The Peters Principle: How Unpleasant Fictions Fuel a Culture War

 January 6, 2002

Comment: #437

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 436, 435, 428, 424, 425, 329

References: [1] Ralph Peters, "The Saudi Threat," Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2002 Excerpts attached.

Note: Read Reference 1 before proceeding with the following commentary. 


In Ref 1, Ralph Peters, a well known tough guy on the jingoistic circuit now dominating what passes for a foreign policy debate in Washington, issued a call for a culture war against Saudi Arabia.

Many of the facts supporting Peters' tirade in Ref 1 are indeed correct.  But it is his willful ignorance of countervailing or mitigating facts that creates the defining ethos of his essay: he has invented a 21st Century Yellow Journalism that would have induced envy in the breast of William Randolph Hearst.

Before you sign up for Peters' culture war with Saudi Arabia, I recommend you read the attached rejoinder.  It plugs in some of the information about Saudi Arabia that Mr. Peters conveniently left out.  The author, Chris Sanders, is an American living in London with almost twenty years of experience in Saudi Arabia.  Readers may recall his excellent rejoinder to Bernard Lewis in Comment #435.

-----[Sanders Rejoinder to Peters]------

Unpleasant Fictions

By Chris Sanders
January 6, 2002

Ralph Peters' January 4th essay in the Wall Street Journal, The Saudi Threat, is one of the craziest things written since Mad Magazine launched Spy vs. Spy, or at least it would be if the author was not so deadly earnest. But since he is, we can at least hold him to account for an astonishing series of unsubstantiated allegations, assertions and just plain misinformation (or is it disinformation?). Mr. Peters is identified by the paper as a retired Army officer. Perhaps this is meant to reassure us that he has an inside track. I doubt it.

"Saudi-sponsored religious extremism" is "Anti-women, anti-meritocratic, anti-democracy, anti-education in any meaningful, liberating sense, racist and profoundly anti-freedoms" Whew. One wonders when Mr. Peters finds time to take a breath. A problem with opinions expressed in this fashion is that they leave little room for discussion. But then, they aren't intended to, are they? No less than the President himself has said it: You're either with us or for terrorism.

The Saudi monarchy's position as the "Guardian of the Holy Places" means that it is scrutinised more closely by the Islamic world than probably any other regime. The regime therefore has a constituency larger than the immediate population of Saudi Arabia whose opinion matters for its survival. The problem of Palestine is an issue that the Saudi government could no more ignore than it could its relationship with America. It is surely significant that Crown Prince Abdullah has turned down numerous invitations to come to Washington, at the same time that Saudi Arabia has established a $1 billion fund to aid the Palestinians, and has opened its hospitals to casualties of the Intifada. It has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of both Tel Aviv and Washington. One rather suspects that this is what is behind Mr. Peters' strident, vitriolic, and ill-informed attack on the Kingdom.

The Wahhabi sect of Islam that provided the religious and ideological backbone for the Al-Saud's (literally, Saud Family) conquest of the Arabian peninsula found its military expression in a militant body of troops known at the time as the Ikhwan (Brotherhood). (These are not to be confused by other groups in many countries over the years who also called themselves Ikhwan). These were King Abdulaziz's shock troops, drawn from distinct tribal affiliations, and regarded, probably correctly, by Abd al-Aziz and his brothers as untrustworthy after victory because of their extreme views. The Sauds dealt with the Ikhwan by butchering them in December 1929. In this sense, the Saudi regime may be said to have had an unsavory start. On the other hand, it is precisely this that indicates that the al-Saud were no more comfortable than we are with extremism. But they were prepared to use it for political ends as long as they could control it. Indeed, it is difficult to see how this differs with America's use of Islamic extremists to pursue its strategic aims in Central Asia. Just as the al-Saud resorted to slaughtering their former allies the Ikhwan, so the US has turned its back on the Taliban. Indeed, in this there may also be a lesson for intemperate partisans like Mr. Peters. What goes around comes around, as they say.

