The Saudi Dilemma: The central dilemma the U.S. now faced was how to get the Saudis into the war. The problem was that the Saudis did not think the United States was going to win this war. They understood the region and their own country far better than the Americans, and the United States did not terrify the Saudis nearly as much as Al Qaeda did. The Saudis had heard U.S. rhetoric in the past and were not impressed. Somehow the U.S. had to demonstrate just how serious and frightening it could be, and then be in a position to put massive military and political pressure on the Saudis.To this point Friedman has painted the background of the joint dilemma facing the Saudis and the administration. Next he explains how the Saudis attempted to wiggle free of their dilemma by demanding that the U.S. to do something about Israel immediately. If the U.S. could be pressured into imposing a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, then the Saudi leadership could argue that giving up Al Qaeda was a quid pro quo for Palestine. So in February, 2002 the Saudis launched a major PR campaign, beginning with Abdullah's speech offering not only to establish diplomatic relations, but to proceed to full normalization of relations if the Israelis were prepared to withdraw from the occupied territories.
This was the origin of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. There were other strands, such as fear of weapons of mass destruction, concern that Al Qaeda was collaborating with the Iraqis, and a genuine feeling that Saddam Hussein was a monster. But to understand the American decision to invade Iraq, it is essential to understand the American concern, even obsession, with the course Saudi Arabia was taking amid growing evidence that the Saudis were financing Al Qaeda.
The key figure in all of this was a Saudi prince, Turki al Faisal, who became head of Saudi intelligence in 1976... He was responsible for overseeing Saudi Arabia's role in recruiting and supporting mujahideen in Afghanistan... It would not be accurate to say that Turki al Faisal lost control the weapon he created. It was not his idea to create it (it was Jimmy Carter's), and the weapon was never truly under anyone's control...
Two weeks before September 11, Turki al Faisal was suddenly and unexpectedly fired as head of Saudi intelligence... U.S. intelligence wondered if the entire point of firing Turki al Faisal was to disrupt intelligence cooperation with the United States, especially since he and Saudi intelligence were the U.S.'s primary window into Al Qaeda...
In January 2002 ... the Saudi government quietly informed the United States that it would like U.S. forces to be removed from its land... The problem the United States had was that it could not let the rift end there. Saudi Arabia was still the key to the American war on Al Qaeda, and the U.S. could not win that war without the Saudis.
It was not exactly a war between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia...It was a case in which intentions simply didn't matter much. The net result was that Saudi Arabia and the United States were on a collision course... the focus of the United States turned overwhelmingly to the Saudis.
In the few months since September 11, U.S. intelligence had developed a substantial amount of information revealing that Saudi citizens and many significant figures in the Saudi establishment, had, with the knowledge of Saudi intelligence, provided financial support to Al Qaeda... Saudi intelligence knew the truth of the matter and did nothing. Moreover, senior government officials had to know as well.
It was this intelligence that drove men like Bush, Cheney, and Powell...to turn on the Saudis and demand a fundamental shift in their policy. The Saudis did not reject the demand but rather deflected it. It was this deflection that most concerned the administration. It was clear that the Saudis weren't planning to solve the problem - or more precisely, couldn't solve the problem.
...Bush telephoned Abdullah to tell him that he welcomed the proposal and that he was sending a senior U.S. delegation to Riyadh to discuss it... The delegation would include... George Tenet... the last man Abdullah wanted to see in Riyadh... He was the U.S. specialist in the nuts and bolts of the peace process. However, by sending Tenent to Riyadh, the administration put the Saudis in the one position they didn't want to be: having to explain themselves to someone who knew what he was talking about.... The administration was playing the Saudi game. They were publicly focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, but their [ed., the Saudis] not very well-hidden agenda would be the focus of the meeting.How does Abdullah wiggle out of this new dilemma? Now we come to a piece of the narrative where we have public information. You will probably recall the big splash Tom Friedman made with his February 17, 2002 "the speech in the drawer" column about his midnight dinner with Crown Prince Abdullah in the tent (a very dramatic scene)? Here George Friedman asserts that Abdullah gamed the other Friedman:
Abdullah decided to flank Bush by playing an even bigger card: Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, influential, knowledgeable about the Middle East, Jewish - and eager to play a hand in revolutionizing Arab-Israeli relations. Abdullah invited Friedman to dinner and floated an idea to him - total recognition of Israel and normalization of Arab-Israeli relations in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Simple, persuasive - and impossible.According to George Friedman, Abdullah's "speech in the drawer" did not even have the backing of the Saudi government, had not been discussed with any other Arab states, let alone with the Palestinians.
