9/11 Delayed an Attack on Iraq


You’ve raised a number of important issues, and it’ll be hard to discuss each in the depth that they deserve. However, on the point of the Sept. 13 meeting that President Bush had with Prince Bandar: Michael Moore also makes a lot out of this, referring to the prince and the president smoking their cigars together in the ashes of the Pentagon.

Let’s just make sure the facts are right. The 9/13 meeting was planned before 9/11. You may recall that over the summer of 2001, the Saudi and American governments were engaged in a rip-roaring fight over Bush’s policy toward Israel. In August 2001, the Saudi crown prince threatened to sever relations. Bush responded with a letter to the crown prince stating that he believed the Palestinians should have a state, something he repeated publicly in June 2002. The proposal was stimulated by the Saudi threat to break relations, but also by escalating violence that was threatening to plunge the region into chaos, as well as increasing pressure inside the United States for the president to “do something.” The Sept. 13 meeting was set up to talk about Israel/Palestinian issues. That agenda was obviously scrapped after 9/11. There were more immediate problems to speak about.

You paint a very nefarious picture of what they actually spoke about, referring to Barbara Bush’s cooking and love for Bandar. But wouldn’t you hope that immediately after Sept. 11, the president would summon the ambassador from Saudi Arabia to find out why 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, determine whether the attack was state-sponsored, and, if not, to find out what information the Saudis had on these guys, what they intended to do about it, what they knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts, determine whether the Saudis will be helpful or not, begin brainstorming over how to handle it, etc. I certainly would. Would it have been better if they hadn’t met? