family). Its pretense to being a democracy or one of region’s democratizing states is weaker even than that of Egypt (a military dictatorship in which there are at least rigged elections for the presidency). Saudis enjoy no rights of free speech or press. And religion?

Saudi Arabia is also a theocracy. The Qu’ran is its fundamental law. It has a constitution, but that document is riddled with references to God, Islam and the Qu’ran. It makes it extremely, not moderately clear that all decisions must derive from the holy book.

The official Saudi version of Islam is Wahhabism, a rigid, austere, evangelical form of Islam with a history of violence. The Wahhabist sect provided religious warriors to the Saud family as they defeated their rivals, conquered territory and created Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century.

Wahhabism holds that only its adherents have access to paradise. It treats followers of other Islamic sects as infidels, including Saudi Arabia’s significant Shia minority. Christians and other non-Muslim are strongly discouraged from public displays of faith.

Strict Wahhabi norms of behavior are imposed on everyone by a special police force, known as the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” The virtue/vice police go through restaurants, seeking to prevent unmarried men and women from dining together. They hit people with sticks to discipline them for small infractions. But they often go to much more extreme measures, as in a 2002 case where the virtue police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress to be out in public. Fifteen young girls died, after the police used their sticks to prevent girls from fleeing and to prevent men from helping them, because to help them they would have to see them.

Wahhabism, which has been a carrier extreme, virulent beliefs about the impact of the West on the Arab world, is also the faith of Osama bin Laden, who is Saudi. It would be unfair to hold the Saudi government responsible for the acts of its most infamous former citizen, but it is worth noting that this “moderate” society produced 15 of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers.

Anti-Jewish sentiment is common in the Arab world, but Saudi Arabia is near the anti-semitic end of the spectrum. Jerry Farrell, a former U.S. diplomat and international businessman who had been stationed in Saudi Arabia for some years and whom I interviewed in 2001 when he was based in Minneapolis, told me that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,the notorious 19th century czarist forgery that purports to expose a Jewish plot for world domination, is available and distributed at most mosques, schools and even banks across Saudi Arabia.

Barbie dolls are banned in Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that they are Jewish, and that they represent Western perversion and promote lewd behavior. I hold no brief for Barbie-ism. She does promote lewd behavior. Still, banning Barbie is not a moderate thing to do.

So in what sense can Saudi Arabia be accurately described as “moderate?”

The main one is this: Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, the first U.S. ally in the region since 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, met on a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal. The relationship has been bumpy at times. U.S. support for Israel has long been a source of disagreement. Saudi Arabia was a key architect of the 1973 oil embargo, which created worldwide shortages and drove prices to then-record heights. U.S. culture has been a frequent irritant to Saudi sensibilities.

But mostly, through the years, the relationship has depended on two foundations. The Saudis have worked closely with the U.S. oil industry and have pumped oil in larger quantities than some less-U.S.-FDR meets with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud1945friendly oil producers in the region would have preferred. In exchange, the United States has guaranteed the security of the Saudi monarchy and state, most dramatically with the stationing of U.S. troops in the kingdom in 1990, when Saddam looked like he might have ambitions beyond Kuwait.

The relationship has been highly pragmatic, and the latest Bush administration proposal to arm Saudi Arabia is consistent.

It is inconvenient for U.S. propaganda to be claiming on the one hand to be about spreading democracy and the freedom and to be basing our alliance structure on some kind of good-guy/bad-guy rule, and then to have to ignore so many thuggish, monarchical, regressive and repressive aspects of one of the main U.S. allies in a key region.

For some time, President Bush and his spokesters have tried to frame the larger issue in the Mideast as a struggle between “radical extremists” and “moderate” elements that want to move toward democracy. But bear in mind when you hear such rhetoric that the real definition of “moderation” doesn’t have much to do with the traditional meaning of the term. It translates as “pro-American.”