An Audience with Saudi Arabia

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

Victor responded to some questions from Idris A. Ahmed, editor of Al-watanNewspaper, a daily Saudi news paper.

1. How do you see the world Without the U.S.?

A descent into regional power blocks and zones of influence that would eventually impair the present global system of trade and commerce. The strongest would dictate to the weakest, whether a China becoming a player in the Persian Gulf, a nuclear Iran, or a North Korea antagonizing Japan. There are thousands of places in the world that the U.S. silently adjudicates in a manner that disputing parties respect but do not often report.

All this hinges on Americans willing to spend billions abroad—$100 billion in aid to rebuild Iraq, $50 billion in aggregate aid to Egypt since the Camp David Accords, billions to Jordan and the old Palestinian Authority—as well as saving Muslims in Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Remember, it costs about $3-4 dollars a barrel to pump oil in most of the Middle East and it now sells for about $50—but only because the global system protects property rights, has free commerce and the sea lanes are open and safe.

In the shadows of all that is not the U.N., the Arab League, or the E.U., but the U.S. Without it we will see a world of Saddams, who simply invade a Kuwait and take what they wish when they wish.

2. Do you agree that the world was more safe before the U.S. declaration of war against the terrorism, taking into account that the radical groups have witnessed considerable increase in numbers and operations since then?

I disagree with your conclusion. Here in America we can chart a 25-year cycle, beginning with the Iranian hostage taking, moving on to Lebanon, embassies being bombed, Khobar Towers, first World Trade Center, USS Cole etc. whose ultimate logic and expression was 9-11. The theory of these attacks was to weaken insidiously U.S. resolve by harvesting a few Americans each year. But since the war in Iraq we have seen new transparency in Libya, revelations about Pakistan’s bomb-making, elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the West Bank, and even calls for more openness in your part of the world.

3. If there were no U.S., is it probable that the conflict in the occupied Palestine territories might be settled in some other way, taking into consideration the blind support of U.S. to Israel?

Peace hinges on two democratic interlocutors who can work out the details of 5% or so of the West Bank. We are not talking about occupied Tibet, Russia’s occupation of Japanese islands, or 10% of Germany still held by Poland. The area under dispute in the granting of Palestinian independence is not large and can be settled by reasonable people.

The problem is that the Arafat kleptocracy could not negotiate as a legitimate voice, given its absence of regular elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary. Now we feel that the new government is both more legitimate and might agree to settle the issue through diplomacy. The intifada was a tragic mistake and failed, and so in its detritus we all have more hopes for peace. A two-state solution is the only answer; if both are truly democratic then any existing problem can be solved.

4. How do you see the U.S. interventions in the internal affairs of many independent states, in the name of human rights and often in the name of democracy?

Much can be attributed to the Cold War: 7,000 nukes pointed at your country tend to curb idealism and thus resulted in some places with “pump oil, keep out communists” policies that did not encourage democracy. But in the post-Cold War, there are new hopes that the United States policy will be to foster democratic reform. And we will allow countries to be quite critical of us, like Turkey for example. It is their country, let them do as they please. But we all must be mature: a Germany, for example, cannot level such invective against the U.S. and then expect American bases and subsidized protection.

We in the U.S. were delighted about the pullout from Saudi Arabia. And by the way, given the end of the U.N. embargo of Iraq, will bin Laden now call it quits—since his two demands in his 1998 fatwa are now apparently met?

5. Is the U.S. really playing the role of the “world police”, and who authorized her to play such a role?

Well in 1917 we had kept out and were invited in to save Western liberalism. In 1941 we came in to save democracy from fascism, albeit reluctantly. In 1946 the Soviet Union was poised to take over much of the European continent. And in the Middle East, I think Baathism, Soviet inspired as it was, did far more damage than the U.S. ever did. As bad as the Shah was, Iran in 1975 was no worse, and perhaps much better, than in 2005. A Kuwait or Saudi Arabia was not like Syria or Libya—Sadat figured that out when he flipped in 1973. But in general, unless the United States is going to be consistent in its support for democratic reformers, we should stay out of internal affairs and deal with nations that wish to us harm in an external way.

