Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Bush and the Saudis

One of the more wild-eyed charges made against George W. Bush is that he is somehow a tool or a puppet of the Saudi royal family. This is one of the major themes of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore's charges have, as usual, been exposed as ridiculous propaganda. Most of his allegations regarding Bush and the Saudis are taken from Craig Unger's book House of Bush, House of Saud. Noted Middle East journalist Amir Taheri recently reviewed Unger's book, and describes his argument as follows:

It is hard to summarize Unger's narrative.

But here is a modest effort: For 30 years the Bush family, or "dynasty" as Unger prefers, has been linked with the Al-Saud dynasty for reasons of personal gain. The Al-Saud helped the Bushes win the presidency and used them to advance their agenda. George W's debt to the Saudis is greater than that of his father. Unger says: "He owed both his personal and political fortunes to the Saudis." Unger calls W. "the Arabian Candidate" and insists that he came to power through a coup d'etat in which the Supreme Court played the role of the military in such exercises. Once elected, however, W. moved close to the pro-Israel "neocons" who changed American policy in the Middle East, thus angering the Saudis. Unger says: "Bush's standing in the House of Saud, suddenly plummeted." The Saudis retaliated with the Sept. 11 attacks in which 15 of the 19 suicide-killers were Saudis. Al-Qaeda, the organization that carried out the attack, was financed by the Saudi royal family and had contact with it through three princes.

As Taheri points out, Unger's case that Bush is a Saudi puppet isn't exactly built on a wealth of evidence. Unger "spends many pages to show, in painful detail, that the two Bushes were, at some stage in their careers and briefly, involved in the oil business. He then spends much time to note that there is also oil in Texas. Finally, he reminds us that the Saudis, too, are deep in oil, so to speak. He then asks: You see what I mean?"

Naturally, Unger's case wouldn't be complete without trying to connect the Bushes to Osama bin Laden:

Unger wants us to believe that Bush pere was, somehow, connected with Osama Bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader. Having found no evidence, Unger is, nevertheless, anxious not to let go of the allegation.

So he comes up with this: "In May 1984 Vice President George H.W. Bush visited the Khyber Pass border of Pakistan and Afghanistan with a $14 million check for humanitarian aid to Afghan refugees. We do not know exactly where Bin Laden was at that moment, but during this period he was in nearby Afghanistan and had began working to build up the Services Office (the nucleus of the Al-Qaeda). Chances are that this is the closest that Osama Bin Laden and George W. H. Bush ever got physically. They were in the same region at roughly the same time. And most important they were fighting for the same cause."

How can one argue against that kind of ironclad logic? As Taheri aptly concludes:

Having amassed all the possible allegations against Bush and the Saudis, Unger ends up by showing each and everyone to be either groundless or wildly exaggerated. Having mentioned and, at times embellished each allegation, Unger becomes aware of the fact that he has no evidence whatsoever. In some cases he is even obliged to include whole paragraphs of refutation of the allegations within his text. These paragraphs were clearly inserted at the behest of lawyers from some of the people accused, thus saving Unger and his publishers from libel suits.

Personally, I am anything but a fan of the House of Saud. They rule a xenophobic, tribalist, reactionary state, have played a double game for decades, and do exert an undue level of influence with our political elites. Having said that, I find the idea that George W. Bush is somehow in thrall to the House of Saud to be utter nonsense. For one thing, Bush is the most pro-Israel president since Ronald Reagan, hardly the kind of stance that warms Saudi hearts. Bush overthrew the Taliban and the regime of Saddam Hussein, in both cases over Saudi objections. Finally, the Bush Administration is the first in US history to actively push for internal reform in Saudi Arabia. Bush's revolutionary desire to foster democracy in the Middle East is anathema to the feudal Saudi monarchy.

The Saudis do continue to provide cause for concern. They continue to bankroll the spread of Wahhabism and foster Islamist extremism, both at home and throughout the Muslim world. However, the one thing I don't hear from the people who push the Bush-Saudi canard is any kind of credible alternative approach to dealing with Saudi Arabia. While Saudis are prominent players in the Jihadist movement, as terrorists and as fundraisers, the 9/11 commission report stated that the Saudi government was not involved in the September 11 attacks. The report also confirmed that Saudi cooperation in combating terrorism and terrorist fundraising has increased enormously in the last three years. Yet, many Bush critics still claim he is soft on the Saudis. Should we have invaded Saudi Arabia instead of Iraq? Yes, I'm sure invading an entire country over the actions of a few of its citizens would have gone over really well. Not to mention attacking the home of Islam's two holiest sites. And they say Bush is a reckless unilaterist.

Of course we need to push the Saudis to do more on both internal reform and efforts against terror and incitement. However, this will not be an overnight process. While John Kerry has made noises about "getting tough" on the Saudis, these need to be taken with several shakers worth of salt. After all, Bill Clinton promised in 1992 that he would "get tough" on China, and we saw how that turned out. One thing the Bush-haters fail to note is that, to quote Taheri, "the Saudis had far more extensive business contacts with senior Democratic politicians than Republicans, including the Bushes." For all of the hysterical criticism and conspiracy theories, a second Bush Administration is far more likely to get results from the Saudis than a Kerry Administration would.


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