The Saudis, as usual, had nothing at risk and were not in a position to bring those who were at risk - like Hamas and Syria - to the table... Not only were the Saudis still a problem regarding Al Qaeda, but they were not willing to do anything about it - and in addition, they were trying to maneuver Washington into deeper problems than it already had. That was the main goal of Abdullah's Israeli-Palestinian initiative. The administration began to raise, in ernest, the question of whether the U.S.-Saudi relationship had any future. That posed a second, more serious question: If the Saudis were no longer to be thought of as allies, and the Saudis were the center of the Al Qaeda problem, then what should the United States do about Saudi Arabia?Friedman does not provide any footnotes or references to help us assess the truth of all that. But the narrative seems plausible and internally consistent to this point. You can see why the book is compact at 341 pages, because Friedman doesn't spend a lot of words justifying his assertions.
The Iraqi Lever: One of the reasons for Saudi disregard of the United States was a conviction, shared with much of the Islamic world, that the United States was a military weakling... The Islamic world did not take the United States seriously as a military power - and the Saudis were no exception.Friedman's first lever is plausible - though, sadly, I don't know any senior Saudis I can ask to confirm or deny. The second lever I have problems with. He argues that the potential downward pressure on oil prices of rehabilitated Iraqi reserves levers the Saudis: "The prospect of Iraqi oil moving freely into the market unnerved the Saudis, to say the least". Perhaps it did, but I don't understand the leverage, as it is only effective while the threat of freeing Iraq is alive, but collapses after a free Iraq has become a reality. Am I missing something here? Onward ...
The United States needed a military victory of substantial proportions ... It needed to win a war ...
From the American point of view, the occupation of Iraq would give the United States two critical levers over the Saudis. The first, and most important, was the very real presence of several U.S. divisions along the Saudi Arabian border with Iraq ...
The second lever was oil, although not the way in which many critics of the war talked about it. The United States had never had an interest in directly controlling Persian Gulf oil.
... secret arrests of potential Al Qaeda members were driving Al Qaeda up a wall... The FBI and CIA might not know they were holding an Al Qaeda member, but Al Qaeda would. Al Qaeda would never be sure what U.S. did or didn't know about their arrestees ... Therefore the FBI was constantly arresting people that were Al Qaeda without knowing it and Al Qaeda was constantly adjusting its organization to cope with what might be a serious breach in security ...That's bold - we know what was in the minds of the administration! Whatever, the next bit on DOD is quite interesting, and plausible:
.. A Muslim could hate the United States, but whether he joined Al Qaeda as a result didn't depend on his level of hatred, but rather on whether he perceived Al Qaeda as being able to defeat the United States ... Following this reasoning, the way to prevent increased active support for Al Qaeda was to create a sense of overwhelming power.
The decision to invade Iraq was partly driven by the historic weakness of prior U.S. military encounters in the region. At least in the minds of the administration, the inability to engage Al Qaeda effectively left no alternative but to invade Iraq.
It was also essential, from the standpoint of the Defense Department, that apart from being perceived as militarily capable and willing to endure hardship, the United States must not be perceived as being constrained by alliances. The Defense Department did not object to coalition building. It did object to coalition building that reshaped the battle in order to minimize its ferocity. From the point of view of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, it was the ferocity of the battle plan that was of the essence.Friedman confirmed several of the conclusions I had reached regarding Iraq and regime change. But he did not discuss one of my key conclusions re: "why Iraq soon?". That missing conclusion was: containment via the sanctions regime was essentially finished - while diplomacy dictated that U.S. leadership not go public with this view. France, Russia and China had been tunneling around the sanctions since 1992. All three were committed to ending the sanctions regime, thus allowing Saddam to resume his dream of leading the Arab world, and controlling the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf. Whether a nuclear Iraq was 2 or 10 years away after the fall of sanctions one can debate - but the end result was very clear - an armed and dangerous Iraq at the hinge of the Middle East.
The European Game: The reason for the war was complex and difficult to explain. The process of public explanation undermined the war's utility. If the President was to say that the reason for invading Iraq was to prove that the United States was really much tougher than people thought, and that the occupation of Iraq was intended to intimidate neighboring countries, it would undermine the United States's ability to attain either goal. During World War II, for example, the core American strategy was to allow the Soviets to bleed the Germans dry so that the United States could then land in France and defeat a weakened Germany. It was certainly true, but it was not something that could be said publicly. Roosevelt preferred to speak in terms of the Four Freedoms and the United Nations rather than publicly embrace the actual strategy. Indeed his strategy and his ideals were not incompatible. Nevertheless, explaining his strategy was not something to be done in polite company.
