The trouble when two priorities become threeTony Blair’s latest foray into the Arab world reflects his conviction that the West must fight and win the battle for Muslim public opinion. Britain, he believes, is particularly well suited to the task of explaining, to audiences that will often be both anti-American and uninformed, why terrorists have to be confronted and quashed.
His theme is that Islamic terrorism must be thwarted in its goal of erecting a barrier of hate and fear between the Muslim and Western worlds, and that this conflict should be understood not as a war of religion but as a power struggle launched by enemies of prosperity and civil peace in their own societies as well as those of the West. He is anxious in particular to assure both rulers and publics of British and American good faith, of their determination to bring good out of evil in return for their co-operation in pursuing and grinding down the networks of terror.
This is the sort of thing Mr Blair does very well. But it is stony ground. The Saudi decision not even to receive a British Prime Minister was a small victory for Osama bin Laden — a victory timidly, unwisely and unnecessarily handed to their most implacable enemy by the House of Saud. The appeasement of al-Qaeda or any of its allied networks, most especially by Muslim rulers fearful of being branded “traitors” to Islam, will prolong the conflict unleashed on September 11 and add to its dangers for Muslims as well as the West. That ought by now to be apparent even to the most self-deluding of Arab elites. But it is not.
Saudi Arabia’s caution is in line with its long habit of giving a free hand to religious militancy, at home and abroad. That habit has come home to haunt it — and to haunt the West. The authority of the House of Saud rests on two main pillars and one assumption. The pillars are Western political and military support and the loyalty of the deeply puritanical Wahhabi tribe; the assumption is that they are owed respect as the hereditary guardians of two of Islam’s three holiest shrines. Bin Laden has declared the assumption to be invalid and many Arabs agree. He will not rest until the “infidel” US troops are driven from Arabian soil and, without Western protection, the regime would be gravely at risk. Its overthrow and replacement by a Taleban-like medieval caliphate is a primary and explicit bin Laden aim.
The traditional Saudi response, which is to purchase loyalty, is no longer sustainable because the kingdom is deeply in debt. That gives the West some modest leverage, at least on the question of depriving Islamist terrorism of funds. Of the 369 terrorist organisations that, on American estimates, exist worldwide, 126 are in the Islamic world and most of them are active mainly against their own governments. “Private” Saudi foundations, mostly royal, have for many years bankrolled a disturbingly high proportion of them. They have also financed religious schools which are often the only education available to the poor. Many of these “schools” are indoctrination centres from which jobless youths emerge brimming with religious hatred. Some are terrorist boot camps; Saudi money financed al-Qaeda and Taleban camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan; some 10,000 Saudi graduates of these camps, volunteers for jihad, are now thought to have returned to the kingdom. They mix with unemployed and increasingly radicalised youths for whom bin Laden is a hero.
State toleration of terror, which is what this pattern of patronage has amounted to, can be as dangerous as state sponsorship. Saudi Arabia has to be told that September 11 has left them no choice; they can no longer hope to buy these people off for the sake of a quiet life. It will not be excused; and it will not work. It must stop. If that can be phrased in terms of a common interest, so much the better. But the Saudis do not want to be told the truth.
The West’s dilemmas over Riyadh illustrate in particularly acute form a wider problem. The West may be fighting the good fight, but it is forced to court as allies in this struggle some of the most reactionary and unpopular regimes around, regimes which give terrorists purchase by their failures to provide proper education, skills and economic opportunities. The West’s long-term goals must be to persuade these governments to lower the barriers of privilege and to curb the bad behaviour of their elites, both Islamic and “unIslamic”. Both Britain and America are acutely aware that if they are to crush the roots of terrorism, they must deal with the political and cultural troubles that blight the Arab world. That was Mr Blair’s message this week.
Yet in the short term, the priorities are quite different. The West may find itself demanding that already repressive regimes become more repressive, more ruthless in rooting out networks which, in the Saudi case, they have fostered to their now considerable peril. The Saudi snub to Mr Blair was an indication that in the coming months America and Britain will have a rough time in the Middle East. They may also find themselves more hated in the region than they have ever been. Western and Arab short-term goals may not mesh and in the course of heated disputes, long-term interests may appear to diverge. The allies may win over Muslim intellectuals but stay on the losing side in the battle for the streets; it is even possible that they are mistaken in believing that the great mass of Muslims would be horrified if they knew what al-Qaeda’s real goals were.
Above all, and particularly if this unavoidable struggle continues for years without clear-cut results, it may expose the unspoken difficulties of reconciling the West’s two fundamental priorities in the Middle East, secure access to the Gulf’s oil, and Israel’s existence within secure borders. In Israel, deterioration is almost inevitable at this phase; terrorist groups such as Hamas — supported by Riyadh — will be at their most confident; no diplomatic initiative has much hope of surviving their sabotage. In the medium term, the West may find itself giving Yassir Arafat active military support against these groups — in return for putting enormous pressure on Israel to withdraw from virtually all the West Bank and its settlements there in a revival of some version of the Oslo process that reached a dead end last year at Camp David.
But first the West has to get to the point where it can deal with these things. They are not for phase one. The US presence in the region, far from being reduced, is going to be increased. Its influence will be less, not more, discreet. Regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s will be more nervous, not less. The attacks on America aimed not just to kill thousands of people but to provoke war between the West and Islam, drive the US out of the Middle East and destroy Israel. The West can defeat all these threats; it cannot fight on every front at once.