There will be more Saudi attacks -- until final disaster

July 01, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Tuesday's dreadfully successful attack on American military personnel in Saudi Arabia was foreseeable and unnecessary.

There will be more such attacks. Each must be expected to deepen America's engagement in Saudi Arabia. Each enlargement of the American presence, there and in neighboring states, will make matters worse.

FBI agents are now in Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing. Greater CIA and FBI involvement in Saudi anti-terrorist intelligence and police operations will follow. American pressures on the Saudi government to adopt the policies Washington recommends will steadily increase.

The opposite effect

All of this will be directed to suppressing the radical Islamic movement and strengthening (and, no doubt, ''reforming'') the Saudi government. It will all have exactly the opposite effect.

One can today say with reasonable confidence that within 15 years at most, if present American and Saudi Arabian policies are pursued, the Saudi monarchy will be overturned, and a radical and anti-American government will take power in Riyadh.

The Persian Gulf War is likely in the future to be seen as the unnecessary victory that eventually led to America's expulsion from the Gulf and Arabian regions. It will be seen as having weakened the security of American access to Arabian oil.

It will be understood as having accomplished this by providing Washington with the rationale for substituting a large and permanent American military presence on the Arabian peninsula (35,000 American troops today in Saudi Arabia alone) for what previously had been an extremely discreet diplomatic and commercial presence. This will be seen as having undermined the pro-American governments of the region and strengthened radical Islamic movements.

One would think this blatantly obvious. Does no one currently in power in Washington -- or Riyadh -- understand what happened in Vietnam in the 1960s, in Cambodia after the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk and in Iran in the 1970s?

In each place an Asian government confronted with internal political dissidence or insurrection was placed under a form of American protectorate, with increasingly intrusive and visible American involvement in its national affairs. In each case the supposed remedy worsened the situation, drained legitimacy from the aided government, strengthened the forces in opposition and eventually produced, or contributed to, exactly the outcome it was meant to prevent.

I can think of no place where this American policy has succeeded. A foreign power can promote and finance an insurrection or coup in another country, or reinforce one already under way.

The United States has done so, wisely or otherwise, in Guatemala, Afghanistan, Chile, Greece and elsewhere.

However, a foreign power cannot put down another country's internal dissidence or rebellion, and its implication in such an effort is nearly always negative in effect.

Least of all can it do this when, as in Saudi Arabia, the foreign power's existing presence and influence are major factors in provoking that unrest and terrorism. Surely this is obvious.

Blame it on Iran

Recognition of the obvious is avoided in Washington by assigning responsibility for the unrest or insurrection to some foreign enemy of the United States. Only in Iran was this not done, and the Iranian revolution came out of the blue for Washington, prisoner of its own policy assumptions about the shah, which precluded considerations uncongenial to the policy commitment. Since then, every manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism has been held to be Iran's responsibility.

Palestinian activism and terrorism was for years blamed on Libya and Syria. The Viet Cong revolt in South Vietnam was blamed on China, alleged mastermind of a vast anti-Western uprising of the world's peasant societies. Nicaragua's fall to the Sandinistas, and Washington's other Central American difficulties, were blamed on Cuba. All could be solved if we could get at the source of the trouble -- Havana, Hanoi, Beijing. In the first hours after last week's attack in Dhahran there were calls in Washington for ''retaliation'' against Iran.

The notion that these insurrectionary movements can all be blamed on the manipulations of a ''rogue state'' saves one the necessity to consider their domestic sources or cultural dimensions. This in turn spares the United States the need for a critical review of its own policies.

It justifies the intellectually and bureaucratically convenient course of going on doing what one already is doing and has always done. That this will fail, as it has always failed before, does not seem to make any difference to the people who make and conduct American foreign policy.

One would think, however, that it might make a difference to the people who make policy in Riyadh.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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