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Hummers Here, Hummers There


In the wake of the recent terrorist bombings in Riyadh, Saudi officials seem to have — pardon the expression — gotten religion. They say they now understand that suicide terrorism in the name of Islam is as much a threat to them as it is to the open societies of the West. This time, they insist, they're going to crack down on their extremists. I hope so, but I fear we have a deeper problem with Saudi Arabia. I fear it is the Soviet Union. I fear it is unreformable.

I fear that the ruling brothers of Saudi Arabia are like the Soviet Politburo. I fear the 6,000 Saudi princes are like the Communist Party Central Committee. I fear that Riyadh is Red Square. I fear the Al-Sauds used Islamism to unite 40 fractious tribes in Arabia the way Lenin used Communism to unite 100 fractious nationalities across Russia. And I fear that Osama bin Laden is just the evil version of Andrei Sakharov — the dissident Soviet scientist who exposed the system from within. Sakharov was exiled to Gorky. Bin Laden was exiled to Kabul. And both systems meet their end where? In Afghanistan.

Even if this parallel is off, and the Saudi system could be reformed without collapsing, I fear that the Saudi ruling family has become too dysfunctional, divided and insecure to undertake this task. Surely one test is whether Saudi officials and spiritual leaders can condemn Islamic suicide terrorism, not just when it is against them, but when it is against people of other faiths — no matter what the context. Saudi Arabia's neighbors — Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman — are experimenting with elections, a freer press, women's rights and free trade with America. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has been drifting under an ailing king, trying to buy a different perception of itself with better advertising rather than with deeper reform.

Frankly, I have a soft spot for the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, who is a man of decency and moderation. But he's too nice for his own good. He needs to break heads at home, force some sustained reforms on his religious establishment, revive his own peace initiative and begin to empower his women — because women's empowerment is the best antidote to extremism.

The problem with Saudi Arabia is not that it has too little democracy. It's that it has too much. The ruling family is so insecure, it feels it has to consult every faction, tribe and senior cleric before making any decision. This makes Saudi Arabia a very strange autocracy: it's a country where one man makes no decisions.

If this continues, we must protect ourselves — by telling the Saudis, and ourselves, the truth.

In private, Bush aides have been fuming: The U.S. gave the Saudis intelligence warnings before the recent attacks, but they took no steps to deter them. Publicly, though, the Bush team bites its tongue. We never talk straight to Saudi Arabia, because we are addicted to its oil. Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.

If we were telling the Saudis the truth, we would tell them that their antimodern and antipluralist brand of Islam — known as Wahhabism — combined with their oil wealth has become a destabilizing force in the world. By financing mosques and schools that foster the least tolerant version of Islam, they are breeding the very extremists who are trying to burn down their house and ours.

But we also need to tell ourselves the truth. We constantly complain about the blank checks the Saudis write to buy off their extremists. But who writes the blank checks to the Saudis? We do — with our gluttonous energy habits, renewed addiction to big cars, and our president who has made "conservation" a dirty word.

In the wake of the Iraq war, the E.P.A. announced that the average fuel economy of America's cars and trucks fell to its lowest level in 22 years, with the 2002 model year. That is a travesty. No wonder foreigners think we sent our U.S. Army Humvees to control Iraq, just so we could drive more G.M. Hummers over here. When our president insists that we can have it all — big cars, big oil, lower taxes, with no sacrifices or conservation — why shouldn't the world believe that all we are about is protecting our right to binge?

And so the circle is complete: President Bush won't tell Americans the truth, so we won't tell Saudis the truth, so they won't tell their extremists the truth, so they can go on pumping intolerance and we can go on guzzling gas. Someday, our kids will condemn us for all of this.

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