How low have America's fortune in the Middle East sunk? So low that we're staking our hopes for the region on ... Saudi Arabia. In the past month, Saudi King Abdullah has emerged as the most energetic dealmaker in the Middle East, brokering a tentative power-sharing agreement between rival Palestinian factions and mediating between the pro-Western government in Beirut and representatives of Hizballah, who want to topple it. Riyadh is also suppressing the price of oil, in what many observers see as a bid to undermine Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by starving his government of cash. And the Saudis have quietly backed the U.S.'s troop surge in Iraq. Every place in the Middle East that matters, it seems, Riyadh is leading, and Washington is following right behind.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. For many Americans, one of the key lessons of Sept. 11 was that the U.S.-Saudi alliance had become an extremely dangerous affair. The 9/11 commission called Riyadh "a problematic ally." Congress tried to impose sanctions, and President George W. Bush demanded that the monarchy embrace political reform. "Saudi Arabia used to have a lot of apologists in this country," declared Eliot Cohen, a member of Bush's Defense Policy Board, in 2002. "Now there are very few."
The Iraq war was designed, at least in part, to free America from Riyadh's grasp. A friendly government in Baghdad would make the U.S. less reliant on Saudi oil. And a democratic government in Baghdad would pressure the kingdom to open its political system. Either Saudi Arabia's regime would change, or its relationship with the U.S. would change, or both.
That was the theory. Instead, Iraq today is exporting less oil than it did under Saddam Hussein. And instead of offering the Saudis a model, Iraq has offered their rulers an alibi. Demand democracy, they can tell their restless subjects, and you'll get chaos instead.
The war has also brought a Shi'ite government to power in Baghdad, prompting panic in the region--and the White House--about Iranian domination of the Middle East. As a result, the Bush Administration is frantically trying to assemble a bloc of friendly regimes to contain Tehran--with Saudi Arabia, Iran's longtime rival in the Persian Gulf, as the linchpin. The Saudis have been working hard to make sure Iran's ally Hizballah doesn't overthrow Fouad Siniora's government in Beirut. They've been trying to reconcile the Palestinians, partly to wean the militant Hamas from its funders in Tehran. Some even speculate that Riyadh is making overtures to Syria, trying to lure it too from the Iranian fold.
On the surface, this all seems fairly benign. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told TIME recently, the Middle East is "really splitting, with extremists on one side and what I call responsible [governments] on the other side." But how "responsible" is Riyadh? For decades, it has been exporting its intolerant brand of Islam. And part of that intolerance is a deep bigotry toward Shi'ites, a bigotry Riyadh is fomenting as part of its campaign to restrain Iran.
Rice may see the new divide in the Middle East as pitting responsible governments against extremist ones, but in Riyadh, that means Sunnis vs. Shi'ites. According to the Iraq Study Group, individual Saudis have been funding the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Last November an adviser to the Saudi government warned that if the U.S. withdrew its troops, the monarchy would arm Sunni insurgents. Saudi clerics have stepped up their denunciation of Shi'ites as heretics. And King Abdullah has endorsed toxic rumors that Shi'ites are trying to convert Sunnis to their faith.
Once again, the Saudis are playing with fire, and the U.S. may get burned. In the 1980s, Riyadh served as proxy in our struggle against the Soviet Union. And in the process, it funded the network that became al-Qaeda. Today it is serving as our proxy against Iran, but in the process it may pour kerosene on the Sunni-Shi'ite war that has consumed Iraq, threatens to erupt in Lebanon and could spread to Pakistan and the gulf. The U.S. can't completely distance itself from the Saudis--in our weakened position, we need their help. But neither should we let them enmesh us in a Middle Eastern cold war, fought along religious lines. That's why Washington needs to make its own overtures toward Iran, so that our relationship with the region's biggest Shi'ite power doesn't go through Riyadh. Turning U.S. foreign policy over to the Saudis is perilous. We should know that by now.
Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations