1993 Speech
 

05/20/1993
Prince Bandar's speech at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Tampa, Florida

HRH Prince Bandar bin Sultan
Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States
at the conference by the U.S. Central Command
Tampa, Florida
May 20, 1993

"Challenges to Security in Southwest Asia"
 

General Hoar, Your Excellency Yusif Alawi, fellow members of the diplomatic corps, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, participants in the conference and dear guests:  (I hope I haven't forgotten anyone.)

To be here is to acknowledge an appreciation and to re-affirm a partnership.  After Desert Storm, we have become bonded in a unique way.

In saying this, I know I express the sentiments of all my colleagues from the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) who have come to Tampa for this symposium.  We were both, you on this end, and the societies of the GCC, tested in the military campaign against the aggression of Saddam Hussein.

You were steadfast; you came in style and did other's work.  We, for our part, stood our ground: we did not dodge the crisis, and we fought side-by-side.  We got to know one another a good deal better after the ordeal was behind us, which is something we always manage to do.

With the twin victories of the Gulf war and the Cold War, there should be quiet, one would think, in our neighborhood and in the theater of CENTCOM's concern.  Yet there is plenty of work, plenty of security challenges, to use the title of our symposium.

I am reminded here of something CIA director Jim Wolsey recently said about the new order among nations in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union:

"Yes we have gotten rid of a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.  And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of."  (Ladies and Gentlemen, I never thought we would miss Communism).

You have plenty of talent here on the panels, and among the attendees, as to what exactly lies ahead by way of challenges in the new security environment.  In the time given me, I can only do the fighter pilot's thing: hit or miss; it is a professional hazard, as ground troops are all too ready to tell you.  There will be no precision bombing here.  So do not expect it.

If I say more about the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, and particularly about Saudi Arabia, than I say about other parts of our vast region, forgive the parochialism.  That comes with the diplomat's trade.

One thing is clear at the outset: we have been busy working hard for so long in the region.  It has been hard to catch our breath and devise a durable security structure.

Some dozen or so years back, we were hit by the hurricane of the Iranian Revolution.  Our Iranian neighbors insisted that they wanted to export "revolutionary happiness" to us; we thanked them, told them to keep their happiness to themselves.  But it was to no avail.  The region was plunged into a terrible decade of disorder, and yet we and the GCC were an intact oasis in a terrible desert storm.

No sooner had the dust of the Iranian Revolution begun to settle, and we were faced with Saddam Hussein's cruel lurch for power.  We are still doing mop-up work, tallying up that war's consequences and costs, which were both significant and high.

There was to be no reasoning with radicalism of any kind.  We had to go through the full cycle of both ambitious grabs for power.  We were pragmatists, you see -- it is the desert, it forces that kind of pragmatism on  its people.  You have to distinguish between a mirage and the real thing in the desert.  Your survival depends on it.

We did what we could to protect the balance of power; but, let's face it, the magnitude of that kind of task required American leadership and American power, just as Europe is finding out now.

We have no colonial complex in Saudi Arabia simply because we were never a colony.  More important, Americans have long been partners in our national development, and we were grateful.  We have known each other since the early 1930s.

The U.S. emerged out of the Gulf war with a clearer sense of responsibility in the Gulf -- and new global leadership.  Sometime in the future, the region could find its own balance of power, bid farewell to the ruinous ambitions of some.  We are not there yet.  The rules of the game, as we in the GCC see it -- live and let live, respect for the sovereign rights of all nations -- are not yet accepted by all the players around us.

As for Iran, the jury is still out on the foreign policy and world view of the Iranian state.

However, as for Iraq, it remains in tragic limbo.  And from the moral and political wilderness Saddam Hussein has placed his people in, there should be no possibility of rehabilitation for him.  He crossed the Rubicon, and for him there can be no return.  A distinction must be made (and we have made it in our own policy) between Saddam's fate and the territorial integrity of Iraq.  Dismemberment of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines would be a terrible example for the region.

