Commentary

Get Out of Saudi Arabia

By Ivan Eland
January 23, 2002

The Bush administration has done a commendable job on a vital task: weakening the Al Qaeda terrorist network and smashing the oppressive Taliban regime that harbored it. In the short-term, the United States must find and eliminate the leadership of both movements and further cripple remaining pockets of Al Qaeda fighters worldwide.

In the long-term, Americans must ask why radical Islamists’ hatred of the United States is so great that they would spend money and resources to kill innocent people in a faraway land. Asking this question is sensitive when 3,000 innocent Americans lay dead. But if the United States wants to lessen the chance of future attacks, some of which could make the Sept. 11 strikes look mild, it needs to explore such motivations.

The American foreign policy establishment maintains that the United States is the target in almost 50 percent of the world’s terrorist attacks because of “who we are”—that is, our free political and economic system and our unique culture. But the rest of the world can more objectively assess why we are disproportionately attacked. According to a recent survey of political, business, and media elites on five continents, the United States is admired as the land of opportunity and democratic ideals. But a majority of the elites outside the United States said U.S. policies and actions in the world were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. In contrast, only a small number of U.S. elites thought so. As for U.S. culture, Osama bin Laden has never railed against pornography, Hollywood movies, or the drug culture, according to Peter Bergen, a CNN correspondent who interviewed Osama bin Laden.

If we want to understand why Islamists go out of their way to attack the United States, we should just read what they write. Bin Laden, a Saudi, is riled mainly by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia—because he believes it desecrates the holy sites of Islam within its borders—and U.S. support for what he believes is the corrupt and apostate Saudi Arabian government. (His opposition to U.S. support for Israel and U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq are afterthoughts.)

So do we need a military presence in Saudi Arabia and such a cozy relationship with a medieval and oppressive Saudi government? The U.S. national security community, media, and much of the public are enamored with the myth that cheap oil is somehow vital to the U.S. economy and that the U.S. military needs to defend its flow from the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately, no one asks economists what they think about those issues. Before the Gulf War, an economic analysis by David Henderson, an economist on President Reagan’s Council on Economic Advisors, showed that if Iraq had invaded Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Kuwait, the oil price increases that Saddam could have garnered would have reduced U.S. gross national product by only one half of one percent. Two Nobel laureates in economics—the liberal James Tobin and free marketer Milton Friedman—agreed with that analysis and noted that the economic ill-effects of Saddam’s likely price rises were not severe enough to justify a war.

More recently, Don Losman, an economist at the National Defense University, shows that increasing oil prices alone will not destroy a modern economy: From late 1998 to late 2000, Germany experienced a 211 percent increase in oil prices, but economic growth—with falling inflation and unemployment—continued.

Even if oil is a strategic commodity and we must defend it, do the modest forces stationed in Saudi Arabia contribute significantly to that end? The biggest threat to the oil flow would be an uprising in Saudi Arabia that causes radical Islamists to try to drain the Saudi regimes’ life’s blood by destroying the oil fields. U.S. forces stationed in Saudi Arabia only contribute to Islamist resentment, which could make this scenario more likely. Furthermore, the United States defended the Saudi oil fields in 1990 without having a prior military presence there. So why is it needed now?

Is the United States to blame for the attack on Sept. 11? No, Al Qaeda killed innocent civilians and should be crushed. But should the United States paint a bull’s eye on its forehead for future attacks by radical Islamists? Should you buy an expensive car and declare haughtily that you will park it in a high crime area overnight? The people who then steal your car have illegally violated your property rights and should be punished severely. But wouldn’t it be smarter to park the car in your safe garage at home?

Similarly, the United States should quietly withdraw its military forces from Saudi Arabia. That’s not appeasing radical Islamists. It’s a common sense way to remove a lightning rod for future terrorism.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.