Fix our Saudi partnership

Since Sept. 11, there have been many US op-ed and media attacks on Saudi Arabia - and angry Saudi replies. Most recently, some reports say Saudi Arabia may ask most or all US forces to leave its territory. Others report the United States is considering leaving on its own.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the US campaign in Afghanistan, have categorically denied such reports. But it is clear that senior US officials such as Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, do take the idea of US withdrawal seriously.

This is precisely the wrong approach. We need to fix our strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, not break it. The US bases there should stay put.

Yes, the Saudis can still do more to help in the war on terrorism, but their leadership has now strongly condemned the attacks, as have some leading Saudi clergy.

Saudi Arabia is also providing military facilities for the war; acting to roll up terrorist elements inside Saudi Arabia and provide intelligence; and slowly making progress in cutting off the financing of extremist elements. It is doing all this at the cost of increased hostility from Islamic extremists and in spite of the explosiveness of US-Israeli ties in Saudi public opinion.

If we pull away from the Saudis, Osama bin Laden will have won a major victory. But a US presence - vital in helping Saudi Arabia modernize its forces, containing Iraq, and defending a region with two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves - is well worth keeping, even if it does provide a visible irritant to some Arabs and Muslims.

BOTH THE US and Saudi Arabia need to reassert the primacy of their mutual interests by ending their counterproductive public feuding and working together to fight terrorism in three vital areas:

• Replacing the Taliban in Afghanistan with a government that has the outside support to evolve toward a modern state that serves the needs of all its peoples.

• Rooting out Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that pollute the name of Islam throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, and ensuring that the financing and support of Islamic causes serve faith, not murder.

• Implementing a broader strategy to isolate terrorist movements and regimes in the Persian Gulf and worldwide.

The US must make clear that it shares Arab concerns about civilian casualties and the costs of eliminating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia must recognize that compromise and temporizing have failed to moderate Hussein or halt his proliferation efforts. Saudi Arabia and the United States fought together against Hussein's aggression. We need to revitalize that partnership in dealing with Hussein in the future.

If this means war with Iraq, we will need Saudi bases, Saudi military efforts to secure Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and Saudi help in building a new moderate regime in Iraq. At the same time, the US and Saudi Arabia need to cooperate in deterring Iran and dealing with the growing threat of nuclear proliferation.

It is important to note that any major US withdrawal from Saudi Arabia would cripple Saudi forces by leaving them without advisers and technical support for more than $100 billion worth of US weapons. The US would be left without key staging and basing facilities to deter both Iraq and Iran. A major power vacuum would result.

We need to ask the Saudis to join us to create a cease-fire and forge a peace that gives Israel true security while creating a viable Palestinian state. We may not be able to agree on exactly what an Arab-Israeli peace should be, but we cannot abandon a common effort to create a cease-fire and move both sides toward negotiations.

We cannot deal with the second intifada, and the hatreds it engenders, by choosing one side over the other, by accusing one side of "terrorism" or "excessive force," or by standing aside because there are no good options that will satisfy both sides. Both sides in this intifada are spinning out of control and need help to create a meaningful future.

Finally, we must address the underlying causes of terrorism and extremism.

The lack of past economic reform and massive population growth in Saudi Arabia are reducing real per capita income and creating much unemployment and instability. At the same time, Saudi Arabia does have valid economic-reform plans that can help bring internal stability and put an end to many of the underlying causes of terrorism.

Saudi Arabia has a serious interest in joining the World Trade Organization, in creating an importer-exporter dialogue to stabilize oil prices and create a secure source of exports, and opening up its economy to foreign investment.

The key to encouraging stability is not to make impractical efforts to export our political system. Rather, we should help Saudi Arabia implement economic reform and cut population growth in ways that will aid its people, allow them to modernize their society and economy, and prepare the way for political evolution.

• Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a former official in the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy.

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