Why the War Works

The Pentagon's Path From Osama to Saddam

Yet today, the U.S. has almost no access to Iranian or Iraqi oil, and our very efforts to gain that access are threatening our traditional ties to the Saudi mother lode. By getting rid of Saddam, the U.S. not only puts Iraqi oil in play but gains leverage over Iran. We could stop bombing Saddam from the bases in Saudi Arabia, and thus lighten if not erase our military presence in the kingdom. Further, we get a more open field in Iraq, with the possibility of remaking not only that country but the region in our image.

"If the U.S. has to leave Saudi Arabia, the plan is to encircle it," explained Nawaf Obaid, a bright young oil and political analyst based in Geneva. "That's what the war on terror is for. Any place with a terrorist presence will also have a military base: It's tied in to a master plan to put bases throughout the region."

illustration Mirko Ilic

Indeed, dozens of military bases have sprung up in the region since the Gulf War. The command-and-control center of the network is Prince Sultan Air Base, 50 miles southeast of the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and home of Operation Southern Watch. Other bases are in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the far-off Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Still others are being developed from Yemen to the Caucasus to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Among them, Prince Sultan Air Base stands alone, distinguished not just by the undisclosed number of aircraft operating out of there, nor by its billion-dollar electronic infrastructure (which was able to direct the details of the air war over Afghanistan, 1400 miles away). Rather, as Osama noted and as its name implies, it's set apart by the fact that it is a Saudi, not an American, base. The $112 million in construction costs, like much of the expense of Operation Southern Watch, was borne by the Saudi government, which is thus in the position of containing us as we contain Saddam. And since the killing of 19 Americans in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, British, French, and American air force personnel have been quarantined at the base, protected by security upgrades from the Bin Laden Group, the local construction conglomerate.

Through the 1990s, Saudi Arabia became a less and less comfortable place for American servicemen. Slumping oil prices from the mid '80s to the late '90s caused a drastic fall in average personal Saudi income, from $19,000 in 1981 to $7300 in 1997. At the same time, a phenomenal 4.4 percent annual increase in the population made Saudi Arabia one of the youngest countries in the world, with 43 percent of its people under 15 years old. Unemployment is pandemic among its youth, who live in a newly mediatized world that feeds them nonstop imagery of Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians and miseries wreaked on Iraq through sanctions and bombing.

In 1995, the very pro-American King Fahd suffered a stroke, which put his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, in charge of the kingdom. There were significant differences between the two. Abdullah had a reputation as a reformer who had long been disgusted by the corruption saturating the royal family. He was also more sensitive to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Abdullah is considered to be more pious than his predecessor, and therefore more respectful of the conservative Wahhabi clergy, whose cultural influence has only grown since the Islamic victory in Afghanistan.

In the '90s, buoyed by proxy military victories over the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, the Soviets in 1989, and the Iraqis in 1991, Saudi Arabia assumed a central position in the Muslim world. At the same time, mired in a cruel and pointless policy of "dual containment" toward Iran and Iraq, and especially by an outrageous partiality toward Israel, America has watched as its influence in the kingdom steadily wanes.

The Saudi royal family derives its legitimacy from its stewardship of the holy land of Arabia, and especially of Mecca and Medina, the two most sacred sites in Islam. So an infidel presence is not lightly tolerated. Before the Gulf War, the admission of over half a million U.S. troops into the kingdom involved some pretty heavy wrangling with the ulema, the local clergy whose support is critical for the royal family.

That some of these troops still remain in the kingdom 11 years later—there are about 5000 Americans at Prince Sultan—casts doubt on the royal family's ability to protect the holy land, and therefore on the legitimacy of the house of Saud. But that the royal family might allow Americans to make war on Muslim countries—Iraq, Afghanistan—that had not attacked America (let alone Saudi Arabia) would be, to population and ulema alike, unimaginable, unacceptable, and ultimately, anathema.

It hasn't worked out for anyone. In 1994, when U.S. satellite imagery found Saddam massing troops near the Kuwaiti border, the royal family forbade any military countermeasure. In 1996, when Iraq mounted incursions against Irbil, a Kurdish town in the northern no-fly zone, the Saudis refused us the use of their bases. In 1998, during Operation Desert Fox (begun after the UN withdrew its weapons inspectors), no strikes were mounted from Saudi territory. And throughout the campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. planes flying from Prince Sultan were limited to providing support and surveillance functions.

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