Saudi Arabia has hidden poison-pill terms inside its public, seemingly generous offer to organize an Islamic legion for Iraq. The Saudi conditions threaten to scuttle a military force that might have given a political helping hand to George W. Bush this autumn.
The Saudi offer to assemble 20,000 to 30,000 Muslim soldiers to help secure Iraq has greater political meaning than military or diplomatic significance. It risks becoming another example of why the words "Saudi initiative" may soon join military music, airline food and casual sex on the all-time hit parade of oxymorons.
Still, oxymorons can have value. The lofting and likely slow deflation of the Saudi trial balloon should force candidates Bush and John Kerry to think through fuzzy competing promises to "internationalize" the military effort in Iraq as part of an undeclared exit strategy for U.S. troops.
The price that even close U.S. allies will demand for taking on Iraq's burdens is likely to exceed what Washington will pay, as the flawed Saudi proposal and the continuing clashes between France and the United States over NATO's role in Iraq underline.
The publicity about the Islamic legion also spotlights the intrusive role that Saudi Arabia's rulers play in U.S. domestic politics. The royal family openly chooses favorites and tries to help them (especially incumbents) on Election Day with favorable decisions on oil supplies, the war on terrorism and other matters.
It does not go unnoticed. Bush has retooled his stump speech to talk about the country, not its rulers, and to portray the Saudis as belatedly but vigorously fighting terrorism. In contrast, Kerry has singled out the royal family in critical terms.
Some U.S. officials and foreign diplomats suspect that the Saudi proposal may have been crafted to gain political credit with -- and for -- Bush at little real cost to Saudi Arabia. While the balloon floats, it gives Bush a shield of sorts against Kerry's attacks on "unilateralism."
Described in vague terms at briefings in Riyadh last week, the initiative was outlined to Bush by the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, earlier in July. Could the political windfall of the arrival of Pakistani, Moroccan, Indonesian and other troops in Iraq around October have danced, however briefly, across Bush's mind?
The force's mission is unclear at this point. One task would be to protect a few dozen United Nations officials who are due to prepare Iraqis to conduct elections next January. Without the legion, the U.N. staffers would have to rely on the coalition or stay out of Iraq, even though Bush wants a U.N. presence now.
Saudi conditions are provoking tough bargaining between Riyadh and Washington. Of greatest U.S. concern is the Saudis' unwillingness to provide the $2 billion a year that one American official estimates it would cost to deploy 20,000 foreign troops.
The Pentagon balks at footing the bill because of the precedent this would set, as well as the problems that U.S. funding for new troops could create between Washington and countries that pay their own way in the current coalition.
The Saudi demand that U.S. forces be reduced by a number that exactly equals the number of Islamic troops to be deployed is another problem. The political symbolism of Americans withdrawing to make way for Muslims is vital to the Saudis. But that arrangement would raise doubts about Bush's commitment to "stay the course." Operational inefficiency and vulnerabilities created by a tight one-for-one replacement ratio are also feared.
The Saudis have softened a third demand, that the force be under U.N. command. A formula for a seemingly independent Muslim general working in a discreet U.S.-run chain of command is likely to emerge from the negotiations.
But Iraq's violent insurgency -- particularly the spread of hostage-taking, beheadings and threats leveled at non-coalition Muslim nationals -- seems to be cooling interest in Pakistan and elsewhere. President Pervez Musharraf is unlikely to send the Pakistani brigade that would be the heart of the Islamic legion unless Washington makes this a litmus test for U.S. economic support for Pakistan.
The Saudi proposal is no doubt manipulative, but not mean-spirited. It was conceived as a friendly gesture, not as a military solution. And it serves as a helpful warning: Other nations are not eager to send soldiers to Iraq to die in place of Americans or Iraqis.
It will take more than Bush's campaign oratory or even Kerry's election to change that reality. It will take a level of military success against the insurgents that is not evident today, and democratic elections in Iraq next January. Until then, we are almost certainly on our own.