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Interconnected Middle East Relations: Saudi Star Shines While Israel's Wanes : Diplomacy: Washington cozies up to wealthy Saudi Arabia by seeking to punish Iraq and talking tough to Israel.

March 08, 1992|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus is the editor of Middle East Policy Survey

WASHINGTON — It's probably no coincidence that about the time Secretary of State James A. Baker III chose to go public with his tough terms for Israel to receive more foreign aid, Saudi Arabia was submitting a request for three squadrons of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. In the Middle East, it seems, one side can never be up without the other going down. And these days it appears as if Israel's star is waning while Saudi Arabia's is on the rise.

Ten years of war in the Gulf--first between Iraq and Iran and then between Iraq and the rest of the world--has left Saudi Arabia, for the first time in generations, without a powerful enemy. Meanwhile, the disintegration of the Soviet Union has not only removed the primary political and military backing for such perceived threats as Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but also has created opportunities for Saudi influence-peddling. The deep-pocketed Saudis are directing subsides to friendly Muslim nationalists in the central Asian republics once held in check by Soviet authority. Saudi largess is even finding its way to what was the heart of godless communism. According to U.S. officials, the Saudis picked up the tab for Russia's hosting of the recent Middle East peace talks in Moscow.

There is, of course, still one piece of important unfinished business--the removal of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. While the Saudis are counting on Washington to take the lead, they seem ready to do their part. Recently, Saudi King Fahd took the unprecedented step of hosting a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders, including some religious figures usually allied with Iran. As one impressed State Department official said, "The Saudis are sending a message and the message is that they are to be taken seriously."

In Washington, the leading Saudi messenger for almost 15 years has been Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. According to State Department officials, it was the well-connected Bandar--son of the defense minister and favorite nephew of the king--who prompted the recent, highly publicized visit to the region by CIA Director Robert M. Gates. Details of the Gates trip appeared in print, along with the allegation that the Saudis were pressing the Administration to come up with a plan to eliminate Hussein. The more benign explanation given by some State Department officials was that Bandar had asked the Administration for a briefing on anti-Hussien activity.

But the Administration eschews high-risk tactics that depend on unreliable dissidents, unproven army elements or fractious minorities. Most of all, the Pentagon wants to avoid what one well-placed Administration official calls "the open-ended use of force to take out Saddam Hussein."

Recently, an "adventurous" proposal submitted by National Security Council staffers was summarily rejected by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Colin L. Powell, with a notation in the margin, "Teen-age Mutant Ninja Staffers don't make war."

However, there is one scenario that Administration insiders say could lead to armed conflict--regardless of Pentagon reservations. The latest standoff between the United Nations and Iraq involves plans for the elimination of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles. Once again, Hussein is trying to prevent the United Nations from carrying out its mandate and, once again, the threat of force is being raised to compel him.

This time, say U.S. officials, there is a certain "internal logic" in resorting to force. As one State Department official explains, "It didn't make a whole lot of sense in the past to threaten military action to get some secret papers turned over. But to tell the Iraqis that, if they don't let a U.N. team on the ground destroy the ballistic missiles, we'll do it from the air--well, now, that's credible."

To buy some time, Iraq is dispatching to New York a high-level negotiating team, led by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. But the Administration insists there is no room for compromise. "We have to be prepared to use force," says one well-placed official. "The President has no choice." This official, and others involved in planning U.S. strategy, say there is no more than a month, two at the most, before the Iraqis will be forced to knuckle under. "This can't wait until after the election," he explains.

The Saudis, too, are focused on a link between the U.S. elections and Hussein. Their "worst nightmare," according to one source close to Bandar, is: "In November, George Bush will be gone and Saddam Hussein will still be there." It should not surprise anyone to learn that in the upside-down world of Arab-Israeli rivalries, this Saudi nightmare is something close to an Israeli dream.

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