The Global Stakes at Khobar

by Victor Davis Hanson

The Australian

The recent terrorist murdering of Westerners in Saudi Arabia had all the hallmarks of the present global war waged by al Qaeda and its sympathizers. Attack the Western presence in Saudi Arabia to force the departure of foreign experts. Shake the regime—and thus bring Osama bin Laden’s minions one-step closer to realizing the Islamicist goal of a Middle-East caliphate.  With much of the world’s petroleum under the fundamentalists’ control, they could strangle the global economy while obtaining the type of weapons that can blackmail the West, destroy Israel, and implement a new Dark Ages in the Middle East.

We can learn much from this most recent abhorrent slaughter. Once more, the terrorists are politically sophisticated. They chose the time of their attack to coincide with the Kingdom’s recent announcement that it will increase oil production to prevent a slowdown of the world economy now reeling under recent dramatic fuel price spikes. Appeasement was the Spanish response to the bombing in Madrid; so likewise in the Gulf will we see instead cutbacks in pumping in exchange for promised calm—a de facto turning over the daily rate of petroleum production to al Qaeda’s dictates? The Spaniards may think they bought time for themselves, but all that capitulation did was to direct the emboldened killers elsewhere for a time. Blackmail, to work after all, must at least provide the allusion to the cowered that it brings safety for the moment.

We also see the same creepy methods of bloodshed now familiar from Fallujah, the West Bank, and the gruesome and televised murders of Americans—brazenly dragging bodies of Westerners in the street, sorting out Europeans, Americans, and Christian hostages for special treatment, and deliberating trying to garner publicity for macabre killing. This grotesque circus in Khobar is intended to shock a complacent and affluent Western audience to turn on itself, pack up for home, and choose leaders who will appease rather than confront.

There are other lessons from the latest hostage killings. Much of the West’s problem in the Middle East has been the false dichotomy between authoritarian regimes and their Islamofascist critics, who sometimes work conjointly against the West, while on other occasions turning on each other. The Saudi Royals, like most autocracies in Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, play a tired game now well known in the West. To ameliorate an increasing misery among the populace (unemployment in Saudi Arabia is over 40% while $800 billion is held by the Royal Family outside the country), few Arab regimes embark on liberalization, constitutional government, literacy programs, open markets, free speech, gender equality, or religious tolerance.

Instead popular frustration in state-controlled media is carefully filtered and directed against the United States and Israel—as if those in New York or Tel Aviv can explain why Saudi jobs are scarce or Egyptian water undrinkable. Direct aid to Islamic “charities,” funding of hate-spewing madrassas, and subsidizing firebrand clerics were the old Danegeld that Saudi elites meted out to turn bin Laden’s fury against us. And such triangulation worked, if we remember that fifteen Saudi suicide killers hit us on September 11—and earned smug, though private, smiles among many citizens of the Kingdom.

But feeding monsters is dangerous. Now the emboldened killers have turned on their erstwhile own. If the Spanish appeasement directs predators elsewhere for a time in search of similar easy meals, so in contrast do the defiance and deterrence of other, quite different potential victims, who prove that they will fight rather than capitulate. After 9-11, it is not so easy to attack an America, United Kingdom, or Australia that crafted increased vigilance and made it clear that they will strike back tenfold when hit. In contrast, Saudi appeasement, coupled with little record of deterrence, now invites opportunistic probes.  Indeed, we will only see more of such assaults until the Kingdom eradicates terror, turns with a fury on its own subsidized Islamic extremists—or capitulates and falls.

Finally, these continual assaults on the Saudi Arabia also shed light on the current, though much caricatured, Coalition efforts in Iraq. The removal of Saddam Hussein—who, in fact, as we are learning from Baathist archives, did have similar nebulous ties with al Qaeda—and his replacement by consensual leaders are aimed at ending the destructive political calculus of the last half-century in the Middle East that has led to the current mess. If at one time pumping oil and keeping out communists were all that we asked from Arab dictatorships, we have now learned that such a policy only led to anguished citizens—and predatory terrorists as ready to capitalize on popular discontent as they were to be bribed and redirected by illegitimate regimes against us.

In the short-term, we have no choice but to support the kingdom’s anti-terrorist efforts and hope that its nascent liberalizing efforts mollify critics, improve the lot of the Saudi people—and don’t bring on more Islamic fanatics posing as reformers in the process. But we should also keep in mind that should consensual government work in Iraq, terrorists, not us, will be terrified.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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