Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue


Can Peace in the Middle East Be So Simple?

In “The Islamic War” (December 7), Victor Davis Hanson wonders why Islamists despise us “all the more” as the Middle East has become wealthier, the Islamic world has gained more knowledge of “relative global wealth and poverty,” and the U.S. has “proved postmodern in its attitude about the causes and origins of war.”

He fails to mention a more significant factor: the presence of U.S. and other Western troops in Muslim lands. As Chas Freeman, our ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War, has recounted, the proposal to station American troops on Saudi soil in response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait presented a problem, given that many Saudis “interpret their religious tradition as banning the presence of non-Muslims, especially the armed forces of nonbelievers, on the Kingdom’s soil.” Shortly after the invasion, Freeman attended a meeting at which King Fahd, overruling most of the Saudi royal family, agreed to allow U.S. troops to be stationed in his country. This courageous decision was premised on the understanding that all American forces would be removed once the immediate threat from Saddam was neutralized.

When we failed to honor this commitment, Fahd faced serious domestic problems. Several prominent Muslim clerics who objected to Fahd’s policies were sent into exile, further inflaming the religious community. Osama bin Laden began to call for the overthrow of the monarchy and stepped up his jihadist fight against the U.S.

Virtually all of the terrorist attacks Hanson mentions occurred after the 1991 Gulf War and during the subsequent presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. The one exception — the 1983 suicide bombing in Lebanon — also involved U.S. troops on Middle Eastern soil.

None of this is to condone the jihadists. Rather, it is to suggest that the facts as they exist should inform our methods of combating terrorism with a minimum of violence and death. If you discover that your dog snaps at you when you touch him in a particular place, rather than slapping him you might reasonably decide to pet him elsewhere. Or not to pet him at all.

David E. Steuber

Mineral Point, Wis.

Victor Davis Hanson responds: I wish I could believe Mr. Steuber’s reductionist analysis, because such fantasies would surely simplify things, but for a variety of reasons I cannot:

1) Middle Eastern terrorism directed at the U.S. antedates the Gulf War well beyond “the one exception.” We were not in Saudi Arabia or at war in the Middle East when Iran took our hostages, Qaddafi planned to kill our diplomats in Rome, our embassy was bombed in Kuwait, or a West Berlin discotheque that American servicemen frequented was bombed.

2) Middle Eastern attitudes toward the U.S. are incoherent more than systematically predictable. Is the current Saudi complaint that the U.S. is too engaged in the Middle East or not engaged enough against Iran?

3) Bin Laden adduced a number of reasons for his attacks. From The Al Qaeda Reader and Raymond Ibrahim’s translations of the bin Laden/Zawahiri written corpus, we learn that they were furious over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Somalia — and Andalusia. They were aggrieved over Israel, Jews, oil, the U.S. failure to adopt the Kyoto accord, and even the atomic bombings of World War II.

4) We are now at the end of 2015, about 13 years since the last U.S. soldier left Saudi Arabia. Have Salafist clerics and extremist members of the royal family ceased their stealthy support of anti-Western terrorism?

5) King Fahd’s realpolitik agreement to allow U.S. assets to use pre-designated Saudi bases was not a “courageous decision,” but the bad/worse decision of a ruler without better options. Apparently the king gambled that survival in 1990 trumped estrangement from his more radical associates.

If my dog snaps at me when I pet him in the wrong place, then I either snap harder back at him — or get another dog.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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