A briefing given last month to a top Pentagon advisory board described Saudi Arabia as an enemy of the United States, and recommended that U.S. officials give it an ultimatum to stop backing terrorism or face seizure of its oil fields and its financial assets invested in the United States.
"The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader," stated the explosive briefing. It was presented on July 10 to the Defense Policy Board, a group of prominent intellectuals and former senior officials that advises the Pentagon on defense policy.
"Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies," said the briefing prepared by Laurent Murawiec, a Rand Corp. analyst. A talking point attached to the last of 24 briefing slides went even further, describing Saudi Arabia as "the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" in the Middle East.
The briefing did not represent the views of the board or official government policy, and in fact runs counter to the present stance of the U.S. government that Saudi Arabia is a major ally in the region. Yet it also represents a point of view that has growing currency within the Bush administration -- especially on the staff of Vice President Cheney and in the Pentagon's civilian leadership -- and among neoconservative writers and thinkers closely allied with administration policymakers.
One administration official said opinion about Saudi Arabia is changing rapidly within the U.S. government. "People used to rationalize Saudi behavior," he said. "You don't hear that anymore. There's no doubt that people are recognizing reality and recognizing that Saudi Arabia is a problem."
The decision to bring the anti-Saudi analysis before the Defense Policy Board also appears tied to the growing debate over whether to launch a U.S. military attack to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. The chairman of the board is former Pentagon official Richard N. Perle, one of the most prominent advocates in Washington of just such an invasion. The briefing argued that removing Hussein would spur change in Saudi Arabia -- which, it maintained, is the larger problem because of its role in financing and supporting radical Islamic movements.
Perle did not return calls to comment. A Rand spokesman said Murawiec, a former adviser to the French Ministry of Defense who now analyzes international security affairs for Rand, would not be available to comment.
"Neither the presentations nor the Defense Policy Board members' comments reflect the official views of the Department of Defense," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said in a written statement issued last night. "Saudi Arabia is a long-standing friend and ally of the United States. The Saudis cooperate fully in the global war on terrorism and have the Department's and the Administration's deep appreciation."
Murawiec said in his briefing that the United States should demand that Riyadh stop funding fundamentalist Islamic outlets around the world, stop all anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli statements in the country, and "prosecute or isolate those involved in the terror chain, including in the Saudi intelligence services."
If the Saudis refused to comply, the briefing continued, Saudi oil fields and overseas financial assets should be "targeted," although exactly how was not specified.
The report concludes by linking regime change in Iraq to altering Saudi behavior. This view, popular among some neoconservative thinkers, is that once a U.S. invasion has removed Hussein from power, a friendly successor regime would become a major exporter of oil to the West. That oil would diminish U.S. dependence on Saudi energy exports, and so -- in this view -- permit the U.S. government finally to confront the House of Saud for supporting terrorism.
"The road to the entire Middle East goes through Baghdad," said the administration official, who is hawkish on Iraq. "Once you have a democratic regime in Iraq, like the ones we helped establish in Germany and Japan after World War II, there are a lot of possibilities."
Of the two dozen people who attended the Defense Policy Board meeting, only one, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, spoke up to object to the anti-Saudi conclusions of the briefing, according to sources who were there. Some members of the board clearly agreed with Kissinger's dismissal of the briefing and others did not.
One source summarized Kissinger's remarks as, "The Saudis are pro-American, they have to operate in a difficult region, and ultimately we can manage them."
Kissinger declined to comment on the meeting. He said his consulting business does not advise the Saudi government and has no clients that do large amounts of business in Saudi Arabia.
"I don't consider Saudi Arabia to be a strategic adversary of the United States," Kissinger said. "They are doing some things I don't approve of, but I don't consider them a strategic adversary."
Other members of the board include former vice president Dan Quayle; former defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Harold Brown; former House speakers Newt Gingrich and Thomas Foley; and several retired senior military officers, including two former vice chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired admirals David Jeremiah and William Owens.
Asked for reaction, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said he did not take the briefing seriously. "I think that it is a misguided effort that is shallow, and not honest about the facts," he said. "Repeating lies will never make them facts."
"I think this view defies reality," added Adel al-Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to Saudi leader Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz. "The two countries have been friends and allies for over 60 years. Their relationship has seen the coming and breaking of many storms in the region, and if anything it goes from strength to strength."
In the 1980s, the United States and Saudi Arabia played major roles in supporting the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, pouring billions of dollars into procuring weapons and other logistical support for the mujaheddin.
At the end of the decade, the relationship became even closer when the U.S. military stationed a half-million troops on Saudi territory to repel Hussein's invasions of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Several thousand U.S. troops have remained on Saudi soil, mainly to run air operations in the region. Their presence has been cited by Osama bin Laden as a major reason for his attacks on the United States.
The anti-Saudi views expressed in the briefing appear especially popular among neoconservative foreign policy thinkers, which is a relatively small but influential group within the Bush administration.
"I think it is a mistake to consider Saudi Arabia a friendly country," said Kenneth Adelman, a former aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who is a member of the Defense Policy Board but didn't attend the July 10 meeting. He said the view that Saudi Arabia is an adversary of the United States "is certainly a more prevalent view that it was a year ago."
In recent weeks, two neoconservative magazines have run articles similar in tone to the Pentagon briefing. The July 15 issue of the Weekly Standard, which is edited by William Kristol, a former chief of staff to Quayle, predicted "The Coming Saudi Showdown." The current issue of Commentary, which is published by the American Jewish Committee, contains an article titled, "Our Enemies, the Saudis."
"More and more people are making parts of this argument, and a few all of it," said Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University expert on military strategy. "Saudi Arabia used to have lots of apologists in this country. . . . Now there are very few, and most of those with substantial economic interests or long-standing ties there."
Cohen, a member of the Defense Policy Board, declined to discuss its deliberations. But he did say that he views Saudi Arabia more as a problem than an enemy. "The deal that they cut with fundamentalism is most definitely a threat, [so] I would say that Saudi Arabia is a huge problem for us," he said.
But that view is far from dominant in the U.S. government, others said. "The drums are beginning to beat on Saudi Arabia," said Robert Oakley, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who consults frequently with the U.S. military.
He said the best approach isn't to confront Saudi Arabia but to support its reform efforts. "Our best hope is change through reform, and that can only come from within," he said.