When it comes to foreign policy, politicians love to talk about our enemies.
It makes sense. People are concerned about what groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are planning, and everyone agrees that we should do something about them. But the real test for America on the world stage is not our enemies, it’s our allies. And the biggest challenge we face right now is how we handle a crucial one: Saudi Arabia.
The United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy a strong economic relationship, as the United States is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, and Saudi Arabia is one of the largest U.S. export markets in the Middle East.
But the Saudi government is also behind a lot of America’s foreign policy problems. It has provided funding for Hamas and other groups that have committed terrorism in Israel and was the principal financial backer of the Taliban for at least five years before the Sept. 11 attacks — 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis also fund schools throughout the Islamic world indoctrinating students in a virulent and extreme form of Islam called Wahhabism. Textbooks in Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities teach this brand of Islam, and the University of Medina “recruits students from around the world, trains them in the bigotry of Salafism and sends them to Muslim communities in places like the Balkans, Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Egypt, where these Saudi-trained hard-liners work to eradicate the local, harmonious forms of Islam.”
The government of Saudi Arabia is also repressive towards its own people. Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (“Religious Police”) was formed in 1940 to enforce the implementation of Sharia law, and today some 4,000 members patrol the streets, “enforcing dress codes, the strict separation of men and women, the observance of daily prayers and other behavior that it considers to fall under the purview of Islam. Women, for example, are forbidden to drive.”
In 2002, 15 girls died in a school fire, prevented from fleeing by the Religious Police, who claimed the students were inappropriately covered. In 2007, a dozen of the police entered a Riyadh family’s home and fatally beat a 28-year old man whom they had suspected of illegally possessing alcohol. The list goes on and on.
One of the first things I learned in the Marines was that leading your peers is one of the biggest leadership challenges you will face. These are people who are the same (or very similar) rank to you, will not suffer direct consequences of ignoring you, and sometimes not friends of yours. At Officer Candidate School and then at The Basic School we all generally helped each other, but out in the fleet our allegiances belonged to our troops and our bosses. When you cannot order somebody to do something, it takes a certain skill set for leaders (officers or enlisted) to convince others to do what you want. Of course, to convince your peers or others on your team to follow your lead, you have to make it worth their while.
Certainly this scenario is not limited to the military — it applies to any industry leader, community organizer, religious director or political boss. And it certainly applies to our national leaders when interacting with foreign countries. And while it is not very challenging for a platoon sergeant to make sure the other platoon sergeants in a particular company are metaphorically marching in the same direction, it can be far more demanding for America’s leaders to convince our allies to march with us on issues central to our identity. A classic example is Saudi Arabia.
Right now the American public is consumed with ISIS and their aspirations to use radical Islamic terrorism to form a worldwide caliphate. We see our military flying thousands of bombing missions against them, arming and advising the Turkish Peshmerga on how to combat them, and deploying Special Forces troops to engage them in Iraq. But we are not focusing on the steps our “ally” Saudi Arabia has taken to foster the kind of environment that allowed ISIS to flourish, and never does our national conversation about radical terrorism address the anti-Western vitriol and incredible financial support stemming from Saudi Arabia.
Not only does Saudi Arabia finance Sunni Salafism around the globe, but it is also responsible for human rights practices consistent with the most backwater traditions that we typically vilify on the public stage. The beheadings conducted by ISIS that shocked the Western world are licensed by Saudi Arabia, and during two-week period in August of 2014, 19 people were beheaded there, nearly half for nonviolent crimes and one for “sorcery.”
Our political relationship with Saudi Arabia dates back to the Roosevelt administration after World War II, although many of their state practices fly in the face of what America holds dear. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been America’s closest Arab ally. Of course, nowhere is it written that to be allies or to work together on a particular initiative do two countries need to share the same world vision, priorities or aspirations. But regarding Saudi Arabia, the American public (and one presidential administration after another) has overlooked much of its record because of what they bring to the table — oil reserves and a huge checkbook.
As recently reported in the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia was the top destination for U.S. arms in 2014, and the trade is expected to grow 52 percent in 2015 to $9.8 billion. The kingdom has signed agreements to purchase $90.44 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets, Apache Longbow helicopters, Patriot Air defense systems, and many other weapons, munitions, and training services since October 2010 (including $5.4 billion in Patriot missiles in July 2015), according to a 2015 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Many American politicians right now seem to be competing with each other to claim how bellicose they would be if elected and how much bombing against ISIS they would authorize. But many military leaders understand that taking military action against ISIS could only result in a temporary tactical success, and that ISIS can only be truly defeated by ideological and political means. However, Saudi Arabia is one of only two countries (the other being Qatar) in the world where Wahhabi Salafism is the state religion, and ISIS is a violent expression of Wababist Salafism.
Recent cables released by Wikileaks identify that not only did then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opine that donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide, but regarding education in many poor Muslim countries, the choice is only between going to an extreme madrassa or getting no education at all. Moderate Muslim education cannot survive in these communities where is it competing with the incredible funding sponsored by Saudi Arabia and wealthy Gulf donors. But this is exactly what brings us back to American leadership and leading your peers.
While it may be easy and more convenient politically to focus our attention on the symptom, our leaders need to focus on the root of the problem. Although many American companies benefit from our economic relationship with Saudi Arabia, their concerns pale in comparison to our national security. Leading from the front, and convincing our Saudi partners that it is in their best long-term interests to discontinue sponsoring international terrorism, should be a policy that we wholeheartedly embrace. Our American leaders have many tools in their collective arsenal, including not only the military, but also diplomacy, information and economics.
Now is the time to embrace all of these components of national security and lead our peers in a holistic manner to defeat the radical ideology embraced by ISIS and other terrorist groups.