Looking ahead, we are all now really on the forward edge of trying to sort out how the post-cold war world can maximize international order and successfully work together.  The critical task is how widely separated sectors of the globe and markedly different cultures, religions, and political environments can most effectively cooperate and advance shared interests, while still respectful of the distinctive conditioning, institutions and values which the various participants are dedicated to safeguarding for themselves, come what may.

We and the world will almost certainly be caught up in this great cross-cultural challenge for the rest of our lives - and long beyond.

An overriding practical test of that is how America and the world (as well as those of us who are Muslim) think about Islam and react to it.

The challenges to security in Southwest Asia can hardly be adequately thought through without coming to terms with what is most basic in that sector of the globe...and indeed for nearly a billion people worldwide: almost one in every five human beings in the world.

The United States prides itself on being open-minded and believing in pluralism.  Yet the media and many in the political elite abound in stereotypes and the most elementary misunderstandings about Islam.

Grand strategies and confidence-building international cooperation can hardly be sorted out and acted on by minds cluttered with rampant misinformation, obvious prejudice at times and chronic one-sidedness.

For the last several years, for example, recurring attempts have been made to replace the old Cold War threat with a so-called Islamic threat.  That effort tells a lot about attitudes here.  But it tells nothing of practical consequence about Islam.

But the point I want to make, can be brought a lot closer to home.  Whenever suspects in the deplorable World Trade Center bombing are mentioned in the media, they are always described almost entirely as Muslims, Muslims, Muslims.

Yet when news coverage and public discussion turned to Waco, Texas, the central figures there were rarely referred to as Christians, even though that was their claimed overriding commitment.  The contrast speaks for itself.

Serious public discussion here is out of focus when it adopts the label of "Islamic Fundamentalists" as to various violence-prone groups in the Middle East.

With their blatant extremism, such groups are actually doing violence to basic Islamic teachings -- and certainly to its good name.  What they are really concerned with is not Islam at all, but economic and other grievances -- or much more often, dead-end power.

Keep in perspective that these extremists are a very small fraction of the overall Islamic community and are not at all in the historical or present Muslim mainstream.

The media would provide a much more accurate sense of what is going on if the violent extremists who are seeking political power in their own countries, were identified with those countries, instead of Islam.  They are really the new, localized Arab Nationalist's, reborn again.

It is also worth noting that for a great many decades, books and press stories here and elsewhere have almost always described Saudi Arabia as "Islamic Fundamentalist."

Yet there could hardly be a greater contrast between the violent extremists recently in the news from various parts of North Africa and elsewhere, on one hand, and tradition-rooted, Islamic conservative Saudi Arabia, on the other hand.  My friends, you can't have it both ways.

The words used and much of the thinking in this country about that other sector of the world are badly muddled, to understate the matter.

In Saudi Arabia, fidelity to Islam already guides its social and political life.  By a conservative definition of fundamentalism we are the quintessential fundamentalist state.  Some 70% of our law comes from the Sharia, the basic Islamic law; some 30% of the curriculum in our schools is devoted to religious instruction.  When the first Saudi state rose in the mid-eighteenth century -- a quarter of a century prior to the American Revolution, it was built on a partnership between the religious and the political.

Our ulama, our religious scholars, are not disaffected with the state or outcasts to political power.  We have never sought to exclude them as their counterparts were excluded in the Shah's Iran.  They have extensive access to the print media and to the airwaves.  They rule on the great issues of the day, on the basis of the mandate of the Sharia Law.  They were fully consulted when the Coalition forces came into our country during the Gulf war.  They sanctioned the decision made by King Fahd and our government to invite the coalition forces into our land, they blessed the effort of our Arab, Muslim and Western allies.

Those who second-guessed the decision in our part of the world (and there were many), said that the Western forces had come to stay and to colonize the country.  They were proven wrong.

We have always sought to serve and lead our people, without running too far ahead of them -- and without herding them into some alien future.  The kind of socioeconomic despair that grip extremists in the Sudan, Algeria and other places -- the despair of an underclass, the frustrations of the young urban poor, the rejection of excessive Westernism -- do not afflict Saudi Arabians.  We have always believed in modernization but not necessarily westernization.  Therefore, labels like the "return of Islam" do not apply to us: Islam has never been abandoned in the Arabian Peninsula.  It did not have to be recovered in the furious way it is being attempted elsewhere.