My own experience based on nearly twenty years of working both for and with Saudis in and out of Saudi Arabia leads to a very different opinion: It would be hard to find a group more conservative than the current ruling plutocracy. By conservative I mean concerned with the protection of their vast wealth. Fanaticism is most easily bred from alienation, disenfranchisement and want, not from semi-annual vacations in Disneyland and the Cote D'Azure. The ruling oligarchy in the Kingdom has allied itself to the US and NATO precisely for this reason. It is absurd to suppose that they are plotting some sort of Islamic world revolution. How this could ever get off the ground in the first place is difficult to see. Vinnell Corporation supports the Saudi National Guard. German Border Troops (i.e. special forces) support the Interior Ministry troops. The air force and army are dependent on the US and Britain, and so on. Computer Science Corporation developed and installed the cradle-to-grave Orwellian masterpiece that tracks every human being in the country. The very topography of the peninsula makes it easier to control than most countries. An Iranian type revolution is unlikely in Saudi Arabia; and the last people wanting to export revolution are the people running the place.

 Mr. Peters' unpleasant fiction, however, does serve the purpose of diverting attention from the very real and deeply felt anger among the Saudi population at large at American policy as it has developed over the years. Saudi Arabia has served as a loyal ally and buyer of last resort for the American armaments industry. Saudi arms purchases have increased to absurd levels over the last twenty years at a time when the Kingdom has run budget deficits in every year but one. Saudi government debt outstanding has increased to nearly the size of the country's GDP over this period. In effect, the government is borrowing to support American defence contractors and intentionally or not keeping the cost of weapons down for the United States and enriching the military men and contractors that represent it.  At the same time the country's population has exploded, and with it unemployment. With American monetary policy firmly focused on keeping the dollar up and commodity prices down, Saudi Arabia finds itself in an uncomfortable economic, social and political dilemma made in America.

It is not an accident that it was a similar set of economic conditions that set the stage for the first oil embargo in the early '70s. American fiscal and monetary profligacy then, as now, was supported by an artificially high dollar that hit commodity producers, and especially the oil exporters, very hard. The economic mechanism is simple: internationally traded commodities are traded in dollars. The US today represents some 25% of world GDP. The other 75% have to pay more for their raw materials when the dollar is strong. The producers therefore face diminished demand, and can charge less for their product. Far from being "funded by all those drivers of those oversized SUVs on American roads," it is Saudi Arabia that is helping to finance the United States, directly through its arms purchases and indirectly through the market mechanism holding the price of oil down.

Under these circumstances, for Saudis to watch Israel crush Palestinian society with impunity in spite of Israel's total dependence on Washington makes the economic dilemma an intolerable political problem. The Peters of this world prefer to deal with this by ignoring it, but that makes it no less true. Instead, he tells us that the Saudi monarchy is "the most repressive and vicious monarchy remaining on this earth," that "the Saudis are a greater menace to it than any other state, including China.

"You must be kidding

-----[End Sanders Rejoinder to Peters]------

Concluding  Remarks

Sanders is wrong about one thing: Like most fanatics, Peters is not kidding.

He may be confused by the chaos attending the end of the Cold War.  Like many Americans, Peters seems to yearn for a return to the comforting simplicity of the defunct Manichean world that came to be accepted as normal in the unique epoch between 1939 and 1990.  But to portray a black and white world of good versus evil in the 21st Century requires some mental gymnastics. Sanders showed how Peters relied on an MO that slyly conflated statements of fact  with grotesque distortions, while he ignored countervailing or mitigating facts.  In other words, Peters used the same approach as that used by the religious fanatics he deplores.

Moreover, Peters' simplemindedness carried him well beyond the errors pointed out so ably by Mr. Sanders.

 Peters' bald contention that "The Saudi vision of anti-Western, crusading Islam essentially took over Pakistan's intelligence services and infiltrated the military, with the result that Pakistani support not only for the Taliban, but for al Qaeda, plunged the world toward Sept. 11" is a spectacular case in point.

To be sure, Saudi money flowed into Pakistani madrassas, and the Saudi government supported Pakistan's reckless policy in Afghanistan. But to insinuate that Pakistan's support for the Taliban emerged because Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence service (the notorious) became a unwitting puppet of Saudi Arabia, or of Saudi Arabia's vision of Islam, is simply preposterous.

