Back in 2004, three years into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 Commission report made its debut to the gushing admiration of the Washington press corps. The report was everything that the mainstream media adores: bipartisan, devoid of divisive finger-pointing, full of conventional wisdom.
Take this pearl: “One of the lessons of the Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most brutal and repressive governments were often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America’s stature and interests.”
Who could disagree? The cases in point, as the report noted, were Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The first country had channeled weapons and military know-how to jihadis fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The second had supplied money. The CIA, for its part, had provided a little of all three. The results were the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Yet al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington didn’t prompt a rethinking of the alliances that had nurtured the monster. To the contrary, US military aid to Pakistan, then ruled by an army junta, rocketed upward, while the United States’ 60-year old strategic partnership with the Saudi royal family was shaken but largely undisturbed. Both regimes enlisted in the war on terrorism and were to be cornerstones of the effort. Indeed, each has delivered a few “short-term gains.”
In 2011, however, it’s clear that the Pakistani spy agency has kept on funneling arms to the Taliban, even as they say they are battling on the US side. To top it off, bin Laden, the man who ordered the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans, was discovered hiding in the same town where the Pakistani army trains its cadets. The Saudis, for their part, are still promoting the radical brand of Islam that sanctions violence against Shiites and non-Muslims. The fact is that the long-term interests of these regimes rely upon stirring up this kind of trouble.
Washington’s coziness with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia carries other costs. Both governments are notorious opponents of democracy. Pakistan now has a civilian cabinet, but the army lurks behind the throne, growing richer on aid dollars that could be helping the country’s poor. Its military also uses US money to stamp out the dissent of oppressed ethnic groups.
The Saudis run an absolute monarchy at home and intervene aggressively to block democracy in their neighborhood, notably invading the island kingdom of Bahrain to quash popular demonstrations there. When Washington talks about freedom in the Middle East, its choice of friends screams hypocrisy.
A few members of Congress squawked about the close US-Pakistan relationship after bin Laden was found. And Saudi-bashing is a favorite pastime of several media outlets. But the Obama administration has moved to mend its ties with Pakistan, and US relations with the Saudis are solid.
The logic, as always, is short-term: Washington wants access to Pakistani intelligence cooperation and the good will of the Saudis on the oil market. Given that long-term interests do not coincide, these alliances will continue to generate one crisis after another, making the world a more dangerous place.
It appears that learning the lessons of the Cold War, let alone the 9/11 attacks, is a task that will outlast many presidents.