We can only hope that our current president will not now, in his efforts to make the world safe from terrorism, instead make the world safe for Wahhabism, the last remaining totalitarianism of our time…

WahhabismThere have been more than a dozen Islamic terrorist attacks perpetrated in the United States. They mostly fall within the last quarter century, from the 1993 attacks on the Twin Towers and CIA Headquarters to more recent events at Ohio State University and the Orlando nightclub massacre in 2016. In between, we have witnessed such horrors as 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, the brutal killings at Little Rock and Fort Hood, and the San Bernardino murders. These assaults on the American homeland have one thing in common that the government never seems to mention: all the perpetrators — not some, not many, not most — all were Sunni Muslims. Ask the average American to hazard a guess about how many of the Islamic terrorist attacks were directly or indirectly supported by the Shi’a Islamic regime of Iran and I suspect the vast majority would assume Iran must be responsible for many of them. But the reality is quite different: Iran had nothing to do with any of them. Zero. An even more important question to ask is how many of the terrorists were influenced, indoctrinated, or inspired by the Wahhabi heresy that is fostered and funded throughout the world by our ally Saudi Arabia? The reality is startling: the principles and beliefs espoused by the Wahhabi cult have contributed to all the Islamic terrorist attacks on American soil. All. 

All of this is not to say that Iran is not a dangerous regime; but the threat from Iran has been grossly exaggerated by successive administrations, especially those of the last four: Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump. Iran, like any Muslim state, has a long and sometimes distorted view of history. It has not forgotten our success in undermining its democratically-elected president in the Fifties, nor our support for the Shah, nor our shooting down of a civilian airliner in 1988, killing over 300 men, women and children. We too, uncharacteristically, have a lengthy if sometimes distorted memory of Iran. We recall clearly how Iran kept hostage and brutally mistreated our diplomats for over a year, and how they have attacked American interests and personnel overseas, most notably the terrorist attacks on our Beirut embassy in 1983 and 1984 and the slaughter of 241 Marines in the suicide bombing of their compound in Lebanon in 1983 in retaliation for our decision to shell certain Lebanese villages in support of one side in the Lebanese civil war. Iran tediously and absurdly characterizes America as the “Great Satan.” We do not use those same words, but in truth we see Iran also as the Great Satan, but prefer terms like “thuggish” and “criminal,” and our State Department never tires of tediously referring to Iran as the worst “state-sponsor of terrorism.” 

The Iranian Threat

Iran is responsible for the deaths of Americans. Iran distrusts and disdains us. Iran has considerable nuclear expertise and may someday have a nuclear weapon. But for all the animosity between Iran and the United States, Iran is not a serious threat to us. Iran is in a sense a traditional adversary more like China or Russia, with national interests it seeks to protect and advance, whereas Saudi Arabia, by its very nature is an evangelizing and proselytizing entity that seeks to erode and eradicate all other faiths and cultures by promoting its odious brand of Islam. The prospect of a nuclear Iran is a legitimate concern, but is far less worrisome than either a nuclear Pakistan or nuclear North Korea, both of which already exist. Moreover, while it has attacked U.S. interests and personnel, it does so only when it believes it is doing so in retaliation. This does not justify their actions, but it places them in a context that differs fundamentally from the threat posed by Sunni extremists, who regularly rely on mass civilian casualties and see themselves in a life or death struggle with nonbelievers and apostates. Iran does not pose a long-term threat to our way of life, whereas the Wahhabi-inspired terrorists do.