What about Pakistan's long-standing policy of exploiting chaos in Afghanistan for its own nefarious purposes? - for example, (1) getting control of oil and gas pipelines as well as the trucking routes connecting Turkmenistan to the ballooning south Asian markets, or (2) cutting Iran out of those lucrative energy markets, or (3) using Afghanistan as a proxy base to conduct its not-so-holy war with India over Kashmir [see Comment 436] - a war that goes to the very heart of Pakistan's self-definition [a subject that will be addressed in a forthcoming blaster].  What about the question of U.S. complicity in Pakistan's regional energy projects, the American company UNOCAL's efforts to gain Taliban support for its control of the pipeline routes through southern Afghanistan, or even the legacy of the CIA's support of radical fundamentalism during the 1980s in its proxy war with communism (in which we were allied with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia)?  Readers interested in learning more about how all these issues (and much more) became woven together in Afghanistan should read Ahmed Rashid's best-selling Taliban (Yale University Press, 2000) which can be found prominently displayed in any non-porn adult bookstore.

While it is a fact that a majority of hijackers on September 11 were Saudis, and it is also a fact that money flowing out of Saudi Arabia supported enterprises associated with terrorism, like Pakistani Madrassas. It does not follow that the Saudi government or its vision of Islam was the sole determining force behind Pakistan's support of terrorist activities based in Afghanistan.  After all, money flowing out of the United States supports the Irish Republican Army. Would Peters argue, therefore, that it is the policy of the U.S.  government to destabilize the United Kingdom?

The Wahhabi sect of Islam espoused in Saudi Arabia is indeed an extreme version of a multi-faceted religion, but the Saudi "vision of Islam," to use Peters words, hardly has a monopoly on religious or moral extremism: The Deobandism in Pakistan, for example, came ironically from India.  The Pastunwali tribal code of the Pashtuns (who dominated the Taliban) may oppress women and keep them in burkas, but it evolved indigenously over thousands of years without the help of Osama bin Laden or Pakistan's madrassas.  And what about American preachers who claimed the attack on the World Trade Center was God's retribution to Fun City? Or the extremist Jewish settlers who attack Muslims on the West Bank?

Although the Pakistan's policies in Afghanistan ultimately backfired, the Paki generals running were not puppets duped by the Saudis; they knew what they wanted and they used the Saudis and Americans to help get it - good and hard, as it turned out, when once again, history proved to be less a deterministic conspiracy than an evolving interaction of chance with necessity.

When he heaped all the blame for the America's mess with Islam on the "Anti-women, anti-meritocratic, anti-democracy, anti-education in any meaningful, liberating sense, racist and profoundly anti-freedom, Saudi-sponsored religious extremism" which is  "funded by all the drivers of those oversized SUVs on American roads," Peters is used the same kind of fanatical reasoning as that was used by the ignorant Mullahs who tried to move Afghanistan from the 13th Century to the 7th Century.

My advice: Just say no to culture war.  Call it anti-culture war.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference 1 

Wall Street Journal January 4, 2002

The Saudi Threat

By Ralph Peters Excerpts

This is an oilman's administration, and long affiliation with energy affairs appears to have blinded an otherwise-superb strategic team to the abundant, well-documented evidence. Far from examining Saudi Arabia's deep and extensive complicity in supporting terror and undermining secular regimes throughout the Muslim world and beyond, the administration reflexively defends the Saudis.

While we automatically support the Saudis, no matter how high-handedly they treat us, and insist that they are the foundation of regional stability in the Middle East, the Saudis themselves have engaged in a decades-long campaign to destabilize secular and relatively tolerant regimes throughout the Muslim world.

Yet our nation's leaders insist the Saudis are not only our allies, but our friends -- even as Saudis and Saudi money kill Americans and the Saudis refuse to arrest or even freeze the bank accounts of their implicated citizens.

The same voices that cautioned us to do nothing meaningful against terrorism now warn that any alternative to the current Saudi regime might be even worse. That is a coward's argument.

We must work against the Saudis' campaign of religious hatred and subversion around the world. And we must begin looking for other regional partners, from a liberated Iraq to a future Iran. Finally, we must be prepared to seize the Saudi oil fields and administer them for the greater good.

Mr. Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of "Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?"

Iraq and the Middle East