Monday, June 21, 2004

Columnist Watch: Fareed Says It's So ... So We Bet Against It

Once of the more curious phenomena is that of the perpetually wrong "expert". This usually occurs when someone is out of their depth. To a certain point they've developed acclaim or notoreity for usually pushing to press inside information or from within a narrow range of expertise and experience. Then at some point feted by the media, with reporters seeking out their opinions on topics, and struggling to get name recognition compared to the brands of the other major syndicated columnists they fall to temptation and start opining on topics they have no real expertise in and because of their hectic schedules have no time in order to research and develop thoughtful opinion.

At that point they become a contra-indicating sign. A key point is that they need to stop acknowledging error and failure in any form, even tacit. For instance, Friedman with his self-flagellating remorse over Iraq has not become a perpetually wrong "expert". Neither is Hitchens, whom I have it heard from finally and quietly dumped his defense of the USA when he recieved inside information about truly hair-raising pictures from abu Gharaib that make anything put out so far look "rated G". For some time now I've been watching Fareed Zakaria and he does seem to have fallen into the "wrong expert" category mostly because he's never owned up to his own culpability in pushing a war that has gone dreadfully and awfully wrong.

The queer nature of rationalization and denial is that it doesn't just cover up one sin, but it's focus on avoiding blame creates a series of errors. Such an expert who has fallen into such a trap become a good anti-indicator. Whatever they say has a good chance of being wrong, and the closer it is to their original sin that they're still in denial about then the more likely that whatever the opposite of what they say is likely to be the truth.

These men are useful because once you've indentified them you can generally bet against them with some confidence of coming out ahead.

In that light, Fareed wrote a Newsweek column stating that Saudi Arabia is turning a corner on its internal terrorism problem.

After years of inaction and obfuscation, the regime is beginning to move forcefully. Saudi officials believe that the killing of Abdelaziz al-Muqrin, the leader of the group that murdered Johnson, will stop much of the domestic terror. "His group, with 50 to 60 members, was the one that planned almost all recent attacks," said one official. "It's now leaderless." The killing of Muqrin and three other wanted militants, this official argues, is the culmination of months of similar efforts. "It is because the regime has begun fighting these terrorists that they have been lashing out in response," he said. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi government consultant, claims that the kingdom's security spending is up 50 percent over the past two years, to $5.5 billion.

The Saudis have also finally launched measures to track the financing of terror groups. The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report last week noting that in the past year the Saudi government's new laws monitoring money laundering and donations "meet or exceed international standards in many respects" (though the report also notes that the Saudis need to do much more). The Riyadh government has admitted that some of the kingdom's clerics have been preaching messages of hatred, and it has begun to "discipline" and "re-educate" some of them.

Were the regime to mount a sustained campaign on all these fronts, it would almost certainly be able to defeat the terrorists. Experts and Saudi officials both conclude that the militants do not have broad support, and whatever support they did have has been dwindling since the recent terror attacks.

But there are many who believe that the regime is not acting decisively enough. One of them is Saudi Arabia's own ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. In a surprisingly forceful article in the reformist Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, Bandar argued that neither Saudi society nor the state had fully mobilized itself for this struggle. "War means war," he wrote. "It does not mean Boy Scout camp." He urged that people stop calling the militants "good people who were careless" and call them instead "terrorists and aggressors with whom there can be no compromise."

Normally I would be inclined to say that Saudi Arabia will in fact be successful in keeping the lid on its terrorism problem. This is because as the CSM reports that the attacks on foreigners are losing popular support for the terrorists among many Saudis who don't like the image of beheaded Westerners becoming the international image of their country.

However there is a fly in the ointment. It's the central fact that Zakaria is ignoring in his rosy scenario, and his failure to perceive it stems from his original sin of denial in the case of Iraq. To see why let's review the publicly available information reported by the CSM.

Analysts cite several reasons for Al Qaeda's appeal. There is high unemployment, an uneven distribution of wealth, and a lack of alternative sources for peaceful dissent, says Fahd al-Shafi, a former extremist who knew Miqrin in the 1990s.

"If the situation remains as it is, what's to stop young people from resorting to violence?" says Mr. Shafi, who spent time in jail for opposition activities and is now a civil servant.

"Some people join these groups, not because they like them, but out of frustration with the current situation," he adds. "We need more social, political, and religious freedoms."

If the underlying problem isn't solved, then while the surges in public opinion may rise or fall the underlying situation is doomed. Indeed in his blindly optimistic view Fareed reports the following information and then ignores it.
Why would the Saudis not act decisively now? When I pointed to Egypt's harsh but successful antiterror campaign of the 1990s, everyone immediately dismissed it. "We're not a brutal police state like Egypt," one young royal said to me. But a common response was to caution that such an approach would increase support for the radicals: "We have to act in a way that doesn't create a bigger problem than it solves."

This, then, is the paradox. Saudi officials claim that the militants have no support and yet constantly act as if they do. Officials cite a recent (secret) government poll that showed 49 percent support Osama bin Laden's ideas. They speak of the need to move "slowly and carefully." While still sensitive on this topic, educated Saudis will now admit that parts of their society have become dangerously extreme. At a meeting with prominent Saudi journalists and academics, most argued that several trends over the past 30 years had fueled this radicalism. During the 1950s and 1960s, other Arab governments like Egypt and Syria had expelled Islamic fundamentalists. [emphasis added]

Things were the same way with Iraq. Fareed knew the facts but blindly choose to be optimistic. He suggested then as he suggests now for Arabia many idealistic and grandiose plans for liberalizing the culture and economy, while cracking down on terrorists. The simple problem is that it didn't happen that way. Since he was unrealistically optimistic and ignored the factual evidence before him before, it's a good bet that he's still in denial and ignoring the danger signs now.

