Keep One Eye on the Saudis

On the grand scorecard of deft diplomacy before war, the Bush administration lost at the UN. But its quiet diplomacy did win a big victory in the one nation that's been both a source of terrorism and is now pivotal to ending it.

With all the stealth of a B-2 bomber, Saudi Arabia silently let itself slip onto the list of unnamed nations offering support for a United States war on Iraq.

By allowing the US to fly aircraft over their long border with Iraq and use a key command facility near Riyadh, the Saudi royal leaders have made the war much easier for the American military. Their move is a signal that they want Saddam Hussein out. That breaks a tradition among Arab rulers not to seek one another's overthrow.

For the Saudi royal family, the potential risks and rewards are high. Public resentment toward the regime could rise, forcing more political repression and motivating more Saudis to join Al Qaeda (remember, 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis).

But if the US does set up a friendly government in Baghdad, it will end the Saudi need to have US forces on its territory as defense against a threatening Iraq. That will meet, albeit indirectly, a key demand by Osama bin Laden to remove the infidels from Islam's homeland, and thus perhaps weaken Al Qaeda's ability to recruit.

Despite that likely and likable outcome, the Saudis may have won a concession from President Bush for their permission: that the US take a strong stand for creating a Palestinian state under a US-drafted "road map" that Israel opposes. The US, too, may have won support from Saudi leaders for more political freedoms. That would allow Saudis to vent their frustrations peacefully at their own leaders instead of at the US.

All these steps are necessary to achieve Mr. Bush's vision of building a postwar, democratic Iraq that will spur reforms in Arab nations and quell terrorist tendencies. The Saudis seem to have bought into that vision.

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