2004 June 21 Monday
Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, Democracy Promotion, And Energy Policy

What does it say about Saudi Arabia that the government there is just now shutting down a charity that the United States calls a one of the "principal" backers of Al Qaeda?

CAIRO – Last week the Saudi Arabian government reversed years of policy when it promised to swiftly dissolve the operations of Al Haramain, a charity with close ties to the Saudi government the US alleges is one of the "principal" backers of Al Qaeda.

Though US officials have complained about the charity since at least 1998, the Saudi government's typical response had been that while some individuals within the sprawling charity might have ties to known terrorists, its operations were overwhelming peaceful and its problems not systemic.

The Saudis have already forced out the charity's leader Aqeel al-Aqeel in November 2003 but they have not prosecuted him for any crimes. This fits a larger pattern where the Saudis do not prosecute their own nationals for supporting terrorism elsewhere.

A report released this week by a high-level task force of the Council on Foreign Relations makes similar conclusions, finding the Saudi government has failed to hold any well-connected individuals accountable for terror-financing activities.

Given the sheer number of Saudis involved in terrorist attacks in other countries this is a very telling revelation.

Saudi citizens are, however, sufficiently disgusted by attacks within Saudi Arabia that many cheered the killing of the local Al Qaeda leader Abdelaziz al-Miqrin.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA – The kidnapping and beheading of American Paul Johnson Jr. marks a turning point in Saudi public opinion against his Al Qaeda slayers.

Celebrations broke out at the news Friday night that Abdelaziz al-Miqrin, the man responsible for Johnson's death, had been killed. It was the first time in the kingdom's 13-month fight against terrorism that ordinary citizens expressed spontaneous joy at security forces' success.

But do not expect a major change in the educational system, religious teachings, or popular views in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is a major source of money for terrorism and probably the biggest source of Jihadists and terrorists in the world. The Saudis also openly and aggressively fund the spread of Wahhabi Islam around the world. Saudi Arabia is a national security threat to the United States at the same time that it is a vital supplier of oil for the world economy. Spencer Ackerman. filling in for Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, has a series of posts interviewing and excerpting quotes from an anonymous serving US intelligence agent who has a new book forthcoming entitled Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism. Ackerman asks the intelligence agent what should we be asking the Saudi rulers to do and the intelligence agent says we can not expect too much.

TPM: What should we be asking them to do?

ANONYMOUS: I think we're focused on what we want them to do. We want to control al-Qaeda within the kingdom. We want them to continue to produce oil. We want them to do any number of police-type, and intelligence-type cooperation, and I'm sure they'll be willing to do that. But what we [really] want them to do, as I wrote in the book, I don't think is going to happen: people argue that we should force them or pressure them to change their curriculum and their education system, and that is very unlikely to happen. The al-Sauds, when they came to power, made a deal with the Islamic establishment: the al-Sauds would take care of the economy and foreign policy, and the religious establishment would take care of education. I'm not sure they're terribly eager to adopt a curriculum of Islamic education as it’s proposed by the United States. …

It's a system that's not prone to reform at a pace that would satisfy us. A pace that would satisfy us would completely destabilize the country. We're going to watch them do as much as they can, and they'll do as much as they can that's consistent with the survival of the state.

I would encourage you all to read the interview in full.

This anonymous intelligence agent is also the author of a book released last year entitled Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam & the Future of America.

Writing for The Guardian Julian Borger reports that this anonymous intelligence agent thinks Al Qaeda is becoming more competent and able.

"What I think we're seeing in al-Qaida is a change of generation," he said."The people who are leading al-Qaida now seem a lot more professional group.

"They are more bureaucratic, more management competent, certainly more literate. Certainly, this generation is more computer literate, more comfortable with the tools of modernity. I also think they're much less prone to being the Errol Flynns of al-Qaida. They're just much more careful across the board in the way they operate."

As for weapons of mass destruction, he thinks that if al-Qaida does not have them already, it will inevitably acquire them.

