The logic of President Bush's initial declaration of war on terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks dictated that American relations with Saudi Arabia would become more complicated. That is now occurring. A check written by the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States as a charitable donation, but which may have indirectly benefited two Sept. 11 terrorists, has highlighted the sensitive issue of Saudi financing of terrorists.
Saudi Arabia's oil reserves have always been the basis of its close relations with the United States. Yet the U.S. role in guaranteeing the continued existence of the Saudi monarchy and social structure has led Washington also to see Saudi Arabia as an ally in the Middle East.
During the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia was Saddam Hussein's next target after Kuwait. The Saudis thus agreed to serve as a base for the successful war against Iraq, even as it put them in the uncomfortable role of supporting a war against a Muslim country from the fountainhead of Islam.
Sept. 11 laid bare the problems. The United States was probably still willing to look the other way on the Saudi origins of most of the Sept. 11 attackers and Osama bin Laden himself. It was also not inclined to focus on the fact that opposition to the U.S.-backed Saudis was part of the anti-American motivation of bin Laden and his supporters.
But what the United States could not ignore was the fact that a lot of al-Qaeda's financing comes from rich Saudis. Saudis fund Islamic extremists for two reasons. The first is to buy them off, to try to keep them from blowing things up in Saudi Arabia. The second is that some of the Saudis sincerely support the extreme Wahhabi sect of Islam, which proselytizes actively and opposes Israel and U.S. support for the Jewish state.
In contradiction to that approach or perhaps, in part, because of it, Saudi leaders such as Crown Prince Abdullah have played an active role in pursuit of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.
The crunch comes as the United States pursues a critical piece in the war against terrorism: cutting off the financing of al-Qaeda and similar groups. This means making it clear to the Saudis that they can not have it both ways.
Washington can no longer stand by while the kingdom's leadership plays a double game of maintaining a useful friendship with the United States while continuing to finance America's enemies.
There will be a certain amount of screaming and yelling as the process plays itself out. U.S. zeal in pursuit of a policy of shutting down Saudi financing of terrorists will risk being dampened by the importance of Saudi oil, the need for Saudi bases in any war against Iraq, and the general coziness of the relationship.
But cutting off Saudi financing of terrorists is an area where continued U.S. acquiescence is not an option if the terrorists are to be put out of business in the name of American homeland security. The U.S. position on this point must be uncompromising.