EDITORIAL: The shifting sands

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Al Qaeda is not an existential threat to the kingdom, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, told us yesterday. “It is a threat,” he said, one of many nightmares.

The changing content of the king’s nightmares often tells us more about the oil kingdom than official reports. The specter of Osama bin Laden has faded. The archterrorist’s threats to kill the royal family and remove the family name from the maps are now dismissed as an ill wind that has spent its force. Once, in the wake of series of car bombings and shootings in 2003, Saudi intelligence ruthlessly hunted down al Qaeda operatives. Today, Prince Turki explained, the Saudi people have turned against the terror network. Some even phone the police to report suspicious characters.

Now, the prince explained, two new nightmares have emerged: that Iran will develop a working nuclear bomb, or that America will strike Iran to prevent it from having a working nuclear bomb. The moral equivalence between these two feared outcomes is breathtaking, even by Saudi standards.

When he saw we were annoyed by the petty moral equivalence that paralyzes all peace efforts in his sunburned part of the world, he added helpfully that a U.S. bombing raid would inevitably produce radioactive dust that the “prevailing winds would carry our way.” Incinerating Tel Aviv would have similar inconveniences, we presume.

His counterproposal? Enrich uranium in a neutral country and give it to Tehran, sparing them the international opprobrium that comes with illegal enrichment. With that trial balloon punctured, the good prince inflated another: Ban all atomic weapons from the Middle East. In short, Iran surrenders its bomb when Israel disarms. We won’t hold our breath waiting for that to happen.

We know the prince is simply delivering telegrams penned in Riyadh. He doesn’t have to believe them, just carry them. And he doesn’t care much whether we believe them either.

Yet, when the prince speaks for himself, he is a canny observer. He pointed out that America’s flawed North Korea policy has emboldened Iran. After the collapse of the Clinton-era Agreed Framework, Pyongyang exploded a nuclear weapon. It was rewarded with diplomatic attention and offers of talks and aid. He projects himself in the minds of the mullahs: “If North Korea can get away with exploding a nuclear weapon and all that happens is the U.S. and other countries come to them offering goodies, ‘why not us?’ ”

The prince was also adamant that U.S. and allied forces withdraw from Iran’s flanks. In Afghanistan, they should “go after [terrorists] wherever they may be,” then “declare victory and get out.” In Iraq, the United States should withdraw as soon as possible. Connect the dots. Iran and America offer differing “nightmares.” The United States should retreat from Iran’s sphere of influence and either learn to live with Iran’s bomb or bargain for it with Israel’s safety.

We suspect that the Saudis have taken the measure of President Obama and his administration - and realize nothing will be done to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. That means Iran’s bomb is inevitable and so is the Saudis’ appeasement. As for America, we may want to rethink a foreign policy that makes our friends bow to our enemies.

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