Is US policy promoting a 'Saudi Qaddafi'?

Growing indications of Saudi Arabian pressure on the United States to forestall a massive Israeli invasion of Beirut almost certainly portend some form of political backlash. Once the immediate crisis ends, we can expect self-serving complaints about succumbing to oil blackmail or self-righteous protestations that we have earned the right to collect our rewards from the ''moderate Arabs'' without further American initiatives in the political thickets of the Middle East.

Before we succumb to such self-centered views, we had better examine the sorts of pressure which we have brought to bear on the Saudis and the gratitude which we have ourselves demonstrated.

The US has persistently urged that the Saudi kingdom restrain oil prices by producing at a rate which generates income beyond its capacity to absorb. When the Saudis did so, we told the world that Saudi policies had been motivated solely by economic optimization. We tantalized the Saudis' appetites for our most sophisticated military hardware, hoping thereby to reduce unit costs for our defense budget and to recycle our petrodollars. When they succumbed, we rewarded Saudi expenditures with humiliating conditions on how they could employ that hardware.

We emboldened them to provide a moderate lead within the incessant Arab councils on the Palestinian issue. When then Crown Prince Fahd went out on a limb with his eight-point peace plan, we almost didn't notice. We insistently sought Saudi support in the superpower confrontation. When they responded diplomatically by abjuring relations with the Soviet Union and operationally by prepositioning a military infrastructure and arms depot for tacit American use, we carped about the lack of willingness to stand up and be counted.

It thus becomes clear that ''debt'' and ''gratitude'' are - like beauty - in the eyes of the beholder.

To be sure, we can produce explanations as to why each of those Saudi decisions is motivated by self-interest: apprehension about pricing Saudi oil out of future markets; fear of Iranian attack; concern about a humiliated and radicalized Palestinian movement; and suspicion about Soviet designs. But this presumes that the Saudi leadership is less concerned about Islamic and Arab issues than it is about economic and global concerns. That is an extraordinarily perilous presumption, for it virtually guarantees the overthrow of the monarchy by other Saudis with a different set of priorities.

Lest we have any doubt, we need only recall a time when a similar set of appearances was created in an oil-rich desert kingdom which also based its legitimacy on identification with an austere religious revival and its security upon Bedouin tribal levies. That was in Libya in 1969.

It is easy to forget that Libya's oil production and pricing policies had made it the third largest exporter in the world - ahead of Saudi Arabia! That its billion-dollar purchase of a British Aircraft Corporation air defense system employing state-of-the-art communications and radar capabilities ranked as the largest arms transaction ever in 1968. That Libya strove mightily to avoid involvement in the radical Arab efforts to liberate Palestine. Or that it was perceived as the most open Arab supporter of the US strategic position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Again, it was easy to attribute each of those decisions to self-interest - but not all Libyans saw it that way.

Specifically, a handful of company-grade Libyan Army officers led by Captain Muammar Qaddafi had a very different view, one which had been soured by the bitter bile of that other Arab humiliation in the Six Day War which occurred precisely 15 years before the latest invasion of Lebanon. Surely no one in the US knows whether there is ''a Saudi Qaddafi'' who similarly views the kingdom's policy as an abdication of national, Arab, and Islamic interests in order to accommodate American interests. But we do know that the Saudi monarchy cannot be confident that there is not.

Therefore we must anticipate a healthy desire to put some distance between the Saud family and the US in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion. American failure to accept that reality - and to accommodate it by establishing our Middle Eastern priorities - will only perpetuate that perception which has led to the overthrow of more than one oil-rich monarchy. This time the stakes are simply too great to risk another Qaddafi.

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