...here's a modest [conspiracy theory] for anyone who--like me--was stunned to read the op-ed by Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi adviser, in Wednesday's Washington Post. He says explicitly that if George W. Bush withdraws troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia will do whatever it must to protect the Sunnis of Iraq. For years, he notes, Saudi King Abdullah has refused calls to send money and weapons to Iraqi Sunnis. Those calls, Obaid writes, will "be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq." He acknowledges this could pit Saudi Arabia versus Iran, which is supporting Iraqi Shiites, in a civil war in Iraq. He ends the piece: "To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks--it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse."
It's a chilling piece. It might even be true: a US pullout could lead to a greater civil war that draws in other nations and leads to worse. But I can't help wondering if Obaid's piece is an attempt to provide cover for former Secretary of State James Baker and his Iraq Study Group, which is supposed to be releasing its recommendations within weeks. Baker and his fellow commissioners have a problem: what to say about withdrawing troops. The ten members of the bipartisan panel are likely divided on this critical point. The Democrats on the panel know that their party leaders in Congress have been advocating disengagement. Republicans on the panel know their president has said he will not bring back the troops. How can Baker square this circle?
Are the Saudis coming the rescue? Baker has always been close to the House of Saud. Now a representative of that clan is publicly warning--even if noting his views do not reflect "official Saudi policy"--that withdrawal could lead to all-out war in the region. That certainly raises the cost of proposing a retreat. Anyone considering withdrawing troops ought to be scared by this article. And that could well be the point of it--to help Baker smother any recommendation for withdrawal. But there's something worse: Obaid might indeed be reflecting official Saudi policy and his predictions might be on the mark.
The emphasis is mine. I don't know about the conspiracy theory aspects of this, but I do know that if the Saudis are willing to make that kind of commitment to Iraq's Sunnis, then we are looking at a situation in which both the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq will be supported by client states, all but guaranteeing the prolonging of a civil war and increasing that much more the risk of a regional war (though I do not think that ultimately this will weigh heavily on any calculation the American people may make as to whether we should stay or withdraw.)