After the January elections, there will be a Shiite government in Baghdad. There will be, in all likelihood, civil war between Sunnis and Shia. The United States cannot stop it and cannot be trapped in the middle of it. It needs to withdraw.David Warren Review: An informed 10/06/2004 book review by David Warren, who himself has good sources on the region:
In America's Secret War, Dr. Friedman argues that the enemy grew out of the Cold War, an artifact of Jimmy Carter's decision to use Saudi Arabian money and Pakistani expertise to create a guerrilla army that could harass the Soviets then occupying Afghanistan. "Al Qaeda", the product, mastered the art of covert operation, and as the Soviets collapsed, began turning it against the West, biting the hand that fed them. Their large ambition is the creation of a new, pan-Muslim caliphate, however, and they attack Western targets as a means of advancing an Islamist revolution at home.Barron's Interview: The Feb. 21, 2005 interview with Friedman "World of Worry" has a number of useful tidbits. Among these are comments on the U.S. coercion strategy:
Realizing they couldn't win like this, after Tora Bora (in which Osama bin Laden and company slipped away), and that they couldn't depend on the Saudis for help in cutting the enemy's financial resources, they embarked on a mission to change Saudi Arabia by first changing Iraq, and then probably Iran, alternately playing Sunni and Shia radicals against one another. It is, Dr. Friedman thinks, a strategy that appears to be blundering to success.
After subtracting some hype, there is much truth in this view. Both Afghanistan and Iraq have been indirect conflicts, justified in a geostrategic calculation that would be impossible to communicate in election-year soundbites. President Bush is trying to do the fighting "over there", instead of "over here", and in my view, he could have started in any one of half-a-dozen Middle Eastern countries, with the same chaotic results, Saudi Arabia being my own first choice. His intention, through judicious regime changes, is to change the overall complexion of the region, to make it impossible for the Jihadis to hide.
I find Dr. Friedman's account of President Bush's strategy coherent, but narrower than the thing itself; yet President Bush's strategy also narrower than required by the reality. Senator Kerry's proposals I find recklessly incoherent.
For according to me, we are facing a gathering Islamist ideological challenge that was not invented by Osama bin Laden. It has a Shia, Iranian version (that triumphed in 1979 with the fall of the Shah), and a Sunni, Arabian version; the two being capable of co-operation as well as mutual antipathy. Terrorism is only the weapon of convenience on both the "Hezbollah" (Shia) and "Hamas" (Sunni) sides.
As a political scientist and admirer of realpolitik, Friedman feels that the U.S.'s aggressive action and military presence in Iraq has inestimably helped the war on terror by, among other things, motivating reluctant allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan and erstwhile enemies like Syria and Iran to help the U.S. by cutting off their support of al Qaeda and serving up better intelligence to Western governments.
"I call it the coalition of the coerced, but the tempo of timely arrests of al Qaeda operatives around the world, and the fact that the U.S. suffered no terrorist attacks running up to last year's election, can in good part be attributed to better intelligence from the Islamic world," Friedman avers. "Our victory in Afghanistan was insufficient. We had to show the Islamic world that we meant business by putting large numbers of troops into the Mideast, into harm's way, rather than cutting and running such as the U.S. had done previously in its rapid pull-out from Beirut in the 1980s and Somalia in the '1990s.
George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a private global intelligence company, learned that it was the latter. "There was a decision in the U.S. intelligence community to roll up the al-Qaida networks we know about now and push them out of a pre-election attack," he told me.CNN Interview: CNN did an online interview-chat with Friedman on Nov 21, 2001. An interesting Q&A, including still-unanswered issues like this:
That is to say, the most important information that came from Khan was not about the five potential financial-sector targets in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., that al-Qaida had chosen as far back as four years ago to attack. What U.S. intelligence learned is that there was an extremely serious, imminent operation in the advanced-planning stages. The information placed in the Times, Friedman explains, "was part of a systematic series of leaks, designed to confuse al-Qaida. They don't know what we know and what we don't know. Since their operational principle is never attack into a highly secure environment, the assumption is that they'd abort this operation."
I asked Friedman... why other intelligence professionals were skeptical of the government's actions. For instance, CIA officer Robert Baer argued, "You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this."
Friedman explains that there are two sides to any debate in the intelligence community: intelligence and security. "The gut of an intel guy like Baer is that you never shut down an operation by going public," says Friedman. "The security people have a narrower point of view: The best way to make al-Qaida go on tilt is to reveal that they have been penetrated. In this particular case, I see the need to let al-Qaida know that we know something. Otherwise, they will continue their operation, thinking they are secure. Maybe we sweep the board before the operation is executed, and maybe we get hit hard. Better to force them to abort their operation even if we lose intelligence opportunities. I see Baer's point of view, but in this case, I'm with the security guys."
