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FAREWELL, SAUDI ARABIA



Published: Thu, January 31, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



FAREWELL, SAUDI ARABIA

Chicago Tribune: Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., did the nation a service the other day by broaching publicly the idea that the United States ought to consider removing its troops from Saudi Arabia.

Such a policy review is years overdue, but it has become urgent in the last few weeks, under the strains of the investigation of Sept. 11 and the prosecution of the war on terrorism.

Indeed, a review of American policy may already have become academic. The Washington Post reported just days ago that the Saudi government had grown "increasingly uncomfortable with the U.S. military presence" and might soon ask that it be ended.

The United States could spurn such a request only by becoming an occupying force, thereby inviting the hatred and enmity of the entire Arab world and, quite probably, of much of the rest of the world as well.

It is in U.S. interests to look unsentimentally at our relationship with Saudi Arabia and explore whether we may be able to achieve the same defense objectives we achieve by our presence there by redeploying troops to another, less-volatile location in the Persian Gulf region.

America's troop presence on Saudi sand is a relic of the Gulf War. The Saudis, stewards of two of Islam's holiest sites, reluctantly invited American forces into the country because they feared another visitor, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, might crash in uninvited. The gentlemen's agreement was that the Americans would leave as soon as the war was concluded.

They didn't. They dug in and stayed. The Pentagon began pouring money into the Prince Sultan Air Base, turning it into a state-of-the-art facility from which American warplanes could rule the region's skies.

Strains: But this arrangement created strains on both sides. American service members -- especially women -- chafed and finally rebelled at the restrictions imposed on them so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of their Muslim hosts. The United States accepted limits on what it could do with the 4,700 troops and the equipment it maintained in Saudi Arabia, so as not to make the unpopular Saudi ruling family even more unpopular with its own people and with other nations in the region.

The breaking point was reached on Sept. 11, when 19 hijackers, recruited and trained by Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida terrorist organization, unleashed a whirlwind of death and destruction. It turned out that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, as was bin Laden, whose principal grievance was the presence of American "infidels" on the soil of his nation, home of Islam's holiest places.

Since the terror attacks, the relationship has grown increasingly testy. Saudi Arabia has balked at helping track terrorist finances. It even resisted for a time so sensible and modest a request as to give to American immigration and law enforcement authorities basic biographical data about Saudis who board the national airlines' flights to the U.S.

It is time for Washington to realize that this marriage was not made in heaven.




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