If this is so, then why have successive American presidents sided repeatedly with Saudi Arabia, even after the devastation of 9/11? Partly because the Saudis sponsor terrorism individually and through nongovernmental organizations; it is not their official policy to do so. In other words, they do what any clever organized crime family would do: they distance themselves through various cutouts from the dirty work they sponsor and direct. As part of this policy they know when to keep their mouths shut. Those who rule Saudi Arabia also think America is the “Great Satan,” but they never say it. They know better.  They know America is useful right now in their struggle against Iran and other apostate states. And they know, as does any Arab worth his salt, how to praise and fete visitors, overwhelming them with flowery compliments and gifts. But what they think is something entirely different. As one example, compare the reactions among Iranians and Saudis in the aftermath of 9/11.  In Tehran, during a soccer game, 60,000 Iranians stood for a minute of respectful silence to honor the dead. At the same time, according to a good Saudi friend of mine who was appalled by what he witnessed, in office buildings in Riyadh white collar workers were literally dancing on their desks and praising God for the murder of 3,000 innocents. (A more recent example of the sentiment of the average Saudi citizen was demonstrated a few days ago when all but one of the Saudi football (soccer) team refused to stand for a minute of silence for the victims of the recent terrorist attack in England.) 

Another reason for our distorted view of Iran is that our closest ally in the Middle East–Israel–does see Iran as its greatest threat. That Iran funds violent groups like Hamas and Hezbollah is a constant source of trouble for our Israeli ally, but it too is mistaken to think the more immediate threat from Iran is the greater threat. They somehow have been fooled into thinking that because Iran says loudly what most of the other Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, fervently believe — that Israel has no right to exist — that it is the greater threat. In 2003, it was not Iran, but Iraq that Israel saw as its greatest threat, and pushed us to attack. But as we painfully learned in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, what is in Israel’s best interest is not always in our own best interest. Pursuing one’s own best interests is something the Israelis readily understand and they cannot be faulted for pressing an agenda that would make them safer in the short run, even if it causes greater risks to us and greater turmoil worldwide. It is the duty of their leaders, after all, to keep them as safe as possible. But our own leaders can be faulted for failing to put our own best interests first. This is particularly frustrating given that our current president had insisted that he would never allow any other country’s interests to become paramount to our own. 

The Damage Wrought by Wahhabism: An Existential Threat

Most of my former colleagues at the State Department lament that President Trump’s “policy of realism” betrays our true values and will erode our chances to promote democracy and freedom and eliminate terrorism. I disagree. The real problem is that President Trump’s policy is not one of realism; it is instead a policy of cynicism. And cynicism is not a deeper, more profound realism.  Cynicism in its own way is unrealistic and prone toward its own fantasies—in this instance it ignores the profound threat Saudi Arabia poses and refuses to see in a clear-eyed manner the dangers that lurk in the long-term from continuing to support Saudi Arabia and allowing it to continue propagating its virulent, anti-Western message. 

In my 35 years as an American diplomat I have seen first-hand the damage caused by the spread of Saudi-sponsored intolerance. In Cambodia, the Cham (Islamic) community had a centuries-old form of Islam that was both tolerant and dynamic.  Unfortunately, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide against the Cham, much of that community’s traditions and history were lost, and over the last several decades Wahhabi “scholars” and teachers have gradually infiltrated and twisted certain segments of that community. The Saudi poison has not infested the entire Cham community, but some Cham village do not welcome outsiders — even foreign diplomats — and some Cham women can now be seen wearing the black abaya and even the niqab of the desert tribes. In Bahrain, long an oasis of tolerance and openness, we have witnessed a tremendous erosion in human rights and far greater divisions between the Sunni minority who rule and the Shi’a majority who are kept underfoot. In Morocco, a country where French culture once mixed and blended easily with a devout but open Islam, there has been an upsurge in extremist views as Saudi money has poured in. The same for Sri Lanka where that country’s small Muslim community once stood out as the only true “moderates” in a nation full of Buddhist and Hindu extremists. Finally, Egypt, a country of immense culture and long history, full of people who appreciate laughter and were respectful of other faiths, has gradually declined since I first served there in the more tolerant, less turbulent period of the early 1980’s. What is true of all these countries is also true of much of Europe and even now the United States.  

