Washington The United States went to war in the Persian Gulf about 11 years ago in part to save Saudi Arabia from invasion by Iraq. That task was quickly accomplished. But not even American military power could then save the Saudis from themselves. The Saudis must still accomplish that, on their own.
With Iraq in retreat and Iran absorbed with its own problems, Saudi Arabia seemed poised a decade ago to undertake reform at home and accept greater regional responsibility. It still had oil money to spare and strong influence in Washington.
Instead, immobility and decline set in. Saudi Arabia's rulers did little to modernize their kingdom. They ignored or sought to export many of the problems created within by religious intolerance and an overtaken tribal political system.
The Saudi-born fanatic Osama bin Laden went to Central Asia and launched hijacking teams populated by Saudi citizens to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks. Bin Laden then plainly said that the American victims served as stand-ins for the Saudi rulers and their supporters.
The terrorist assault demonstrated the failure of U.S. deterrence against American enemies in the Persian Gulf region. What can deter people committed to the greatest amount of destruction and death possible? Saudi Arabia's continuing weakness also underlined the failure of the American balance-of-power approach in the region, practiced under various labels (remember "dual containment?") since the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979.
This twin failure leaves the Saudi royal family stranded in a political no-man's land as a new Gulf War approaches. Not yet an avowed enemy, Saudi Arabia is not still a firm ally for Washington, either.
It is far-fetched to declare the Saudi regime an enemy, as some have in the recent overheated debate here. Saudi Arabia exercises a stabilizing influence on oil prices and supplies and has yet to make its final decisions on cooperation in a U.S. campaign against Iraq. The regime will work strenuously to avoid making any decision on the military front at all.
Thus the accusation of "enemy" misses the point: It gives the Saudi regime credit for a decision-making ability and a focus on regional and world affairs that it has in fact lacked for years. Saudi Arabia has stumbled into causing harm to the United States and its own interests. It has not charged in with premeditated malice.
This Saudi vacuum was not inevitable. And it may not be immutable. In the early 1970s, King Faisal mixed shrewdness and ruthlessness to make the sparsely populated kingdom a major player in world politics. In a series of interviews over a decade with Faisal, his two successors, Khalid and Fahd, and the current day-to-day leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, I developed a sense of a flawed but still workable system that could adapt, slowly, to global and local change.
But the House of Saud was struck by any royal family's greatest fear: Illness immobilized Fahd but did not remove him from the scene. He has floated in and out of control and lucidity for the past decade. Princely corruption and sloth have gone unchecked but not unnoticed by an increasingly resentful populace.
In any other neighborhood, the Saudi plight might be easily manageable. But the Persian Gulf is an unforgiving graveyard for complacency and political misjudgment. It is a zone of gathering and interacting turmoil and instability. George W. Bush does not have the option of inaction if he is to protect America's vital interests in a timely fashion.
That is why Bush simultaneously pursues war plans against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a subtle effort at the political subversion of Iran's ayatollahs and a difficult balancing act with Saudi Arabia. The region today is a forest of falling trees.
Iraq's Baathist dictatorship is a dying if still highly dangerous Nazi-like remnant of Arab socialist nationalism. Stuck in the Nasser era, the regime has enslaved its talented and resourceful people and detains them in a time warp. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution has run its course and must now bend or break as a profoundly disaffected population demands change. And Saudi Arabia's royals can no longer treat their country and its oil wealth as their private plaything and piggybank. They can no longer ignore the vast problems their now unworkable succession system and social codes produce for them and the world.
Saudi Arabia can still be saved. Not by America's armed forces, but by its own people and rulers. But they do not have even a minute to waste. It is rare in world politics to get a second chance to fix a mistake as big as losing a decade. Saudi Arabia must seize a last opportunity for salvation.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.