Will the Saudis help us get Osama?

New and serious ideas about fighting terrorism aren’t easy to come by. I’m not sure Wesley Clark’s proposal to get the Saudi armed forces involved in a joint task force to hunt down Osama bin Laden is a good idea, but it’s worth taking seriously. [Speech text.]

Diplomatically, the idea strikes me as rather brilliant. It’s a no-lose proposition. Either the Saudis come with us, thus committing themselves against al-Qaeda, or they don’t, thus making the hollowness of their asserted cooperation against terrorism clear.

It’s possible that the Saudi royal family, or at least a faction within it, has been sufficiently scared by recent events to want to take a decisive stance against al-Qaeda, and creating a situation in which the Saudi armed forces are killing, and being killed by, al-Qaeda members might be a one good way of reducing whatever domestic support the terrorists have within Saudi Arabia.

In domestic political terms, there is obvious value in reminding the country that the President’s promise to bring in bin Laden “dead or alive” has been conspicuoulsy unmet, and is no longer being seriously pursued. (Who was it that first referred to him as “Osama bin Forgotten”?) [Update: A reader points to this from Brendan O’Neill 4/25/02. Anyone have something earlier?]

Of course John Kerry, given the choice between attacking Bush and attacking a fellow Democrat, chose to attack Clark, but equally of course his objection was an unusually lame one: that some of the Saudis involved might have al-Qaeda ties and thus pose a security risk. Well, yes. That’s a risk. In the real world, there are usually risks.

But what do we have to lose? If we tried Clark’s idea, and the Saudis leaked, we wouldn’t catch Osama bin Laden. Just how does that leave us worse off than we would be not taking up Clark’s idea, in which case we certainly won’t catch Osama bin Laden.

At that, Kerry did better than the RNC flack, who more or less says that, since we haven’t captured Osama bin Laden, no idea about how to capture Osama bin Laden could possibly be a good one.

Clark hasn’t been getting much ink of late, and much of the ink he has been getting hasn’t been good. But his ability to get press coverage for an actual policy proposal rather than a political maneuver makes him stand out from the field.

With Bob Graham out, of all the candidates still in the race for President Clark alone is capable of discussing national security issues at a professionally respectable level. That’s worth considering, whether you like his individual ideas or not.

Update Phil Carter points out there’s at least one substantial risk, other than failure: that Saudi commandos, not currently an impressive bunch, would learn something from participating in joint operations which could then be used against us if the coming Saudi regime change goes in the wrong direction, which it well might.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “Will the Saudis help us get Osama?”

  1. Friday Clarkbot

    Matthew Yglesias has a post in which he links his own article in The American Prospect which goes after Peter Boyer, who wrote a piece in the New Yorker that went after Wesley Clark. This is the piece which solicited…

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