The mistake that successive American presidents make is in focusing on the perpetrators of specific acts of terrorism instead of acknowledging and combating the underlying philosophy that justifies and legitimizes those acts of violence. It is of no value that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states voice disapproval of terrorism and decry the violence perpetrated by terrorists if at the same time they espouse and support principles of intolerance and religious fanaticism that have been embraced by these same violent extremists. While individual acts of terrorism are frightening and gain media attention, it is Saudi funding of Wahhabism throughout the world, including in America, that is the long-term threat to our open society. As in Europe, an increasing Muslim population that is increasingly intolerant and convinced of its own moral superiority is an existential threat to Western civilization. But because the threat is long-term and grows only gradually, it is not confronted. Consider the laughter and eye rolls that would have been generated had someone warned back in the 1960s that an increasingly militant Muslim immigrant population would someday pose an ongoing terrorist threat to European security.

“Four Preludes” to War?

The lesson learned from the Iraq invasion is that the American people have little patience anymore for an extended land war and costly nation building efforts. But an air campaign with few American casualties is still politically viable — regardless of the number of civilians killed or the risks to regional stability — and that is where we are slowly heading. That we will conduct an aerial campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites is not yet inevitable, but we are in the early stages of “preparing the battlefield,” to employ a term my Department of Defense colleagues never tire of using. 

The first indication of this was President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. While he praised his hosts as dependable allies, he chose to ignore their deplorable record on religious freedom, women’s rights, and mistreatment of minorities and guest workers. Frankly, I think the President was right to say that we are not going to lecture other countries and that we will have a more realistic foreign policy. But there is a wide chasm between nagging other states on how to conduct their internal affairs and blindly embracing them as allies. If they do not share our values, they should at least share our interests. This is especially true when the internal policies of a country such as Saudi Arabia have had such a serious negative impact on our way of life and our security. In this instance, to ignore Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi roots is decidedly “unrealistic” and ultimately against our national interests. 

Second, the entire fanciful and infantile notion of an “Arab NATO” — do none of them recall CENTO and the farce it was? — suggests that what is being considered is a coalition of diverse and divisive nations who share only one commonality: a shared fear of Iran and disdain for their own Shi’a citizens.   While ISIS remains a threat to the Saudi monarchy, there is really no doubt that given a choice of eliminating their Sunni brothers in ISIS and annihilating the Iranian apostates, the Saudis would enthusiastically choose the latter.  (Having served in Bahrain I might add that given a choice between destroying ISIS or destroying its arch-nemesis, Qatar, the increasingly despotic Bahraini monarchy would also readily choose the latter.)  One wonders what happened to campaign promises about avoiding future foreign entanglements and then willfully placing America in the unenviable position of choosing Sunni Muslims over Shi’a Muslims in a religious schism that has festered for centuries and that few of us really understand.  

The other two recent steps toward “preparing the battlefield” are subtler, but also more worrisome. President Trump included in his Riyadh speech a sharp warning wrapped in silk: we “pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” That is almost codeword for: we love the Iranian people and we are really sorry if some hundreds or thousands of you have to die, but you need to know that we intend you no harm as we undermine your semi-democratic government. The President’s phrasing is eerily reminiscent of what former President Bush said upon invading Iraq: “we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty. And when the dictator has departed, they can set an example to all the Middle East…” 

The last indication is so obvious it is odd it has not been mentioned even by the President’s detractors: the decision not to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. After having given absolute assurances that the embassy would be moved, suddenly the move will be delayed. There are many good reasons for not moving the embassy, but all those reasons were dismissed until after the Saudi visit. Clearly the Saudis warned President Trump that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would destroy any prospect for building a coalition against Iran. Even so, President Trump may have been inclined to still move the embassy — except that the Israelis, who have been pressing for the embassy move for decades, quietly informed him that defeating Iran was a higher priority than the symbolic value of an American Embassy in Jerusalem. The silence from Israel when President Trump reneged on his promise to move the embassy has been deafening.  

