Abdullah vs. Osama
Triangulation, the trick Dick Morris taught Bill Clinton, is one of the most elegant jujitsu maneuvers in politics. The leaders of the Arab world may need Morris’s advice as they plan their response to Cheney’s Godfather charm offensive.
The Bush Administration wants to attack Iraq. This is a potentially disastrous plan. It is quite likely to harm U.S. long term interests. But when Bush wants to play Rambo, it is not wise to stand in the way. The problem for Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan, and the rest of the Arab leaders, is that their own hold of power may be lost in the chaos.
The house of Saud is in the most precarious position. So much so that many of the princes prudently hold their vast personal wealth in foreign banks. Other Arab regimes are also vulnerable, though not to the same extent.
The problem of these autocrats is a severe lack of legitimacy, which the rise of fundamentalist Islam has transformed into a concrete possibility of revolution. The rulers are perceived as corrupt and irreligious servants of the Western interests.
The most important indicator of this challenge of legitimacy is the popularity of Osama bin Laden. Rumor has it that Osama is a fashionable name today with many Gulf parents. This is so even in Kuwait, the very country the U.S. saved from the Iraqi invasion only a decade ago. The popularity of bin Laden in Saudi Arabia is probably much higher.
That popularity is easy to misunderstand. Gulf residents are not admiring the same aspect of bin Laden’s career that made him a symbol of evil in America. The most formidable and noted proof is the curtain of refusal to accept bin Laden’s responsability to the attack on the twin towers.
While bin Laden is identified in the West with fundamentalism, hatred and murder, Arabs identify with his underdog status, and his firm stand against the United States. The holding power of conspiracy theories that exonerate bin Laden is evidence of a "cognitive dissonance." These theories allow people to admire him while dissociating themselves from the murder of thousands of innocent people. Bin Laden captured the imagination of so many Arabs less for his religious beliefs and criminal actions as for what he symbolizes; a proud Arab stand against the United States.
The servile relation between Arab rulers and the U.S., especially in the context of the boiling Palestinian Intifada, is the lens that focuses the accumulating frustrations of Arabs against their governments. After all other languages and solutions have been denied and defeated, fundamentalism remains the only successful model of resistance. Therein lies the danger, as much to the West as to the Arab world itself.
There is a loud American chorus admonishing Arabs, and Saudis in particular, to reform themselves. The common prescriptions include keeping a tight lid on Islam, a more westernized school curriculum, and other medications that one hopes the Arab world would not rush to take, because they are likely to exacerbate the disease.
If the root cause of Arab popular support for fundamentalism is the servile relation between the Arab rulers and the West, it is a folly to push more westernization as the solution. This is the disastrous path the Shah of Iran took. A medicine that works must begin with a change in this unhealthy relation, and that change must come from within the Arab world itself.
That is why the current situation, the coincidence of the Intifada and the U.S. decision to attack Iraq, presents the leaders of the Arab world with a unique opportunity. They can triangulate fundamentalism.
The Sauds have so far seen Palestinian independence as a threat. They have made periodic gestures of halfhearted protest in defense of Arafat, but their heart was not in it. Yet the Intifada has become a powerful source of pride for Arabs everywhere. The Intifada has moved to the center of Arab identity and is now the touchstone for evaluating Arab governments.
Meanwhile, the contradictions between the traditional legitimacy of the Sauds, fundamentalist Wahabism, and their international position as a U.S. client regime is reaching its limits.
The solution is in plain sight: a quiet retreat on the religious front, coupled with a noisy adoption of the nationalist one.
Suppose Crown Prince Abdullah, backed by a number of other Arab leaders, were to steal bin Laden’s core appeal without adopting his ideology. The Prince could challenge the U.S. by adopting a tough nationalist stance: either the U.S. controls Sharon and forces Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, or there will be zero cooperation on the Iraqi front and everything else.
The longstanding U.S. support for Israel would still create a contradiction, but that is a "good" contradiction. On the one hand, adopting a confrontational tone against the U.S. is the first and essential step in gaining legitimacy at home. On the other hand, such confrontation can end well. The U.S. will never accommodate Islamic fundamentalism, whereas her antagonism towards an independent Palestinian state is merely opportunistic.
Abdullah’s cards are very good. His best card is that Americans know they cannot afford to weaken him.
There are obstacles to such a strategy. Creating a unified Arab front might be quite difficult. And the fear of U.S. wrath can be debilitating. But the biggest obstacle is the belief in the common fallacy that applying half the solution can solve half the problem.
It seems Arabs leaders do recognize the necessity to wrench some concessions from the U.S. on both the handling of Israel and the plan to attack Iraq. The recently proposed Saudi peace plan, as well as the cool reception Jordanian Abdullah II gave Cheney, are proof of that. Earlier, Saudi Arabia has also signaled that U.S. bases in the kingdom have become a political liability and need to be trimmed.
Yet getting concessions is not enough, and even reviving the defunct peace is not enough. Paradoxically, a conciliatory and cooperative tone towards the U.S. might further undermine the Saud’s legitimacy even if it succeeds. The perception would simply be that the Prince is appeasing the fundamentalists. That will only increase the pressure on him.
In order to cash in on the Intifada, Abdullah will need to find his voice as a leader of a proud nation. He will have to walk a tightrope between confronting the U.S. and alienating her, steering the Middle East towards peace not as a supplicant, but as an essential power broker.
So far, it is not clear whether Abdullah has the vision, the feel, or the stomach for such a gambit. Let’s hope he does, because nobody knows if there will be a second chance.