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VOA-TV Interview With Thomas Lippman - 2002-12-18


VOA-TV Host David Borgida talks with Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Institute

MR. BORGIDA
With so much international attention on Iraq, we thought we would take a moment or two to discuss the role of a key nation in the region. And that nation is Saudi Arabia. Joining us to discuss Saudi Arabia, Tom Lippman of the Middle East Institute here in Washington. Tom, thanks for joining us.

MR. LIPPMAN
Good afternoon, David.

MR. BORGIDA
I know you've done a lot of work on Saudi Arabia, so let's get right to it. The Saudi role and political posture at the moment vis-ŕ-vis Iraq?

MR. LIPPMAN
When I was there recently I got the very strong impression that, when push comes to shove, the Saudis will do what they have to do to stay friends with the United States. But that doesn't mean they're enjoying this situation at all. From their point of view, there are two likely outcomes of a war in Iraq, neither of which is good for them. Either a military conflict ends with Saddam still in power, in which case they have one angry neighbor on the northern side of their frontier; or Saddam is removed from power and Iraq fragments, in which case you have possibly chaos and violence and a strengthened hand in Iran.

MR. BORGIDA
So, the Saudi Government is faced with a very tough prospect here, how to measure their public comments and their private comments diplomatically. It's a tough row to hoe for them.

MR. LIPPMAN
Yes. And as always with the Saudis, what they would really like is for all of this to go away. They don't like to make tough choices in a public way, but they're probably going to be forced to in this case.

MR. BORGIDA
Let's talk about another diplomatic balancing act, and that is the one that the Saudi Government has to face with the government here in Washington, with the Bush administration, and certainly its public relations issues with Americans. After all, 15 of the 19 terrorists in the September 11th bombing were of Saudi origin. And the Saudi Government has been trying to reinvent their public image in the United States. What have they done and how are they doing?

MR. LIPPMAN
They have spent huge amounts of money to not very good effect. And what I have found in all my conversations when I was there -- I was all over the country in Saudi Arabia recently -- was a widespread recognition that they need to approach this in a different way, that they do have a problem. They are quite confused about why we don't love them anymore. And they recognize that all this money that is being spent for full-page ads in major newspapers is not doing what they need to do, but they don't quite know how to rectify the image of ill repute into which they seem to have fallen here.

MR. BORGIDA
You've covered Washington politics and international politics for a long time. You're not a consultant on this matter but you've just come back from Saudi Arabia. What do you think they can do? Is this a mission impossible for the Saudis to convince Americans that they're in the fight against terrorism?

MR. LIPPMAN
Well, it's not a mission impossible, but it's a mission long-term. And they may not have that much time, because they're under a lot of pressure right now. They need to go out to the American grassroots, which they have never done in any successful way. Their problem is not in Washington or in New York. Their problem is in Memphis and in Albuquerque and Boise and Kansas City. And they don't seem to have a clue about how to do any kind of effective outreach to the American grassroots.

MR. BORGIDA
Give us a sense, our viewers and listeners, a little sense of the public opinion on the street in Saudi Arabia. Is a pending war, if that happens, topic number one on the minds of the Saudis?

MR. LIPPMAN
Absolutely not. I have to say that I was astonished at the apparent blasé posture that Saudi Arabia is taking about the possibility of a war. After all, the last time there was a war in Iraq it did spill over into Saudi Arabia. SCUD's were fired in Riyadh. But they seem to be in a complete state of either denial about that or falling back on the assumption that if there is any military threat to them, the United States will take care of it.

MR. BORGIDA
Well, how do you explain that? One would think that given what is at stake, this would be on their minds.

MR. LIPPMAN
Well, one is that their military, for all its acquisition of expensive toys, is not really capable of defending the country, so there is no point in relying on it. For another, they don't believe that Iraq represents a real threat to them. Iraq has been weakened and crippled by all these years of sanctions and being hemmed in. For another, they don't want to contemplate the possibility of going to war against a fellow Muslim state at a time when they themselves are the targets of Islamic-based terrorism. And they know that in the end, if there is a real strategic threat to Saudi Arabia, the United States will step in.

MR. BORGIDA
The views of Tom Lippman of the Middle East Institute here in Washington, a veteran of the Middle East and a former journalist. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

MR. LIPPMAN
My pleasure.

MR. BORGIDA
We appreciate your insight.

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