This guy thinks the Bush Administration's strategy is completely wrong, that the invasion of Iraq has been very detrimental to our interests, and that Al Qaeda is probably so satisfied with the Bush Administration that it will launch a terrorist attack in the US near the election to rally the American people around Bush to get him reelected! I find his argument plausible.

Ackerman thinks Borger is exaggerating the extent to which this intelligence agent is aiming to bash Bush specifically.

Julian Borger has a story in The Guardian that paints the anonymous intelligence professional who penned the forthcoming Imperial Hubris: How the West is Losing the War on Terror as animated in no small measure by "contempt for the Bush White House and its policies." That's a bit wide of the mark. Does the book exhibit contempt for the administration's policies? Certainly. It also takes a dim view of the White House's conception of what motivates al-Qaeda and how to fight it. But in the book and in an interview, Anonymous doesn't traffic in Bush-bashing. He has much harsher words to say about the leadership of the intelligence community, whom he faults for bending too far to the predispositions of the policymakers they serve.

Ackerman also takes issue with the anonymous agent's argument that democracy promotion is bound to be counterproductive. However, my own take on democracy promotion is that there are a number of obstacles in the way of democracy promotion in the Middle East that the neoconservatives fail to even acknowledge (see bullet list in the middle of that post). The neoconservative and liberal advocates of democracy promotion appear to be arguing for it in part because they do not like what it says about human nature if there are peoples who simply do not want to become Western style liberal democrats. But this denial of human nature and differences in human beliefs does not change human nature. People do not all universally embrace the same set of values in the same rank order. There are huge differences in the extent of belief in various values. Those differences are quite resistant to change for a number of reasons (again, see my post about the obstacles in the way of democracy in the Middle East).

While I do not see democratization as a panacea I still think it is worth looking at the question of how to spread ideas into the Middle East that might have the efffect of making them less hostile to us. Jon B. Alterman argues for a change in how the United States promotes democracy and liberalism in the Middle East.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we need to recognize that, as a group, such liberals are increasingly aging, increasingly isolated, and diminishing in number. These liberals are losing a battle for the hearts and minds of their countries, and populations are increasingly driven toward younger and more disaffected personalities.

America’s problems do not stop there, however. The United States faces a paradox. Liberal reformers in much of the Arab world are already seen as clients of foreign powers and as collaborators in a Western effort to weaken and dominate the Arab world. Focusing attention and resources on these reformers runs the risk of isolating them still further, driving a deeper wedge between them and the societies we (and they) seek to affect. In such an event, U.S. efforts are not only ineffectual; they are counterproductive.

U.S. efforts to promote political openness and change in the Arab world would be far more effective if they stopped trying to coax the disparate sparks of comfortable liberal thought into a flame and instead concentrated on two targets: regional governments and mass publics. The U.S. also needs to be willing to work multilaterally to promote reform in a way it has been unwilling to do up to now. If the stakes were lower, the U.S. could afford the luxury of taking an easier and less effective approach to political change in the Arab world. In today’s environment, it isn’t nearly sufficient.

Whether the approach Alterman argues for could work in practice a number of his suggestions strike me as more likely to be effective than what is currently being tried. Invasion of Iraq has not been a liberalising influence in Iraq or in the rest of the Middle East. However, even if there is some better set of ideas for spreading democracy in the Middle East that have a chance of working this is at best a long term project. The spreading of democracy is not a short or medium term solution to the threat of terrorism. The anonymous intelligence agent is therefore correct to argue that the Bush Administration's strategy is deeply flawed.

Ackerman reports that the anonymous intelligence agent doesn't think we can win a battle of ideas in the Muslim countries.

But Anonymous doesn't really consider it possible for the U.S. to answer bin Laden in a battle of ideas throughout the Islamic world: U.S. support for what many Muslims may see as unjust policies has drained us of our credibility, he argues. He combines that critique with a rejection of anything resembling democracy promotion. Woodrow Wilson, to Anonymous, is a "bloody-handed fantasist." Insisting on democratic reform in the Muslim world then becomes naïve futility--even though one of Bin Laden's rallying cries is, as Anonymous puts it, U.S. support for "tyrannical Muslim governments."