6. The invasion and occupation of Iraq resulted in serious human, material damage and geopolitical change. Given that the proclaimed weapons of mass destruction—the reason that led U.S. to invade Iraq—were not found, how do you evaluate the stability of the world before and after the invasion of Iraq?

Read the October 11, 2002 Senate proclamation authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam: there were 23 clauses ranging from WMD to 22 other reasons like trying to assassinate a former US President, gassing his own people, attacking 4 countries, violating the 1991 peace accords, etc. WMD was only one writ-and remember Arab governments warned the US that Saddam would use WMD, hence the problems of outfitting thousands in chemical suits in Kuwait. Between 1979 and 2003 Saddam perhaps killed as many as 1 million Arabs or Kurds; that will not happen again in Iraq. And the U.S. did not set up a Shah-like figure. With these elections and more to follow, most Americans hope to be gone rather quickly, once Iraq is fully constitutional.

7. Do you agree that the crimes of war committed by the American troops against the Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison has extremely damaged trust in the U.S. to bring democracy and maintain human rights for the Iraqi people—an event that distorted its image in the world?

Somewhat. Since America must be perfect and when it is not, it feels it is not even good. Remember that what happened in Abu Ghraib was investigated, stiff sentences were handed down and the judicial process continues. But such roguery is a daily occurrence for political prisoners in the Middle East, and only transparency can bring these problems to light.

One final point, the image of the Arab world in the U.S. after 9-11 is also at an all time low. We saw dancing in Palestine on news of 3000 murdered, 15 of the killers were Saudis, Atta was not poor but middle class and Western educated. And now with all the translating of Arab speeches, documents, and TV news into English that is being done and printed freely on the Internet the American people are seeing a Middle East that they feel is violently hostile to the West and at odds with liberal values. We are seeing and reading uncensored things from the Arab world, and it has had a devastating effect here in the U.S. on our views of the Middle East.

The average voter in Kansas finally has read too many speeches by an imam or cleric calling Americans “pigs and apes” as well as infidels, and is asking very new questions: is it safer to open a mosque in Detroit or Church in Saudi? Is a Westerner safer on the street in Yemen or an Arab in Los Angeles? Can one more easily support Israel in a speech in Cairo or support the Palestinians in Washington? And out of this perceived imbalance, a new unease with the Arab Middle East has arisen. In your part of the world you talk easily about “Anti-Americanism” but that is old news and the wage of a superpower.

What is new, really new is what I would call “anti-Middle Easternism” in America. We have seen one too many beheadings, one too many burnings of the U.S. flag, one too many fist-shaking mobs, and collectively sighed, “Enough is enough, they really are different people and we must go our ways.” Hence the brilliant tactics of the Iraqi terrorists who made themselves so grotesque that they hoped Westerners would simply say “all of these people are like that, let’s not spend any more money or help in that part of the world.”

Freedom and democracy alone will allow all this to recover and to renew our old friendship. But right now? I’d say we are waiting for the Arab world to democratize and join the other 4 billion who have, and until then, we are in a process of disengaging troops from Saudi Arabia, calls to cut aid to Egypt if it doesn’t reform, cutting of all ties with Syria, almost no US tourism to the Middle East, hard look at visas and students coming to America, desperate efforts to look at non-petroleum energy, etc.

8.The U.S. refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocal, in favor of its industry, was regarded by many environment protection groups as a deliberate intention to pollute the world and threaten the human existence.  Can you comment on this?

I think the reasoning was rather that since we run huge trade deficits with China (and now India) other countries were not subject to the protocols and would continue to use energy in a less responsible way than the West and thus find cheaper methods of production to undercut American competitiveness The key is to find a standard and then to apply it to all nations on earth in exactly the same manner. We all hope a protocol can be worked out. Also, it is imperative for the Middle East to build a middle class that is highly educated and can create wealth since a petroleum based global economy is under renewed scrutiny on all fronts.

9.The U.S. declared withdrawal from the treaty of nuclear arsenals reduction with Russia. How do you see the future of the world under such insane armament race?