I look at the international scene and I do not see a "green threat" of Islamic radicalism replacing the "red threat" of Communism -- or as being nearly as pronounced or extreme as it is made out to be in the Western Media.  What there is, is the force of grievances, growing populations that have to be housed and fed and gainfully employed, societies recovering from failed economic policies and botched experiments with socialism and command economies.

While the world worries about this misperceived threat, a Muslim population in Bosnia -- the last remnants of Islam's presence in Europe -- is on the verge of extinction.  How can we explain to our people in Saudi Arabia watching western media reports on Bosnia's slaughter and horror, that the product of a new democratic and free world ends in ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe.  Honest and simple Muslim men and women in our country and beyond are convinced, right or wrong, that the Bosnians were being abandoned because they were Muslims: it is hard to persuade them otherwise.  And here I must honestly say that we are still hopeful that the U.S. position will yet evolve positively, especially compared to the badly flawed European position.

Saudi Arabia has a special concern for the Muslims of Bosnia because we were the country where the new world order proclaimed after the death of communism, made its stand -- Muslim and Arabs fought shoulder to shoulder alongside Western forces, flew sorties with them, bonded with them in that special way that only combat makes friends of strangers.  Who would really have thought that the Syrian 9th Division would have stood along side America's 82nd Airborne Division?  Surely none of the pundits and so called experts.

We have a strong, vested interest in strengthening the understanding and the bonds between the Muslim world and the West.  We broke with the past and went to the Madrid Peace Conference and into the multilateral talks to resolve the outstanding regional issues between Israelis and Arabs.  We are hopeful that a just, comprehensive peace could be achieved based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and will result in achieving peace for land, the legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people and security for all states in the region.  It would be a setback for all of us to seek to repair the international order in one arena while it comes apart in the Balkans.  Politics being what it is, we would have far more political ground at home on behalf of a regional settlement on Arab-Israeli matters if there were to be greater Western concern for Bosnia.

The sad truth is that we were all caught unaware by the kind of world that emerged from the wreckage of communism.  No one had prepared for this world, and for the return of repressed histories.  It is easy to understand how this could have happened:  After the sacrifices and the anxiety of the Cold War, your great nation understandably yearned for peace, and wanted to repair its affairs at home -- so did we.

But those of us who have cast their lot with you for so long (and did so even when it was not fashionable in our sector of the world to be friends of America), know that there is no substitute for American engagement and leadership.  We were not like your recently revisionist friends.

Bosnia demonstrates the continuous need for American leadership in Europe.  You are also needed to help keep the peace in Asia.  Asians want you there as a great seawall against chaos, as a balance, as a provider of security, as a buffer between China and Japan, a deterrent to the outlaw North Korea.  Without American protection, the prosperity of the Pacific Basin would be impossible to think of.  In Africa, you reached out to enforce humanitarian needs; and you delivered.  It was America that saved so many Somali lives.  And you should be proud of it.

Likewise, you are needed in the waters of the Gulf to protect critical commerce of all the world, to sustain the balance of power and to keep the flow of oil to the world uninterrupted.

In their exasperated moments, the American people wonder why heavy lifting is theirs to do   But it has been so throughout most of this century.  It is your destiny to be the only superpower in the world -- you are the only game in town.  The American people, however, have every right to insist on a fairer system of burden sharing, on cutting out those who take a free ride under the American security umbrella.  We are happy to point to Operation Desert Storm as a prototype of this kind of new American engagement.  (And I would just note we and our brothers in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates honored in full the financial commitments we made to Desert Storm).

Finally, I must confess our region is hard to read: but you can discern a deep disenchantment with the old political slogans and ideologies of the Fifties and Sixties, which led to many disasters that the people of the region are still paying for.  The people of the region have a desire to get on with their lives, their hopes and their innate potential, which is great.  Whether all this new yearning can withstand the depth of old feuds remains to be seen.  Either way, while Southwest Asia struggles with its destiny, those of us assembled here are not yet to be put out of business.  But alas, it is important to remember what is good for experts is not necessarily good for the people they would help.

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