Suppose we can't. What's our back-up plan? We need one and we need to start implementing it today. Defense in depth is one element. We ought to make it much harder for unfriendlies to get into the United States. We also need to push hard to develop technologies to obsolesce oil as a way to defund the Wahhabis.

Of course other efforts would require resources. But, as the editors of The New Republic admit, resources are finite.

Resources are finite. To defeat and occupy Iraq, the United States has transferred special operations units from the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Because our military is stretched so thin in Iraq, we cannot threaten military action in Iran or North Korea, which has reduced our diplomatic leverage. The tradeoffs even extend to the nonmilitary sphere. The Bush administration's refusal to adequately fund security for U.S. chemical and nuclear plants, for inspections at our ports, and for the police officers and firemen who would be the first to respond to a terrorist attack is well-documented. Absent its enormous expenditures in Iraq, the administration could have far better addressed these threats--threats more urgent than a tyrant in Baghdad with nuclear dreams, but no nuclear plans.

We could have paid for decades of a very large set of energy research efforts for what it cost us to invade Iraq. We could have gotten far better control of our borders, trained large numbers of multilingual intelligence agents, and put a lot more effort into slowing nuclear proliferation. The continued pursuit of current policy will bring with it still more opportunity costs.

It is gratifying to see the anonymous intelligent agent lists energy policy as one of the elements of a better grand strategy for dealing with the terrorist threat. The United States and the West as a whole ought to play to its strengths. One of those strengths is that we have a lot of scientists and engineers and can afford to engage in massive research and development projects. While energy research is not a short term solution neither is invasion and promotion of democracy. But a better energy policy is an essential element of a better grand strategy in response to the threat of terrorism.

The US should have an energy policy shaped much more strongly by national security considerations. A national security policy for energy should include an additional $10 billion or more per year spent on energy research as part of a recognition that the world's increasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil creates national risks for the United States.

Some of the neoconservatives are more intent on invading Syria. Why? Advocacy of said invasion by David Frum and Richard Perle seems more motivated by their support of Israel than concern for American security. Yet they have no interest in invading Saudi Arabia. It is hard to take seriously their belief that US military force can be used to transform the Middle East into a more liberal and democratic region when they are placing Syria ahead of Saudi Arabia on their list of priorities. They have nothing to offer that has any chance of reforming the Middle Eastern society most in need of reform (Saudi Arabia - as if this even needs stating). How can military attacks and democracy be solutions against such a widely distributed enemy which is most concentrated in the one Middle Eastern country which the Bush Administration is reluctant to even criticise? The neoconservatives pride themselves on a supposedly tougher and more realpolitik view harnessed to the spread of great ideals. Yet their grand strategy is so logically incoherent that I'd be too embarrassed to try to defend it. So I'm going to continue to attack it instead. We deserve to be defended. The neoconservatives are not defending us.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 June 21 01:23 PM  Politics Grand Strategy

r said at June 21, 2004 4:57 PM:

One of your best posts. You stated the points cogently and the ending was right on.

I don't know how much of a panacea Democracy will be in the Islamic world unless there is fundamental religious change or widespread religious decline. Islam, as it is practiced today in most of the Islamic world, is not amenable to reform. We need to realize the level of support this causes in entities like Al Queda has amongst the mainstream in the Islamic world. Like Bill Mahrer said on Politically Incorrect, some of these Islamic Governments are actually more -liberal- than a lot of their people.

However, we can cut the power of the Saudi government by generating a viable alternative to oil, as you said. Be it nuclear fuel or alternative fuel or electric power or what not. Once this is done on a mass scale, the Saudis won't have anything of importance to sell the rest of the World. Their economy will either undergo fundamental change (including granting women more rights) or wither. But, in any event, they won't just be able to pour money into the Wahabi schools that proliferate their country and all the other countries they allow it to go to.

