Zakaria: The Saudis Are Mad? Tough!

Why we shouldn't care that the world's most irresponsible country is displeased at the U.S.

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Fayez Nureldineafp / AFP / Getty Images

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in Riyadh, May 2012.

America's middle east policies are failing, we are told, and the best evidence is that Saudi Arabia is furious. Dick Cheney, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have all sounded the alarm about Riyadh's recent rejection of a seat on the U.N. Security Council. But whatever one thinks of the Obama Administration's handling of the region, surely the last measure of American foreign policy should be how it is received by the House of Saud.

If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia. It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom's immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics.

Go anywhere in the world--from Germany to Indonesia--and you'll find Islamic centers flush with Saudi money, spouting intolerance and hate. In 2007, Stuart Levey, then a top Treasury official, told ABC News, "If I could snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia." When confronted with the evidence, Saudi officials often claim these funds flow from private individuals and foundations and the government has no control over them. But many of the foundations were set up by the government or key members of the royal family, and none could operate in defiance of national policy; the country is an absolute monarchy. In a December 2009 cable, leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that Saudi Arabia remained a "critical financial base" for terrorism and that Riyadh "has taken only limited action" to stop the flow of funds to the Taliban and other such groups.

Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries in the world to recognize and support the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan until the 9/11 attacks. It is also a major player in Pakistan, now home to most of the world's deadliest terrorists. The country's former Law Minister Iqbal Haider told Deutsche Welle, the German news agency, in August 2012, "Whether they are the Taliban or Lashkar-e-Taiba, their ideology is Saudi Wahhabi without an iota of doubt." He added that there was no doubt Saudi Arabia was supporting Wahhabi groups throughout his country.

Ever since al-Qaeda attacked Riyadh directly in 2003, the Saudis have stamped down on terrorism at home. But they have not ended support for Wahhabi clerics, centers, madrasahs and militants abroad. During the Iraq War, much of the support for Sunni militants came from Saudi sources. That pattern continues in Syria today.

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