Sunday, December 29, 2013

Before the Jihad VII


Again, a poke at the world. I thought it might be time to let you in on one of the projects I have been developing on the side, this with some international implications.  Several winters ago I happened to get into a conversation before a meeting in Tampa with the speaker of the evening, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the brother of the Saudi king and for decades the Saudi chief of intelligence.  A quick, accessible, genuinely urbane gentleman in his sixties -- the prince was educated at Deerfield and Georgetown --, Prince Turki gave me his card and invited me to continue to exchange ideas with him via the internet.  Once he was back in Riyadh I followed that up, and we have since gone back and forth as several issues between our countries have surfaced.

For many years Prince Turki has functioned, mostly behind the scenes, as a principal wirepuller throughout the Middle East.  His attempts to broker and direct U.S. involvement in Afghanistan can easily be tracked in Steve Coll's indispensable volume Ghost Wars. With that in mind I wrote him in March of 2012 to empathize the extent of war-weariness that prevails in the United States at the moment and suggesting that "If indeed you do have a degree of contact with the Taliban leadership, now would be the time to reactivate it."

He wrote back:  "My relationship with the Taliban ended on a sour note.  They refused to hand over Bin Laden to me which let to the Kingdom suspending relations with them...I am fully retired and have no wish to have any contact with the Taliban."

We moved on.  When a New York Times interview with the prince led him to remark that the apparent withdrawal of American commitment to the region raised the possibility of a Saudi atomic bomb, I wrote him urging him to reconsider.  Atomic weapons were "yesterday's nightmare," I stressed, costly at every stage and turning their possessors into targets.  He got back within a day or two, thanking me for my commentary, which he had circulated among his brothers and which he said had had an impact.

On December 18, submitting to an interview with Steven Erlanger of  The New York Times, Prince Turki noted that "We've seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white."  He called the world's failure to stop the conflict in Syria "almost a criminal negligence."  The Saudis were turning down a seat on the U.N. Security Council in protest against big-power veto power.

I tried another e-mail.  "There is a profound disconnect here," I wrote the prince.  "As the Kingdom appears to back away, policy-makers in Washington who are already troubled by the increasing presence of the jihadist elements within the Syrian opposition and alert to the profound war weariness of the American public after our expensive and feckless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They see us as increasingly isolated, again at the point of being dragged into another conflict....  There is a general feeling here  -- and one that extends across the political spectrum -- that if it is to come to boots on the ground in Syria, they ought to be Saudi boots, or Turkish boots, or Jordanian boots...we are at the end of the cycle."

I held my breath after that:  pretty direct stuff.  A reply came back.  "Mr. Hersh," the prince wrote, "Thank you.  ...a super power does not always see the others in the room.  Saudi Arabia's concerns are global....  America's unsolicited red line stand is what led not only the Kingdom , but the rest of the world to expect action.  The sudden reversal is what led to anger.  No one has asked for American boots on the ground.  What the Kingdom expects is consistency and consideration.  Raising expectations and then dashing them does not keep or win friends.

What the prince's graceful if forceful reply leaves out is that fact that Obama's threat worked:  The danger from Syria's stores of poison gas was eliminated, and without sending in the Tomahawks. The fact is, the ground in Syria is shifting.  "The hope is," I responded to Prince Turki's incisive comments, "that the current negotiations with Iran lead to at least a partial demilitarization of the region, with some diplomatic settlement in Syria.  I suspect that the fear of Al Qaeda elements will entice policymakers here to prop up Assad and stage new elections."

Not long after I wrote that I had the chance to exchange ideas with Christopher Hill, our last ambassador in Iraq.  His expectations paralleled mine.  Perhaps our most experienced diplomat in the Middle East, Hill is extremely skeptical about the consequences of the "Arab Spring" and worried about the price we will have to pay once again trapped in the region-wide Sunni-Shiite civil war. Meanwhile, our own oil and gas production is on the upswing while our consumption falls. Prince Turki no doubt has grounds to be worried.

Best to all of you for 2014.

Burton Hersh  


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