Wed like to announce

May 1, 2002 10:27 p.m.

We’d like to announce the debut of the new Talking Points Memo for Prize for Stunningly Deft Diplomacy (TPMPSDD). And the first winner is … well, who else could it be? Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, of course.

Back last September things were looking pretty bleak for the House of Saud. The Saudi exile and renegade Osama bin Laden (that’s no relation to AEI’s Michael Ledeen, mind you) had organized a largely Saudi band of Islamist terrorists and misfits which succeeded in killing some 3,000 Americans, destroying in a matter of hours the second and third tallest man-made structures in the United States, and scored the first successful foreign attack on a mainland United States military installation since the War of 1812.

Saudi relations with the United States were already on the rocks before September 11th. And in a signal of the mess they saw they were in, the Saudis sent a message to the administration immediately after the attacks saying in no uncertain terms that whatever the disagreements were on September 10th, that was all in the past.

Only it wasn’t. Or not completely. For a number of years the Saudis had built up a record of not being completely helpful or forthcoming in US investigations into various terrorist plots. And after September 11th, there were unsettling signs that the Saudi hierarchy wasn’t quite unanimous in its condemnation of the bin Laden attacks. Right or wrong, the Saudis quickly developed a reputation in the US for crypto-bin-Ladenism, paralytic corruption, and serial bad-faith.

Then out of the blue a number of neo-con writers and intellectuals realized that rather than being our buds in the region, the Saudis were, well … (how to put it?) whacks!

After a generation of imbibing the notion that Shi’a Islam was the scary fundamentalist branch of Islam and that the Sunnis were the safe, normal guys, Americans learned that the Saudis were advocates of the Wahabi sect of Islam. Wahabism is a puritanical strain of Islam which arose more than two hundred years ago in the Islamic heartland of Arabia. And there’s a very good argument that Wahabism is inherently fundamentalist or even extremist while Shi’a Islam has only been made to appear that way in the West by the extremist variant today practiced in Iran and parts of Lebanon. Even the uber-slick, permanent Saudi Ambassador to the United States — Prince Bandar — was looking a bit down at the mouth.

In any case, by late last Fall, if you were a Saudi prince — aside from vast personal wealth, your pick of comely blonde concubines from the Caucasus, Russia and other similar locales, a private jet, and miscellaneous other fun knick-knacks — things weren’t looking very good.

That was when Abdullah sprung into action. So let’s see how the Crown Prince pulled off the coup that helped him win the TPMPSDD. But first a momentary philological digression …

In Arabic, ‘Abdullah’ means Slave of God. Abd means slave or servant; so abd`Allah means Slave of God. (Arabic names compound in funny ways and I’m a bit rusty, so perhaps some Arabist can hook me up here if I’ve left some vowel out of place. But this is the essence of it.) In any case, three or four months after US-Saudi relations hit their nadir, Abdullah has got things to the point where perhaps the Arabs should start calling President Bush Abd’Abdullah.

But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Abdullah’s series of masterstrokes began back during Vice President Cheney’s trip to the Middle East last winter. If we’re to believe Howard Fineman, Cheney’s brief was to play a mix of Henry Kissinger and classic good cop/bad cop. On his tour of Mideast capitals, Cheney was supposed to tell the various sheiks and presidents-for-life that President Bush was really mad and if they didn’t want to catch a bit of his whup-ass themselves they’d better sign on for the administration’s latest coming attraction, the War on Iraq.

For a couple decades neo-cons at AEI and other choice DC spots had been pumping up the notion that moral clarity and determination gets results abroad like nothing. And Cheney played this for all it was worth. But according to reliable reports, the response, particularly from the Saudis, was something like “We’re really mad too. So get the **** out of here.”

Cheney was supposed to roll the sheiks. But they rolled him.

About the same time, something even more stunning occurred. At the Arab Summit in Beirut, Abdullah not only introduced his own Mideast peace plan, he also helped engineer the first rapprochement between Iraq and the Gulf States (including Kuwait) since the the Gulf War.

In other words, Cheney had gone to the Middle East to get the Arabs to line up behind the US against Saddam and a few days later they were lining up with Saddam against the US. And Cheney was somewhere in Israel wondering why his voice was suddenly so many octaves higher than it used to be.

In the intervening time, of course, the situation on the West Bank spun out of control and the administration finally started getting its hands dirty in the endlessly vexing work of Middle East peace and learning the lesson — theretofore arrogantly ignored — that genuine accomplishments like the one President Bush pulled off in Ramallah this week aren’t so much victories as small, hard-won successes which keep the situation miserable rather than letting it descend into the truly horrible.

In any case, who helped Bush pull off this praiseworthy effort? Right, Crown Prince Abdullah. And this of course is after the pretty humiliating episode last week in which Abdullah met the President in Crawford, Texas with the heavily-leaked intention of slapping the president a bit and telling him what he’d have to do to avoid a major breach with America’s Arab allies.

Today in the New York Times we hear that Bush and Abdullah have come up with their own new joint plan to restart the Mideast peace process. Bush will lean on Ariel Sharon and Abdullah and other Arab leaders will lean on Yasir Arafat.

Two points seem worth noting here. Crown Prince Abdullah (who, it’s worth noting, is technically not even a head of state) is now our co-sponsor of the peace process. And he really is the co-sponsor. We used to call the Russians a co-sponsor. But that didn’t mean anything. The Russians didn’t do jack. We were basically just throwing them a bone because they used to be a superpower.

But you can make a pretty good case that Abdullah has the initiative here, not us.

Plus, look at Abdullah’s position in the context of Arab politics. You may remember this guy named Hosni Mubarak. He used to be the President of Egypt. And maybe he still is. But it’s actually pretty hard to tell. And even harder to discern whether it even matters. When was the last time you heard Mubarak’s name mentioned in any significant way regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Right, a pretty long time ago. It’s Abdullah-all-the-time.

So at the end of the day, what have you got? Six months ago the Saudis vital strategic partnership with the United States looked weaker than it had at any point since the early 1970s. The Bush administration was heating up the engines for a war against Iraq and was preparing to make the Saudis an offer they couldn’t refuse. Today, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia looks more central to US policies in the Mideast than ever before.

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