Don’t let George W. Bush’s utopian perceptions of a Middle East peace fool you. The vision of a Palestinian state and a Jewish state living side by side in peace and prosperity does not cloud his bedrock perception that the Palestinians need a short leash. He fully intends to retain tight U.S. financial and political control over any Palestinian government, closely supervise its security and intelligence services and make sure their terrorist elements are expunged.
While genuinely aspiring to lift the terror threat darkening life in Israel, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report that the Bush administration has come to realize that a measure of Israeli-Palestinian calm is the most that can be achieved for now in the framework of its overall regional strategic policy – especially in the light of events in Iraq (treated in a separate article in this issue). Most intelligence officials and counter-terrorism experts in Washington and Jerusalem have come to believe that it is impossible to eradicate suicide terrorism altogether at this time.
But even the Bush administration’s modest goal of quenching the highest flames is fast slipping out of reach. Those flames are already licking round the edges of Washington’s overall objectives in the Middle East, to the detriment of its strategic moves elsewhere in the world, notwithstanding the two regional summits in which Bush staked his personal prestige.
In some high-placed Washington circles quoted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the talk is that the two summits were a mistake and will almost certainly backfire. The president’s first get-together with supportive Arab rulers since the Iraq war on June 3 in Sharm el-Sheikh was far from cordial. His deliberations with the rulers of Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, attended also by Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, soon resolved themselves into what one source close to the event described as “tough behind-the-scenes arguments” with Saudi crown prince Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Saudis Upset by Possible U-turn on Troop Withdrawal
At one point, tempers flared to the point that Abdullah was about to stalk out before the closing ceremony. He was only persuaded to sit down when Bush took him aside for a heart-to-heart that stressed the importance of not showcasing a fresh US-Saudi crisis in front of a regional and world audience.
One of the foremost irritants, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources exclusively reveal, was the possibility of Washington reneging on its promise to withdraw American troops from the oil kingdom no later than the start of winter 2003. This option is now on the president’s desk, placed there in mid-May by US vice president Dick Cheney.
Only very rarely has the vice president been known to take strong issue with defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. However, he is flatly opposed to the pledge made to Riyadh by Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in the Gulf, to yank the 10,000 US troops still in Saudi Arabia, mainly at the big Prince Sultan air base. In an urgent private interview with the president, Cheney said the decision was surprising and misjudged and fraught with three signal geo-political disasters.
A. It would expose the western flank of the US army in Iraq, leaving a military vacuum that would invite anti-American elements – Sunnis, Saddam Hussein loyalists, al-Qaeda terrorists and Syrian fighters – to take advantage and move into Saudi Arabia as their rear base for anti-American forays into Iraq. Saudi armed forces were not capable of stemming this incursion. Even if they could, Cheney said he was not sure Saudi leaders would want to actively run into conflict with these elements. They might prefer to support the Iraqi Muslim Sunnis spearheading the resistance to US forces, as their only channel of influence in postwar Iraq.
B. Saudi Arabia would be laid open to Al-Qaeda’s drive to turn the kingdom into its primary territorial base in place of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden’s command posts are now confined to the Empty Quarter and remote areas bordering on most of the Gulf emirates and Yemen. Once the American military presence was removed, they would surge forward into the Saudi heartland and cities.
Cheney likened Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan on the eve of the US invasion in October 2001. Then the Taliban, like the Saudi royals, nominally ruled the country and its urban centers but bin Laden held sway over extensive outlying areas. In the oil kingdom today, al Qaeda has reached fingers into entire suburbs of major Saudi cities as well as spreading through villages and Bedouin tribal regions. The Islamic radicals are also building up a presence at Saudi international airports and seaports. The deployment of their cells in Red Sea ports will allow terrorists to establish their first naval bases. They will be able to start threatening Suez Canal shipping to and from the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.
The US vice president added for emphasis that his staff had never received any confirmation of Riyadh’s claim to have stopped the transfer of funds to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
C. The loss of a military foothold in Saudi Arabia will weaken Washington’s leverage against Iran and ability to convincingly threaten military action against Tehran’s clerical regime. The elimination of the US strategic flank to the west of Iraq will create a continuous chain of anti-American forces running from Syria, through the Sunni enclave of central Iraq and down south to fundamentalist Wahhabi country, exacerbating the peril of an al Qaeda takeover of Riyadh.
