Date Wed 3 Jul 2002 152902 0400 Edt To

Date: Wed, 3 Jul 2002 15:29:02 -0400 (EDT)

To: gulf2000 list

From: Juan Cole

Commentary on Hanson, “Our Enemies, the Saudis” in Commentary


I don’t mind so much that Hanson is a specialist in ancient Rome who knows

no Arabic and has never lived in the Middle East, and yet delivers himself

of judgments on Middle East foreign affairs. I suppose I wish more

academics were willing to range beyond their narrow specializations,

assuming they educated themselves on the subject. After all, few

politicians or policy makers of the sort who actually decide on U.S.-Saudi

relations know Arabic or have lived in the Middle East. Of course, there

are State Department Arabists, but most of them are not at a policy making


What I mind is that Hanson is guilty of muddled thinking and illogic, and

that he is advocating an extremely dangerous and irresponsible course of

action. None of *these* attributes of his piece are what I was hoping for

when I said I wished more academics ventured outside the ivory towers.

Hanson’s prescription that the U.S. should deliberately attempt to “spark

disequilibrium, if not outright chaos” in the Middle East is the most

frightening thing he says, and one can in this case be glad that academics

are usually without much power or influence in this country. I thought

conservatives were supposed to want *order* and radicals were the ones who

wanted to spark chaos? Or maybe Hanson is one of a new breed of radical

U.S. conservatives? In any case, his logic is the same as Brezhnev’s in

1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a decision that

destabilized the region around it and indirectly led to September 11.

May we please have less disequilibrium and chaos? We’ve had enough of

that in the past year.

Hanson’s reference to the Saudi system of princes ruling being like an

Ottoman court only serves to reveal his dire ignorance about the history

of this region. The Ottoman court evolved in a completely different way.

Princes were not prominent as ministers or governors under the Ottoman

sultans, since in the Central Asian system any male of the chiefly family

had political charisma and could potentially succeed. Rival princes

tended therefore to be rudely shunted aside when they weren’t (in later

centuries) blinded or killed. Why compare a contemporary royal oligarchy

to an early modern absolute monarchy? And some say that Edward Said’s

*Orientalism* is old hat! We are the presence, friends, of the real thing


Hanson neglects to make a basic distinction in this piece between levels

of Saudi society. Some of his attack is directed against the Saudi

government (i.e. the royal family). Other barbs are directed against

fundamentalist activists who oppose the royal family. Yet other attacks

are launched against Saudi cultural customs. Mentions are made of events

occuring on Saudi soil, such as the Khobar Tower bombings, which appear to

have little to do with any mainstream domestic Saudi force and which

implicitly targeted the Saudi Establishment as well as the U.S. All of

these levels are rolled as an undifferentiated mass into an illogical

argument for cutting off relations with Saudi Arabia and declaring it a

terrorist state on the lines of Syria or Libya.

I do not know whether it could be proven that the Saudi government has

recently supported terrorism per se. It has in the past been a partner

with the United States in supporting reactionary guerilla movements, such

as those in Eritrea and Afghanistan. The communists in Ethiopia and

Afghanistan would have seen this as support for terrorism, I suppose, but

where does that leave the U.S.? It is true that the Saudis recognized the

Taliban. But even the United States was essentially urged to do so by

Zalmay Khalilzad (current NSC staffer and envoy to Afghanistan) in 1996,

and the history of Taliban-U.S. covert and other contacts in the late

1990s and very early 2000s will not support an argument for Saudi

exceptionalism if it ever comes to light.

So is it being argued that the U.S. should break off relations with Saudi

Arabia because of its treatment of women? Has *Commentary* magazine been

in the forefront of the fight for women’s equality? Gee, I missed that.

Is it being argued that the U.S. should break off relations with Saudi

Arabia because there are radical anti-U.S. fundamentalists in Saudi

Arabia? Since these fundamentalists are at daggers drawn with the Saudi

government, what sense would that make? It would be like cutting off

relations with France because a sixth of the French support the

proto-fascist party of LePen. Should the U.S. cut off relations with the

Saudi state because it has been unhelpful in the Mideast peace process (as

Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Libya have been?) But the Saudi state has put

forward the most far-reaching plan for a peace settlement in the region

ever broached by an Arab power, one which fully recognizes Israel and

normalizes its relationships with all Arab states, including Saudia.

This landmark plan is churlishly tossed aside by Hanson, who presumably

does not want Arab-Israeli peace or thinks it unimportant to U.S. policy

in the region. The ways in which the Saudis have kept petroleum prices

low at key junctures (as after the Gulf War and after September 11),

giving immense help to the U.S. economy, are completely ignored.

As I think I have made clear, I don’t like the lack of democracy in Saudi

Arabia, because I think it makes a key country unstable (on the whole,

democracies are stable in the long run and dictatorships are not). I

don’t like radical fundamentalism in any religion because it is

reactionary and threatens the liberty of us all. I don’t actually object

to Hanson’s characterization of the Saudi system of gender segregation and

discrimination as a form of Apartheid. And, I think Saudi foreign policy

and covert operations have often been a disaster for the region (though

the track record of my own country has been mixed, as well). But the

Saudi state is not like the Iraqi Baath Party or a sponsor of

international terrorism as that is currently defined by the Bush

administration–such as would make it appropriate or wise to break off

relations–and suggesting that it is only reveals the ignorance or malice

of the author.

Those who seek disequilibrium and chaos in the contemporary Middle East

are no friends of the American people, or of any people.


Juan Cole

U of Michigan

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