Fredrik Nyman said at June 21, 2004 8:33 PM:

A good, well thought out critique. I do have some quibbles though:

Energy policy: I think it is unrealistic on many levels to think that we can reduce terrorism by defunding the saudis by increasing energy research funding so we don't have to buy their oil.

Consider: 1) the research would have to result in a viable alternative to oil, that 2) is cost- and price-competitive, 3) reasonably soon. Also this alternative might 4) require massive investments in new distribution infrastructure (gas stations); if so, it would 5) have to be quite a bit cheaper to justify this investment. Also, this technology would 6) have to be made available world-wide (we -- the US -- aren't exactly the only ones using oil), 7) for free (or developing countries like Africa and China aren't going to go for it). Oh yeah, and 8) all this has to happen without oil-producing countries that aren't hostile to us now becoming hostile. I rather doubt Kuwait and Russia would be thrilled to see their oil revenue dry up.

And even if all the above magically happened, it'd be decades before it had a significant effect on the Saudis' oil income. Even if the technology was available right now, it would be a few years before the auto manufacturers could switch over all their models to use this type of engine, and then it'd be at least a decade before this new engine was in a majority of all vehicles on the roads in the US -- people aren't going to junk their cars and buy new ones overnight.

This isn't to say it's a bad idea to increase energy research funding -- on the contrary, I think it's a good idea. The argument that it will help defeat terrorism is rather unpersuasive though.

Randall Parker said at June 21, 2004 10:21 PM:


I did not develop my entire set of ideas about energy in this post because I've previously developed many of those ideas in previous posts. See my FuturePundit category archive Energy Tech and my ParaPundit category archive Grand Strategy for previous posts that address some of the points you raise. However, I will respond more briefly here:

1) A major effort to obsolesce oil would serve as an incentive for all countries with oil reserves to pump them before they become obsolete. They may not like what we would be doing. But their rational response would be to increase production and sell it before it becomes worth much less. So your 8th point is not correct and your 3rd point is partially incorrect.
This will drive down prices and reduce profits to all producers including Saudi Arabia. It will also boost our economy.

2) We could open up ANWR and other currently off-limits reserves in the US to boost our own production and thereby reduce demand for Middle Eastern oil while we develop other solutions.

3) We could help the Russians and other non-Middle Eastern countries get more fields on line more rapidly.

4) We could pursue more aggressive conservation measures in the short term.
We could change US government policies to cause the government itself to aggressively pursue measures to use energy mroe efficiently (buy smaller government cars, do more building insulation, even upgrade oil big USAF jets with newer and more fuel efficient engines). We could raise CAFE standards on cars (a US law on car fuel efficiency in case you are not a n American).

5) We would not need to replace all our capital stock to make use of new energy technologies.
Some technologies could be developed more rapidly that would yield greater efficiencies in the use of oil and other fossil fuels. These technologies would not require construction of new energy distribution networks. For an example of what I mean, see my post Improved Gasoline To Hydrogen Converter For Cars. Hydrogen reformers would boost the efficiency of internal combustion engine cars. So I don't agree with your 4th point. Also, some researchers are working on methods to synthesize hydrocarbons. So existing cars could burn fuels made with new energy technologies.

6) If we developed technology for producing cheaper energy we could just sell the energy to the countries that have enough money to buy the existing energy sources.
One way this could be done would be to use electricity or photons to drive artificial carbon cycles to fix carbon to hydrogen. This would yield hydrocarbon fuels that would not need refinement. We could literally sell gasoline. However, the richer countries that account for the bulk of world demand for oil would certainly be able to afford to buy the devices we'd sell that would make energy.
Also, if our new energy tech produced new energy that was cheaper than energy from oil and another country (e.g. China) didn't to buy it that would give us a competitive advantage. For example, our alimunum producers could produce cheaper aluminum and displace Chinese aluminum in the market. That would reduce Chinese demand for energy by reducing the amount of energy intensive industry operating in China. Our competitors would literally have no choice but to switch to our energy technologies if they wanted to compete in other industries.

