Who do we bomb next?

If the president were serious about fighting terrorism, we would soon be attacking Saudi Arabia.

Published October 17, 2001 5:34PM (EDT)

If President Bush were serious about his stated goal of punishing nations that support terrorism, Saudi Arabia would be the next logical target. The evidence is overwhelming that it is the incredibly rich Saudis, far more than the desperately poor Afghans, who are responsible for the emergence of a militant and violent variant of Islam that has infected much of the Muslim world.

It is wealthy Saudi businessmen, with the complicity of the Saudi government, who have financed the religious schools and Mujahedin training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan from which the latest wave of terrorism has erupted. Yes, the very same Saudi Arabia that we protected from Iraq in the Gulf War.

It is an important caution to recognize that one decade's triumph easily turns into the next decade's disaster. If George Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell had not managed to save the Saudi royal family from the wrath of Saddam Hussein, it is not likely that Osama bin Laden or his cohorts would have been able to mount their attacks against the United States. Certainly not with the resources of Hussein, whom bin Laden has condemned as a betrayer of Islam.

It is convenient for the Saudi government to now distance itself from bin Laden, but the record is clear that, as the New York Times editorialized, "with Riyadh's acquiescence, money and manpower from Saudi Arabia helped create and sustain Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization." When one peruses the list of directors of businesses and foundations cited by the U.S. government that allegedly supported al-Qaida, it reads like a who's who of Saudi society.

Perhaps that's why the Bush administration rejects the Taliban's demand for proof that bin Laden is behind the recent terror, a normal response to an extradition request. Have we refused to supply that evidence or to issue the white paper of proof promised by Colin Powell because what we have learned about the international financing of al-Qaida is too embarrassing to the Saudis?

What we do know is that at least more than half of the hijackers were Saudi citizens; that their alleged leader bin Laden is a member of one of Saudi Arabia's richest families; that money from the Saudi elite sustained a terrorist network; and that the Saudi government has refused to cooperate fully with the United States in investigating these links or seizing terrorist assets.

Nor do we have clean hands. The terror trees that sprouted in the barren desert and rocky outcroppings of Afghanistan were a foreign implant created and nourished by the United States and Saudi Arabia as byproducts of the Cold War. Religion was our weapon in the Cold War, and the militant Wahhabi brand of Islam, the predominant sect in Saudi Arabia, became our most trustworthy sword.

If bin Laden is brought to trial, what will our answer be when he credits the United States with first inspiring him to fight the communist heathens to protect the free world? What if his lawyers expose the financial network that entwined Saudi money with our own to train the fearsome religious fanatics who now haunt our imagination and profoundly threaten our daily lives?

Bin Laden may be yet another Hitler -- we seem to find one every 10 years, as we did with Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, in order to cope with a world that is ever more incomprehensible -- but his death will not prove the key to ending terrorism.

The problem is that the darkest impulse inexplicably lurks in the most prosperous corners of the world economy. Hate toward the United States resides in the hearts of men with whom we presume to share common values because we trade in common markets.

The great unsolved mystery of the terror attacks of the past decades, whether sponsored by oil-rich Libya or the elite of Saudi Arabia, is why men of wealth are not content to simply be rich and instead turn crazy.

For generations, the Saudi elite, led by the royal family, has indulged a sick compromise between obscene opulence and puritanical religion that has proved deeply dissatisfying for many -- even among its most privileged citizens.

Theirs is an absurd stance in which the rich elite of the oil sheikdoms, often engaging in the worst decadence of Western society, retain their sense of virtue by encouraging the poor masses of the Islamic world to die in a fruitless battles against modernization.

For that reason it is hypocritical in the extreme for the United States to be bombing the impoverished masses of Afghanistan, who have suffered for so many years from Saudi manipulation, while letting off scot-free the oil sheiks who created this mess.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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