What Is to Be Done

We have been reading about Saudi efforts to “reform” their country for many decades now. Like Charlie Brown and the football, we never pass up the chance to be duped. Moreover, most of the so-called reforms now being planned are economic and do not touch upon bringing Saudi Arabia into the modern world of religious tolerance, democratic governance, and gender equality. It is particularly intriguing to have the Saudis tout the establishment of an “anti-terror” headquarters — officially dubbed the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology — in Riyadh. This will prove as useful as it has been to have Saudi Arabia as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We will shortly realize that this Presidentially-lauded “anti-terror” headquarters will be used primarily to oppose Shi’a terrorist groups and those Sunni terrorists that threaten the debauched Gulf monarchies.

If you want to stop Islamic terrorist attacks in the West you must begin with Saudi Arabia. You must end there too. The House of Saud that has ruthlessly ruled Saudi Arabia since its inception is an historical aberration and a moral abomination.  Disturbingly, the West treats Saudi Arabia in an asymmetrical manner. While Saudi Arabia can proselytize and has expended upwards of 100 billion dollars building mosques and Islamic centers throughout the world, other religions are strictly prohibited throughout Saudi Arabia. One cannot even have a Christmas tree there without risking punishment, and all non-Islamic religious services are criminal acts. One cannot win a war — either a war of armies or of ideas — if only one side is allowed to act offensively and has an unassailable safe haven from which to direct and assert its influence. Thus, there should be an immediate moratorium on all Saudi funding of mosques and centers until it allows the free practice of other religions on its soil. Window dressing like the anti-terror center and pledges not to support any form of terrorism should fool no one. They are useless. Nor will it matter if the Trump Administration eventually succeeds in its travel ban of some visitors from seven Muslims countries — or even all 22 member states of the Arab League. Nor will it matter how much he improves and expands our military. It won’t matter even if he neutralizes Iran’s nuke reactors. The real problem has been and remains Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis are serious about ending its war on the West then it must begin by opening its own country to all religious practices.  Anything short of that is just pretense. 

Many Muslims will be outraged by this suggestion, but there would be nothing more therapeutic for Islam than for its believers to see themselves as equal members in a broad and diverse world community. For as long as Saudi Arabia has no churches, temples, and synagogues, there remains the implicit sense that Islam is paramount to all other faiths. Furthermore, there is a moral dimension that the United States refuses to deal with honestly.  The expulsion of Jews and Christians from the Saudi peninsula during the reign of the second caliph, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, was nothing short of ethnic and religious cleansing. This crime against humanity needs someday to be redressed. There have been many ethnic and religious cleansings in Europe as well, most notably the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the succeeding expulsion of Muslim converts in the early years of the 17th century. But the Spanish countryside is now dotted with mosques and the Jews have returned and practice their faith freely. The same is not true in Saudi Arabia and while this aberration continues Saudi Arabia will never truly reform and become a modern and respectable state. 

While ceasing Saudi funding of mosques and opening Saudi Arabia to other religious practices is the most salutary means to eliminate terrorism in the long term, other reforms that would contribute to lessening the threat of terrorism would include equal rights for women, fairer treatment of foreign workers, and recognizing Israel. Until Saudi Arabia starts to undertake these serious reforms, it is useless — indeed, dangerous — to consider it an ally. We should, of course, not interfere with the internal affairs of any state. If the Saudis wish to continue to live in the seventh century, that is their right. But until they join the modern world, they ought not to count on us for protection or cooperation.

This is hard for any American administration to accept because of our long-standing relations with that despotic regime. But if any president might have broken with the past mistakes and missteps of our country, it might have been this one which is generally not timid about re-thinking our policies despite the weight of inertia and the risk of looking politically incorrect. But what could be more politically correct and historically laughable than counting on Saudi Arabia? To rely on Saudi Arabia is in the end a betrayal of American interests and values, and also a forsaking of all those Muslims who strive to assimilate and support our open society.

1917 and 2017

In 1917 another American president, overwhelmingly arrogant and sure of his understanding of the world, foolishly entangled us in World War I and launched a great crusade to make the world safe for democracy. In so doing he unwittingly helped make the world safe for fascism and communism, the totalitarian ideologies of that time. We can only hope that our current president will not now, in his efforts to make the world safe from terrorism, instead make the world safe for Wahhabism, the last remaining totalitarianism of our time. 

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