7) The terrorism problem is going to last for a long time.
There are no short-term solutions to terrorism that totally or even mostly solve the problem. The fact that energy technologies will take years to have an effect is not an argument against their use as part of a comprehensive strategy because A) other elements of the strategy (e.g. better border control) would still be pursued, B) a big push in energy policy will reduce prices by some amount, C) we will still be in need of means to hobble the terrorists by the time some of the energy technologies become ready for use, and D) some of the research efforts would pay off within a few years.

But again, read my archives and click thru to read some of the articles I've previously linked to.

Wesley Ulm said at June 22, 2004 12:11 AM:

Spot on Randall, as always. This comment was especially perspicacious:

We could have paid for decades of a very large set of energy research efforts for what it cost us to invade Iraq. We could have gotten far better control of our borders, trained large numbers of multilingual intelligence agents, and put a lot more effort into slowing nuclear proliferation. The continued pursuit of current policy will bring with it still more opportunity costs.

Sums up the root of my discontent with the whole Iraq misadventure-- a gross misdirection of finite resources that are urgently needed for more intelligent endeavors in combating terrorism and weaning us from our soon-to-be-tapped reserves of oil.

This gem also caught my eye:
This guy thinks the Bush Administration's strategy is completely wrong, that the invasion of Iraq has been very detrimental to our interests, and that Al Qaeda is probably so satisfied with the Bush Administration that it will launch a terrorist attack in the US near the election to rally the American people around Bush to get him reelected! I find his argument plausible.

Brrr. You know, this thought has occurred to me too, chiefly in my more darkly cynical moments, those stream-of-consciousness flights of thought when the mind wanders a little too much while waiting idly at a bus stop... The whole Spanish election incident might be planting some rather unpleasant thoughts in the collective cerebrum of al-Qaeda for the US and English and British Parliament elections, even though the election in Spain was not so neatly explained as far too many commentators (even the these-days very sporadic Thomas Friedman) had believed. The Spaniards gave Aznar the ol' circus cannonball treatment b/c they were understandably irate at him for diverting resources from the fight against domestic terrorists to the useless war in Iraq, and also because Aznar's government pathetically tried to suppress information even from police. It had nothing do with appeasement. But drooling al-Qaeda fanatics might fantasize about altering an election in the world's first modern democracy. Since GWB has effectively been a propagandist's lagniappe dropped at their doorstep with the war on Iraq, they likely prefer him to a probably far more sensible Kerry. (Could this Iraq fiasco have occurred under any other president? Gives a whole new perspective to the Florida fiasco of November-December 2000.) OTOH, I'm not sure that a major al-Qaeda attack on the USA prior to the election would hurt Bush; it might cut out all support from beneath him. Right now in the polls at least, the only issue in which Bush still enjoys healthy support is the war on terrorism and the fact that there hasn't been a major terrorist attack on US soil since September 11 (with the arguable exception of John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo's sniper attacks, which were at least partially inspired by Islamist militancy). If Bush loses even this pillar of credibility, the bottom might fall out and he may already be a lame duck.

Your article also rightly pointed out the persistent problem with Saudi Arabia, which has been playing this double game for too long, pretending to be a US ally while making apparently half-hearted attempts, at best, to combat terrorism, especially its financial basis. I'm still not sure what to make of Michael Moore's thesis in "Fahrenheit 9/11" or Craig Unger's in "House of Bush, House of Saud" whether as Unger states (quoted by Amazon reviewer Silvana Tropea) "Never before has an American president been so closely tied to a foreign power that harbors and supports our country's mortal enemies," a reference to Bush's supposed coddling of the Saudis despite the fact that Wahhabiism (and the intellectual and financial underpinnings of al-Qaeda) have originated there. But Bush's hands-off approach to Saudi Arabia, which supplied 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, in contrast to his bellicosity against Iraq (which supplied a zero, zilch, zippo, goose-egg number of September 11th hijackers and which had no ties to the 9-11 attacks, whose leader-- Saddam-- was himself a target of Osama bin Laden) emits the all-too recognizable stench of corrupt ulterior motives. In fairness, Saudi Arabia has begun to crack down more since the May 2003 attacks in Riyadh and the upsurge in al-Qaeda terrorism since then. There have been apprehensions of al-Qaeda leaders and changes in the tone of the state support of Wahhabism. Yet many of these look more cosmetic than the surgical changes made on the contestants in "The Swan." More show than substance.

