One morning 22 years ago I was flying to Riyadh to meet with King Faisal, the Saudi monarch.
At the time, I was chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Middle East, and US policy in the Gulf was deeply reliant on the shah in Iran. Ties with Saudi Arabia were growing, but the American intelligence community was edgy about its stability - especially if anything were to happen to King Faisal, who was highly regarded inside and outside of Saudi Arabia.
I never met with King Faisal because he was assassinated by a nephew with a personal grudge. To the relief of the foreign community, the transfer of power to Faisal's brother, Khalid, was seamless.
Some two decades later Saudi Arabia is now our closest ally in the Gulf and Iran is seen as a rogue state. The only thing that remains the same is we continue to wring our hands about Saudi stability.
Following the Khobar bombing in June 1996, the Central Intelligence Agency took the unusual step of subjecting Saudi Arabia to the same "hard target" analysis applied to Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Despite the CIA's conclusion that Saudi Arabia is politically stable even though King Fahd is in poor health, we can expect gloomy predictions for Saudi Arabia to continue.
Iran still haunts US
There are a number of reasons for this. Not all of them are sound. To begin with, we are still haunted by our experience in Iran. It has become the Middle East version of the 1950s refrain, "Who lost China?" The sudden collapse of this close ally and the taking of US hostages made a searing impression on America.
The US ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, sent the famous cable entitled "Thinking the Unthinkable" to Washington in November 1978, only two months before the shah had to leave Iran. Nobody wants to be caught unaware again, and there is an enduring Chicken Little mentality that overlooks the tremendous differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Grievances against the shah were so extensive they bound together a disparate collection of opposition groups. Key members of the merchant class, academia, the left, and others threw in with Khomeini just to be rid of the shah. No such coalition is remotely visible today in Saudi Arabia, though Saudi Arabia does face real challenges.
Its booming population has created employment pressure while, for the decade prior to 1996, oil revenues declined in real terms. There are complaints of corruption and calls for broader involvement in decisionmaking.
Unlike the shah, however, the Saudi royal family is seen by the large majority of the Saudis as politically, culturally, and religiously authentic. Criticism is almost always in the context of modifying the present system rather than overthrowing it. In that regard, Iran provides Saudis with a stark reminder of the perils of rapid, uncontrolled change.
Another factor that stokes our concern with Saudi stability is a preoccupation with liberal democracy in our foreign relations. This is a red herring. Given the choice, most Americans prefer the American political system. I, for one, believe it is the best with regard to human rights and political participation.
However, lest we forget, this is an ongoing American experiment that includes minor aberrations such as the Alien and Sedition Act in 1798 and fundamental reckonings such as the Civil War. These are meaningful episodes to Americans.
Our allies, on the other hand, have their own histories and, just as we would repudiate any state conditioning their relationship on a need to alter our political system, they resent heavy-handed US pressure.
Furthermore, if it is stability we prize, the current heads of state in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention Syria, Libya, and Iraq (effectively), are all the same as when I toured the region in 1975. Saudi Arabia has had two heads of state in that time. Over the same period we have had six presidents and any number of policy changes.
Saudi Arabia still young
When considering the political development of other countries, it is useful to recall the US timeline. Saudi Arabia was founded 65 years ago in 1932. America at 65 saw the first large wagon train set out from Independence, Mo., on the Oregon Trail in 1841. Consider the uneasiness we might have felt if foreign troops were stationed on US soil or the British were helping to investigate an attack on a British citizen. This is not to say that FBI director Louis Freeh and others are not justifiably frustrated by elements of Saudi cooperation, but what seems straightforward to us may be less simple to Saudi Arabia - especially when it comes to internal issues.
The alliance will last
At the end of the day, we need to understand that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to go the way of Iran or the United States. Most important, the salient facts of the US-Saudi relationship are likely to remain intact for the foreseeable future. We will continue to be the primary guarantor of Saudi Arabia's security against threats from external enemies. Saudi Arabia will remain a moderating economic and political force in the region and a swing producer of oil in times of crisis. In short, a valuable ally.
Finally, it is slightly disingenuous to wonder about Saudi stability without assessing the impact of US policy on that stability. Our increased military presence on the ground throughout the Gulf has been sought by US military planners for years and was enabled by the Gulf war. Certainly, we are better prepared to defend Saudi Arabia from external attack than we were in 1991.
But the bombings in Khobar in 1996 and in Riyadh in November 1995 targeted the US presence. If the ultimate goal is Saudi stability and the free flow of oil, we need to be aware of the implications of our role in Saudi Arabia.
Terrorism is the instrument of the weak and should not be acceded to. We need to understand terrorism, however, and the environment from which it derives. Steps such as moving US troops farther out into the desert may help. Further adjustments in profile may be needed. This should not be seen as a failure of US policy - or as a sign of the impending demise of the Saudi regime.
* George McGovern, former United States senator and Democratic Party candidate for president in 1972, heads the Middle East Policy Council in Washington. Richard Wilson is executive director of the Middle East Policy Council.