- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

Break out the romantic music and the champagne (well, actually, hold the champagne), because Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah is in the mood for peace.

Prince Abdullah's vague proposal that Israel return to its pre-1967 borders in exchange for a comprehensive settlement with the Arab states has been met with a rapturous reception in capitals around the world.

Can a Nobel nomination be far behind? Who better than Prince Abdullah to join Yasser Arafat in that special subcategory of Nobel winners Arab leaders that the world really, really hoped would make peace.

The Abdullah proposal will certainly founder on the details like the "right of return."

That's the Arab demand that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from decades ago be able to flood back into Israel, endangering its existence as a Jewish state.

The idea is that if Israel can't be destroyed through war, maybe it can be destroyed through peace.

So the Abdullah proposal is less significant for what it portends for Arab-Israeli relations than for what it says about the state of the Saudis. Namely, that they're shaking in their ghutras.

They know that the war on terrorism endangers the House of Saud's paradoxical (nonsensical even) relationship with the United States.

Mutual strategic and mercenary interests between the United States and the Saudis have long submerged the significance of the peculiar, intolerant and anti-Western beliefs at the core of the Saudi monarchy.

No more.

Saudi Arabia has become the biggest funder of madrassas radicalizing Islamic schools in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Yemen.

It is the biggest supporter of the North American Islamic Trust, which builds the mosques and appoints the imams in the United States. Similar outfits exist in most other countries in the world, all of which gives the Saudis crucial leverage over the character of Islam.

Meanwhile, lavishly funded Saudi charities provide a breeding ground for radicals and sometimes have direct connections to terrorists.

In short, the Saudis have created a radical Muslim network from the Philippines to Chicago.

For the United States, this is a more urgent problem than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And one scenario that will help enable the United States to deal with it is becoming increasingly plausible: an invasion of Iraq.

Why? Installing a functional, Western-oriented government in Baghdad would dramatically increase U.S. leverage in the region.

A decent government in Iraq could become a model for the Arab world.

It would provide a boost to reformers in Iran, and it might chasten Mr. Arafat, who typically moderates his behavior at times of Western assertion.

It thus would serve to embarrass the Saudis, who, in comparison with a reformist government in Iraq, would look more backward than ever.

It also would possibly disrupt the Iranian-Palestinian radical axis on which the Saudis and especially the anti-Western Prince Abdullah have increasingly looked favorably.

One of the strategic oddities of the Middle East is that Iraq is a more natural candidate for friendship with the United States than Saudi Arabia, despite the Saddam interlude.

Iraqis have traditionally been a sophisticated and commerce-oriented people, with few of the traditions of Islamic radicalism of the Saudis.

The problem with the House of Saud is that it might too well represent grass-roots Saudi opinion. (The backwardness is hard to exaggerate: Slavery was abolished only in 1962).

In a post-Saddam world, U.S. policy could change completely.

The United States could withdraw its security guarantee from the Saudis, fulfill its basing requirements elsewhere Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, even Iraq and give the Saudis some time to think about the Bush doctrine.

It could be spelled out for them with great clarity every time Saudi princes come to the United States to hit the nightclubs and patronize prostitutes: Supporting and tolerating terrorists makes you a terrorist.

This new U.S. posture might well give us the leverage necessary to force the Saudis to put an end to the subsidies that spread radical Islam throughout the world.

Such wrenching changes in a country's orientation are possible, as the increasingly anti-Islamist President Musharraf has demonstrated in Pakistan.

But Gen. Musharraf acted only under extreme pressure from the United States and India, of the sort the Saudis are unlikely to feel absent a new post-Saddam dispensation in the Persian Gulf.

The Saudis no doubt sense this deep in their oil-rich bones and get more nervous as talk of a U.S.-led march on Baghdad gets more serious.

Prince Abdullah's peace plan is an encouraging sign to the extent that it shows he knows he needs to try to make nice with the West.

It cannot, however, be allowed to distract from the main task at hand: suppressing the variant of the Saudi ideology that incinerated and crushed 3,000 Americans on September 11.

In the meantime, the Nobel Peace Prize can wait.

Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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