The president told Cheney, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington, that he needed time to weigh the situation, but gave no indication of whether he would consider delaying the US troop pullout from Saudi Arabia.
At Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush was surprised to be jumped on by Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah, who knew all about the Cheney briefing and demanded a clear answer on whether the promise to evacuate US troops from the kingdom was about to be reversed. Sources familiar with the behind-the-scenes exchanges at the summit revealed that the crown prince was equally biting about Washington’s handling of postwar Iraq. He had nothing good to say about Paul Bremer, the top US political administrator in Baghdad. Finally, Abdullah sternly warned Bush against a military action against Iran.
Scared stiff of Western democracy, free trade
Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, regarded as one of America’s staunchest allies in the region, had a bone of his own to pick with President Bush – and not for the first time.
Mubarak has tried often to wean US leaders away from their overall design, formed before the Iraq war, to lead the Middle East toward a democratic future. This is an alien and radical concept for the Egyptian president, who believes its application would compel Arab nations to abandon their nationalist-religious ethos in favor of economic and civic progress. He sees it moreover as a recipe for toppling Cairo as number one power in the region, a prospect Mubarak believes would not deflect the Bush administration from its regional master-plan.
Hence his anger at Sharm el-Sheikh.
Mubarak believes Egypt has attained its pride of place in the region both as center of Arab nationalism and fountainhead of Islamic learning. The post of Arab League secretary is traditionally held by an Egyptian official – former foreign minister Amr Mussa is incumbent, while Cairo’s Al-Azhar University has been esteemed for centuries as the pre-eminent seat of Islamic studies and home to great sages. Bush’s campaign to push the Arab world out of its traditionalist base into the world of market economies, free trade agreements, economic cooperation and democratically elected institutions, strikes at the core of everything the Egyptian president has worked for over thirty years and confronts the country as he knows it with the danger of extinction.
Forced to adjust to open forums and Western economic mores, poverty-stricken Egypt, the second largest recipient of US foreign aid, would make a poor showing at the new Middle East and Persian Gulf forums. Egypt and Arab nationalism, which dominate Middle East politics today, would furthermore be eased to the fringes of the multiethnic platforms envisaged by Bush. Non-Arab regional participants like Turks, Kurds and Israelis would be raised level with the Arab components and Egypt downgraded as Arab nationalist exemplar.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note Mubarak has repeatedly warned Bush that he may rue the day if the Egyptian presidency is ploughed under by American economic reforms; his successor would be unlikely to fit into Washington’s plans.
This warning he translated into a vivid scenario for the benefit of the US national security council. Should Al-Azhar University and its relatively moderate Sunni administration fall into the hands of radical Shiites, they would have gained a point of vantage for whipping the Muslim world into an anti-Western frenzy that would make the Khomeinist Islamic Revolution in Iran look tame.
According to our sources in Cairo, Mubarak lives in fear of setting off a Shiite chain reaction. He therefore cut short an initiative put forward by his senior political adviser, Osama el-Baz, sympathetically supported by the White House, to make Al Azhar the standard-bearer of moderate Sunnism against the radical Shiism of Tehran and the fundamentalist Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. At all costs, the Egyptian ruler seeks to avoid confrontation with Muslim extremists. He believes Egypt should act as mediator and moderator between the two great schools of Islam rather than challenging the Shiites and extremists.
This philosophy also governs Cairo’s Palestinian policies. Resisting the US president’s call for a universal fight against the Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their suicide killers – voiced also at Sharm el-Sheikh – Egypt is sponsoring reconciliatory dialogues with the two Palestinian terrorist groups. The Egyptian leader rejects Bush’s attempts to neutralize Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. He needs Arafat as his back door to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Gulf emirates.
At Sharm el-Sheikh, therefore, Mubarak sharply rebuffed the Bush demands for Arab governments to establish normal relations with Israel and open up the Middle East to free trade. He told the US president he wanted no part of these policies.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the two strong-willed presidents were left with no option but to agree not to agree.