The Sauds have to walk a tightrope to avoid a collapse in their kingdom, but Bush needs to keep the pressure up as well. He'd also benefit by disengaging, for one brief shining minute, from this Ahab-like obsession with Iraq. Bush could net himself a massive political boost in the midst of his current tribulations by closing the net on Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the other top al-Qaida operatives. This would provide far more political currency than all this bungling in Iraq's cities.

My Armada article

Invisible Scientist said at June 22, 2004 12:41 AM:

There are some dramatic improvements in nuclear reactor technology, which insure that
the newly designed reactors offer:
A) Nuclear Energy is competitive with the price of coal and natural gas.
B) The ability to burn and consume all the long term nuclear waste generated in the reactor
(such as plutonium and other articifical elements) as fuel, leaving behind only the short
term low level nuclear waste with half-life less than 300 years, meaning that nuclear
waste storage and disposal will not be a problem.
C) The efficiency of some of these reactors (especially the Integral Fast Reactor) is such
that the design is 100 times more fuel efficient, meaning that the need to mine new uranium
will beminimal, so that there will
be enough uranium for hundreds of years in the world, even if we use nuclear energy all
over the world for everthing.
The latest Westinghouse design (requires much less Uranium than older designs, reprocesses and burns the plutonium, leaving minimal long term nuclear waste, leaves behing only short term waste)
that China is buying from the US:


Integral Fast Reactor (not year commercialized):


In other words, if there is a national emergency, many hundreds of these new reactors can be
brought online within 5 years all over the world, at a cost that will be competitive with
coal or natural gas. Once there is plenty of electiricity, we can use this energy go convert it
even to gasoline.

Randall Parker said at June 22, 2004 1:10 AM:


Is Kerry more reasonable? I don't know. I start from the position of trying to identify what we ought to do to protect ourselves and our interests and then look a Presidential aspirant. I don't hear Kerry advocating ethnic and religious profiling of visa applicants to try to keep out the terrorists. I don't I don't hear Kerry advocating a huge research effort to obsolesce oil.

The problem is that for many of the nation's biggest problems neither political party is offering serious proposals for how to deal with them. We have a huge unfunded liability for taking care of an aging population. Well, Bush increases old age entitlements and the Democrats basically complain his plan doesn't go far enough. We have an unsustainable trade deficit. The problem is rarely mentioned.

Bush and Saudi Arabia: I think there are big limits on US can do to change (short of military action) what goes on inside Saudi Arabia. I'm more bothered by the fact that the US doesn't have a visa and border control policy that fully reflects the threat posed by these young Saudi jihadists and of the need to keep out Saudi Wahhabi preachers. I'm also more bothered by the lack of an energy policy to obsolesce Saudi oil. Bush's critics exaggerate what he could do about Saudi society and government while they miss what the US could do to protect itself without Saudi cooperation.

The Saudis only started to crack down once the princes felt threatened. There are limits to how far they are willing and able to go.

Michael Moore: He's a propagandist. I do not pay attention to people like Moore because I try to look for high quality information sources.

Invisible Scientist said at June 22, 2004 7:23 AM:


But note that recently, a whole bunch
of Nobel prize winners, have unanimously favored Kerry, and the reason they chose
to favor Kerry, is because they said that science and technology research is national
security, and that Bush is choosing idealogy instead of reality...
And these Nobel guys are not like the regular blind lefties who support anything
against the Republicans. Since we have trained so many top engineers and scientists
between 1995 and 2003, we have a historic opportunity to save the world by starting
a Manhattan project for energy, biology, medicine, and engineering. The Ayatullah Bush
and his fundamentalist Cardinals are neglecting the nerds who are the real all-American heros.
WW II was not won by generals and soldiers, but nerds in underground laboratories.

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