For at least six months, the news has been filled with stories about Saudi Arabia playing a double game with America. The official Saudi TV channel holds a fundraiser, ostensibly for Palestinians in general, but specifically to send money to the families of suicide bombers. Saudi mosques spread the militancies of Wahhabi Islam around the world, including the United States. Fifteen of the nineteen September 11 hijackers were Saudis.
The latest flap, in the form of a story by the Washington Post‘s Tom Ricks, has the Pentagon being briefed by a RAND consultant who makes the case for Saudi Arabia as an “enemy.” Return shot, the Pentagon says no, that’s not true. Rebound off the wall, the third day’s stories characterize the briefing as being provided by “conservatives.” Never mind this most recent example of insider journalistic handball, the charges are true, of course. Why do we put up with this dangerous double-dealing from the Saudis?
Because, on one level, a level virtually unreported and not understood at all, the Saudis really are our friends. At the highest level of the militaries of both countries, for decades, senior officers have trained and fought together, studied at the same academies, and attended the same specially selected elite schools. Throughout those years, their guys and our guys have moved up their military career ladders — together. And they are still together, undoubtedly worried as hell on both sides that the press seems to be whooping up a conflict between their two countries and cultures for which — as the soldiers know — there is no need at all.
Your modern journalist does not understand this. Your modern journalist does not have a clue about things military. Your modern journalist does not know the difference between a battalion and a regiment. Not only mainstream journalists miss this dimension — the “War Party” types on the conservative side miss it, too. Step back a moment. Think about this. Civilian journalists who wouldn’t know an entrenching tool from claymore taunt career soldiers for their supposed failure to pick a fight.
Thus the Janus-like portrayal of Colin Powell by the press, either as an internationalist “moderate” hero (he is not) or as a weak-willed weenie (which he is not either).
Listen to a career soldier: “I helped out where I could: I spoke in their war colleges, I attended joint and combined exercises in the region, and I visited their people in the United States…little things and big things, because it was my job and because it was the right thing to do. I soon became sensitive to the way Arabs have been presented to the American people…Sure, I have met Arabs I don’t like or trust…But the Arab military officers I have worked with have earned my respect, and I hope they hold me in the same regard. Trust takes time, but when you have it, you have a wonderful gift. I cannot tell you how binding the emotions are between me and my close Saudi and other Arab friends; it is genuine and deep.”
Those are the words of Gen. Chuck Horner, USAF, who commanded the coalition air forces in the Gulf War, writing in a book he co-authored with Tom Clancy about that campaign, Every Man a Tiger (G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1999).
Soldiers like Gen. Horner make up a phalanx of invisible ambassadors, not only mediating between us and the Saudis, but between our country and all the other countries of the Middle East.
So how would soldiers explain the double-dealing acts of the Saudi ruling family? Saudis and Americans alike, probably like this: “Look, the princes bought themselves some space and time by paying off the radicals. The radicals were their enemies, right there at home. They had to do something. The Saudi royals have money — that’s their weapon. Why shouldn’t they try to use it? So maybe they took it too far. But the House of Saud will switch directions like a school of fish just as soon as the power starts flowing the other way — toward the American side. And the power is already beginning to flow that way, first with Afghanistan, and then, darned soon, with Iraq. The Saudi royals will come around. We soldiers know what’s going on. Let us work it out.”
The military elites do exert some policy influence, sometimes quite a bit. Not inappropriately – after all, they wield their country’s deadly weapons. Warriors feel a real reluctance to fight their friends.
And, unlike your typical modern journalist, they know how valuable friends are.