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much do you think intelligence played a part in the rapid retreat of the Taliban from most of Afghanistan?Epilogue: The Epilogue/final chapter was published online Oct 4 to update readers on events since the book was written 60 days earlier. That's quite an interesting author-reader service, that I would like to see more of when the subject matter is this dynamic:
FRIEDMAN: That has to be stated two ways. To what extent did the Taliban retreat as part of its own strategy of reverting to guerilla warfare, and to what extent did they retreat under U.S. military pressure. Remember that they pulled out of cities that were not under particularly heavy attack. So, the real question is whether or not this is an attempt by the Taliban to execute its own war plan, and whether or not that attempt will be successful. That really is the intelligence question now. Have the Taliban collapsed, or have they repositioned themselves for an extended guerilla war?
Between August and October 2004, all eyes were focused on the Iraq campaign. The basic strategic reality, however, on October 1, 2004, is this: Al Qaeda has failed to achieve its strategic goals; there has been no rising in the Islamic world; virtually all Muslim intelligence services are working with the United States against Al Qaeda; and Al Qaeda’s credibility and operational integrity are being questioned everywhere.Madrid: Friedman credits Al Qaeda with a sophisticated understand of the fragility of the western alliance. Madrid was a cunning, successful attempt to cause a quake on the one of the faultlines:
On the other hand, the United States has not achieved its own fundamental strategic goal: It cannot guarantee the security of the United States against an Al Qaeda attack. It has not broken Al Qaeda with any degree of confidence. Indeed, in the worst-case scenario, it has not been able to guarantee that Al Qaeda does not have weapons of mass destruction.
From the broader, strategic perspective, understood in terms of Al Qaeda’s goals and American goals, Iraq has been a very dangerous place, but far from the decisive battlefield. Al Qaeda has needed a political uprising in the Islamic world. The United States has needed security. Neither side has achieved its goals.
Momentum clearly has been with the United States and not Al Qaeda. The key has been the coalition of Muslim states the United States had created. The intelligence services of almost all these countries are now using their deep knowledge base of Al Qaeda operations against them. The sole valuable outcome of the Iraq campaign has been that most countries in the region are now convinced that the United States’ obsession with Al Qaeda was not to be trifled with—however irrational they might regard it—and their resources are being thrown into the campaign.
Al Qaeda’s view of the force the United States had arrayed against it was that it was inherently fragile, that it was the Achilles’ heel of the U.S. war effort. It set in place a program designed to split the alliance. The crowning moment occurred in Spain in March 2004. Al Qaeda set off a series of bombs in a Madrid train station, causing massive casualties. The attack occurred on the eve of Spanish general elections. The effect of the attack—coupled with massive political incompetence on the part of the Spanish government—was to swing the election against the pro-American government and bring to power an anti-war government that ordered Spanish troops out of Iraq.Americans Unaware of the Successes: Friedman argues that Islamic world does not believe the U.S. is losing the war, but Americans are unaware of the successes because the Bush administration doesn't communicate effectively.
Documents found after the attack showed that Al Qaeda had a stunningly sophisticated understanding of Spanish politics. Far from being coincidental, the attack was carefully planned to achieve well-defined political outcomes and, indeed, succeeded perfectly. The Madrid bombings drove home two points about Al Qaeda. First, Al Qaeda was as smart as many in the West feared. Second, it now had a program to use Western elections as the frame within which to create political unrest in the West. The plan fit in perfectly with Al Qaeda’s understanding of the United States and its allies. From the beginning, Al Qaeda had argued that the Christian world did not have the stomach for prolonged conflict. This campaign, therefore, fit in neatly with its world view.
The war is at a strange crossroads, for which we find few precedents. The broader war is certainly moving in favor of the United States. The Iraq campaign has problems, but none that present a strategic challenge to the broader war or to even the Iraq campaign itself. The enemy has failed to achieve any of its goals and seems incapable of mounting a serious attack at this point. The war is not over and it is not won, but the United States is ahead on points.We are keeping our copy of America's Secret War to serve as a scorecard as history catches up with the forecasts. E.g., if we don't have Shia/Sunni civil war within the next two years, we'll tick the BZZZ - WRONG! box next to that one...
However, this is a war in which global perception is almost as important as military force. The perception of incompetence creates a military reality. But there is a corrective paradox. The perception of American incompetence is much greater in the United States than in the Islamic world. The Islamic world may view the United States as vicious, tyrannical or satanic, but they do not take lightly American military power and they do not believe that the United States is losing the war. Some are confident that the United States will eventually lose the war. But most are betting on the United States to win. The interesting thing is that the Islamic politicians have sided with the United States, seeming to know something most Americans don’t.
Whoever wins the election, the basic course is now set. The United States is depending on its power in the region to compel local governments to crush Al Qaeda, even if that were to mean civil war. Al Qaeda is hoping to strike in such a way as to empower the Islamic masses to rise. Of the two outcomes, the American is by far the more likely.
The last three months have confirmed two realities. Trends continue to favor the United States. Americans—to a large measure because of the political failures of the Bush administration—seem unaware of it.