I think you are talking about the renunciation of the ABM treaty? Since the Soviet empire no longer exists, the US felt the treaty did not either. An ABM system may give the U.S. leverage when countries like Iran and North Korea attempt to engage in nuclear blackmail, as Iran is presently with Europe and North Korea with Japan. Democratization is critical to ensure these growing arsenals are subject to consensual government.

10. The U.S. major pharmaceutical companies endangered millions of lives in the poor countries through its monopoly of the patents of life-saving drugs. How do you see this claim?

Well, the U.S. pledged $15 billion in AIDS treatment money for Africa, far more than Europe and the Middle East combined. Most of these drugs cost billions to make, and billions more to defend from expensive litigation, so the patents allow the companies to find profit on their investment. If the world ends the present system, I just hope that governments will be as successful in finding new drugs as private enterprise. Remember, there is nothing stopping the oil-rich Gulf States from getting together and creating a shared public consortium to make their own drugs that are free from Western protocols and overhead.

11. How do you see the legality of the economic sanctions imposed by U.S. on many countries, e.g. Sudan, Syria and Cuba?

Castro has killed thousands of his own people and denies freedom to all—hence their desperate effort to reach Florida. The Sudan is engaged in genocide in Darfur. Syria sends money and aids in transit terrorists trying to kill democratic reformers. Hamas was no accident either. So the U.S. Congress, precisely because it does not wish to use force, has decided to pressure those autocracies to free their people and hold elections.

12. How do you see the preemptive attacks on theory adopted by the U.S. administration and its reflection on the international security and peace?

It is not a U.S. theory but as old as the Greeks and Romans. The latest manifestations-Noriega, Milosevic, Taliban, and Saddam-show a new trend of taking out fascists and allowing democracy to emerge in their wake. Would you wish any of them to return? But the American people are tiring of the cost and the invective that follows, and have come to a sort of consensus “none of these people are worth it” which is a tragic misreading of the good the U.S. does, but will curtail it in the future. Saddam’s fate was sealed by 9-11 when the decision was made to take a close look at all those who aid and abet terrorists from the Middle East.

13. How do you evaluate the risks of the globalization, many of which are U.S.-based companies, on the international relations, local cultures of communities and world diversity?

I am very worried about it, growing up on a small farm that was obliterated by cheap fruit imports from Turkey, Greece, South America, and South Africa. Local culture in the U.S. was not all Wal-Mart, so it hit us first. But we must be adults and mature—globalization has given the world cheap clothes, food, medicines, etc. that was impossible just 30 years ago and helped at least in a material sense billions of the world’s poor. So a balance must be struck, but as you know tribal people the world over now have access to antibiotics, eyeglasses, and books in a fashion not possible before—so the key is find some balance between material benefit and cultural autonomy.

14. How do you imagine the Arab world 50 years from today?

I have great hope. I think it will follow the course of Latin America and Asia and embrace democracy and open markets, take a hard look at persistent problems such as religious intolerance, polygamy, and near gender apartheid in places, and allow the Arab masses the same level of free expression that is now increasingly found elsewhere.

Democratization we think is critical since many autocratic governments use state-controlled media to deflect popular angst over their own failures to provide decent housing, jobs, education and infrastructure onto the bogey-man America—often in an insidious relationship with terrorists like al Qaeda that were given tacit support and sometimes money as a sort of blackmail on the promises their fury would be directed at the West and not Arab monarchies, autocracies, and dictatorship.

Only democracy can end that harmful calculus. Remember also that millions of wonderful Arab people have found tolerance, religious freedom, and economic prosperity in America, without the ghettoization of Europe and without the worry of state coercion at home. We believe only freedom in all its manifestations can solve our differences, and thus many of us in the United States are working to ensure our government supports reform and democracy in the Middle East and ends the old realpolitik.

I for one would  pray for a strong Arab world, fully democratic and free, proud, a partner with America on an equal basis in all areas that gives and takes advice and works shoulder to shoulder with us. But as along as there is not one truly free election in some 20 countries I see little chance of that happening.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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