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With us or against us? Mideast is not that simple

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 9, 2002


Catchy sound bites can lead to shaky foreign policy.

Consider the awkward position President Bush finds himself in as a result of the statement he made last September: "You're either with us . . . or with the terrorists."

At the time, it sounded great -- the leader of the most powerful nation on earth warning other countries that they must do their part to rid the world of terrorism. Fearing U.S. opprobrium or worse, even hostile governments like Iran's quickly condemned the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the problem with this black-and-white approach is painfully obvious when it comes to America's longtime ally and oil supplier, Saudi Arabia.

It is Saudi Arabia that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers who committed the worst-ever terrorist attacks against the United States. It is Saudi Arabia that is said to have funnelled millions of dollars into Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, including the one Tuesday that killed 15 and wounded scores of others.

To judge from a growing body of evidence, the Saudis have managed to be both "with us . . . and with the terrorists." So where does this leave the Bush administration?

Thus far, it has decided to treat the Saudis as with us. Desperate to end the Israeli-Palestinian violence, the administration is bending over backward to stress its friendship with Saudi Arabia and embrace the peace proposal offered by Crown Prince Abdullah. At their recent meeting in Texas, the president spoke warmly of the "strong personal bond" he had forged with the 77-year-old prince. Others in the administration praised the "constructive" and "helpful" nature of the talks.

One could excuse Israel -- and many other countries -- for wondering if the United States is really serious when it says "you're either with us . . . or with the terrorists."

"Bush has been compelled . . . to dilute his own principles to shore up his allies," writes Raphael Israeli, a professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and an expert on Hamas.

"However, if he realized that those 'allies,' especially Saudi Arabia, are in fact the instigators of terrorism and its providers, both in the Middle East and worldwide, then maybe he will wake up to a state of mind where abiding by one's principles is much more worthy, durable and hopeful than bowing to oil power. A policy of appeasement toward tyrants has never paid in the long run."

Earlier this week, Israel released an 85-page dossier that says documents seized from Palestinian Authority offices conclusively prove Saudi links to terrorist attacks against Israel. As reported in the Jerusalem Post, Saudis "transferred large sums of money in a systematical and ongoing manner to families of suicide terrorists, to the Hamas organization, and to persons and entities identified with Hamas."

According to the dossier, "the Saudi Committee for the Support of the Intifada was aware that the funds it transferred were paid to families of terrorists who perpetrated murderous attacks on Israel."

Israel stopped short of saying Saudi Arabia is a state that supports terrorism, apparently fearing such a claim "would place the U.S. and Israel on a collision course" over the role the Saudis should play in negotiating a peace agreement, the Post said. But in a speech Monday in St. Petersburg, Israel's chief spokesman made it clear how his government feels.

"We know who the Saudis are, that's why we have nothing to do with them," said Daniel Seaman, director of the government press office. "They can't play both sides of the fence -- on the one hand, they can't fund Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida and on the other hand talk about peace."

The Saudi government has called Israel's charges "totally baseless and false," saying the kingdom provides money only for food, medicine and other humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.

"These allegations are a smoke screen intended to distract attention away from the peace process," Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said in a statement.

"Israel wants to discredit Saudi Arabia, which has been a leading voice for peace and the catalyst for a peace plan that has been positively received by more than 60 world leaders, including the president of the United States. . . . Rather than join the rest of the world's leadership, (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is trying to deflect attention from the main issue at hand: his refusal to withdraw from occupied Arab lands."

Given their strong military and economic ties, nobody expects the United States to stop treating the Saudis as "with us" even if evidence mounts they are supporting terrorism. By most accounts, Crown Prince Abdullah is a decent man who's trying to steer his country on a more moderate, enlightened course. There are good reasons for the Bush administration to keep working with him.

But critics of U.S. foreign policy might find it less two-faced if American leaders weren't saddled with such catchphrases as "you're either with us . . . or with the terrorists." The world isn't that simple.

President Bush was "looking for the key sound bite to mobilize the American people, but at the same time it made diplomacy with a number of different countries far more difficult because obviously there are different problems throughout the world," said Thomas A. Keaney, a director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

"It's not that I think we should stand for sponsoring terrorists anywhere -- clearly that shouldn't be the case -- but 'you're with us or against us' moves it toward the line, specifically with Saudi Arabia."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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