NEW YORK — The media firestorm that erupted last week over whether Princess Haifa al Faisal, wife of Saudi Arabia's longtime ambassador to Washington and daughter of the late King Faisal, channeled official Saudi government funds to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers demonstrates the growing desperation in America to find a Saudi scapegoat to replace the still-talking head of public enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden.
It also highlights a structural incompatibility in the US-Saudi relationship: America's newfound, if somewhat hypocritical, need for transparency in political and financial dealings with a tribal society characterized by opaque paternalistic tradition.
Few caught up in the Saudi-bashing have paused to consider the constructive role Riyadh has played - and can still play - in important geopolitical events.
America has precious few friends in Islam's inner circle today. And it can ill afford to alienate those left at its side who understand US idiosyncrasies and can comprehensibly translate them into policies that dismantle from within the Islamist terrorism enterprise bent on destroying the West.
There has never been a time when the US needed Saudi Arabia's help more - nor a time the US has done more to insure it does not get it.
I have firsthand knowledge of a couple of examples that illustrate Saudi assistance in the least likely of circumstances. They were during the same years Princess Haifa allegedly enriching the bank accounts of hijackers neither she nor apparently anyone else knew were coming.
The Kargil Crisis, May 1999: When President Bill Clinton received intelligence reports that India and Pakistan might be preparing to assemble and deploy nuclear weapons at the height of the Kargil showdown in Kashmir, it was Saudi Arabia's defense minister (and Princess Haifa's father-in-law), Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who went to Pakistan to talk some sense into Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Prince Sultan then did something no other foreigner had ever been permitted to do: He toured Kahuta Research Laboratories, Pakistan's top-secret nuclear enrichment and missile assembly facilities. Contrary to press speculation then, he wasn't there shopping for bombs to blow Israel or Iran sky high (Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).
According to senior Pakistani officials I spoke with at the time, he was there representing the only country Washington and Islamabad both trusted to verify what the US could not verify for itself - that Pakistan had not readied its nuclear warheads at the height of the crisis and was therefore not beyond the breach of political intervention.
Mr. Clinton then proceeded to bring Mr. Sharif to Washington for a July 4 meeting that reversed Pakistan's adventurism at Kargil, and defused the very real threat of a fourth, possibly nuclear, Indo-Pakistani war.
Kashmir, the Ramadan cease-fire, November 2000: One of the key components of the cease-fire blueprint that I, as a private US citizen keenly interested in peace in Kashmir, proposed to both the Indian government and Kashmiri mujahedeen leaders, was the necessity to enlist Saudi clerical support for the proposal. For decades, Saudi money has flowed into Muslim regions of conflict around the world - Kashmir chief among them - to fund what the West views as terrorism but the Saudis view as freedom struggles. But with that money came extraordinary influence over the actions of men no Western authority could ever hope to control or contain.
New Delhi agreed. I can attest that important Saudi fundamentalist (Wahhabi) clerics - duplicitous as they were then and may still be today - called on numerous Kashmiri leaders to give peace talks with India a chance. I hand-carried an olive-branch letter from one of the key Mujahedeen leaders to Clinton in August 2000 that had the approval of Saudi clerics. And I was present in January 2001 on the Islamabad end of a phone conversation between a senior Indian intelligence official and a high-ranking Pakistani Islamist leader with close ties to the Saudis in Islamabad as the last components of the negotiations were being put in place. India's hard-liners, led by Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, then scuttled the effort - not Muslim extremists or Wahhabi clerics.
There's no question Saudi Arabia's religious and political institutions have played both sides of the fence in the rise of Muslim extremism. The US also had use for these radicals once when it was combating communism in the frontline states of the former Soviet Union.
But unraveling the complexities of radical Islam and its terrorist finances must be done in a way that doesn't again inadvertently set the West's friends against its own interests. The suffering of the families of Sept. 11 victims can't be compensated by lashing out against and alienating Islam's reasoned voices.
Only bin Laden's extremists win when unsupportable, hastily drawn conclusions mask the real debates needed to revitalize what is still one of the world's most important bilateral relationships.
• Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani descent, is chairman of The Crescent Partnerships in New York and foreign affairs/terrorism analyst for Fox News Network.