This is bad news since I was hoping Saudi Arabia was going to remain stable. However if one buys into the idea of betting against the expert in denial, once they have been identified, then I'd say that Zakaria's stance is indicating that the Kingdom is about to undergo a meltdown in the next few years and go down the drain. Remember it only takes a minority to launch a revolution or a civil war, if they have money and weapons. The operations of Alqueda in Saudi Arabia are not important because they have succeeded in themselves, but because they've demonstrated they can gain support from elements of the populace and break security cordons preventing the flow of weapons into unauthorized hands in the kingdom. As has been often mentioned, the prime prerequisite for a real state is that it holds the monopoly on organized violence. This condition has been broken it seems in Arabia.

And just as I've finished writing up this article, I stumble across this Slate piece laying out the civil chaos scenario.

The Saudi royal family is downplaying the insurgency as much as possible, which is understandable: If the jihadists were to overthrow them, the consequences would make the Iraq war look like a minor regional skirmish: Western Europe and Asia depend on Saudi oil as much as the United States does.

One way to understand how dire the current situation looks for the Saudis is by comparing it to Egypt's Islamist wars in the 1990s in which over 1,200 people were killed. Like the Saudis, the Egyptian groups first went after officials and policemen, who are generally regarded as "hard" targets. As the Egyptian government beefed up security and made life miserable for the militants, the groups went after softer targets, like the Coptic Christian minority and tourists. In Saudi Arabia, however, it seems that some authorities have softened targets that should be hard. For instance, a Riyadh compound that houses foreign workers, including a large contingent of military advisers, was made vulnerable last May when about fifty security guards were dispatched to the desert for impromptu training exercises. One survivor, an American military adviser, is certain that the security of the compound was intentionally compromised to facilitate the operation, which killed 36.

That attack, which cost the lives of several Muslims, taught the Saudi jihadists something it took their Egyptian counterparts years to learn: If you kill ordinary Muslims, you will lose the support of the local population. So, in this May's Khobar attack, the jihadists made sure Muslims in the compound knew they were being spared because they were Muslims. Public support is important, because jihadists need to be able to blend in with the population and sometimes can even expect to be helped by it. A just-released poll shows that over half the 15,000 Saudis polled support Osama Bin Laden, even though only 5 percent want him to rule the kingdom. Nevertheless, those numbers mean little during the course of an insurgency. What matters is whether the armed forces are capable of putting down rivals, and it is bad news for the House of Saud that only 39 percent of the respondents have a favorable view of the nation's military.

It's likely that in the early '90s the Egyptian armed forces had similarly low approval ratings, but to enhance their profile, they did something counterintuitive. Rather than embark on a hearts and minds campaign, the army and police made ordinary Egyptians despise the Islamists for bringing so much violence upon the innocent. The government's war included a notorious 1992 siege when 14,000 Egyptian troops invaded a poor Cairo neighborhood that had become known as the Islamic Republic of Imbaba. During the decade, the Egyptians illegally detained, collectively punished, tortured, and killed not only those it accused of jihadist violence but also the suspects' relatives and neighbors. Some people believe torture and collective punishment only breed more violence; others argue that torture is both immoral and ineffective. Either way, the Mubarak regime is still in power, and there have been no terrorist attacks in Egypt since 1997...

There is also the problem that Saudi forces appear to have been extensively infiltrated. For instance, in the May 2003 Riyadh attack, the assailants reportedly had help from members of the Saudi National Guard, a force whose loyalty the royal family has typically taken for granted. After the Khobar siege last month, three of the militants were allowed to walk away once the carnage was over. Worse yet, just as Crown Prince Abdullah announced that terrorists would be handled "with an iron fist," three men disguised in women's veils walked into a hospital where one of the captured militants from the Khobar attack was being held. While they failed to free their colleague, they walked out as easily as they had walked in—all during the course of a "major manhunt." Or consider this: Across the world these days, the jihadist offensive weapon of choice is the suicide bomb, a strategy premised on the idea that some operations are so difficult that the assailant must sacrifice his life to accomplish them. Up until the recent Khobar episode, Saudi jihadists were suicide bombers. But at Khobar, the terrorists, armed with automatic weapons, had time to go from door to door asking for infidels, cut their throats, and drag their corpses through the streets. Why do Saudi militants now believe they have a fair chance of surviving their operations?

Who will wage Bandar's war if the Saudis can't do it? For countless political and tactical reasons, U.S. troops are, at least for now, clearly out of the question. What about non-crusader forces—like the Egyptians for instance? They've been putting down fundamentalist insurgencies for two centuries now. In fact, in 1811, the Ottoman Empire asked Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, to quell a Wahhabi rebellion on the Arabian peninsula, which he did after seven years of fighting. Sadly, that history is part of the problem. This being the Middle East, where militants want to return to the time of the prophet Muhammad, all history is contemporary. For this and a number of other reasons, Saudis and Egyptians hate each other, and so bringing in Egyptian troops—or any capable foreign troops—would risk the legitimacy of the Saudi rulers almost as much as an American invasion. It seems that the Saudis are on their own here, which highlights a very serious problem.

Ouch. That's a very ugly picture. It doesn't mean that the Kingdom is doomed, but it does mean that Zakaria is very deeply in denial and needs to quit writing about stuff he doesn't know anything about. Until he "get's it" however, he will prove a very interesting counter indication. Too bad ... I was really hoping Saudi Arabia wouldn't go down the tubes.


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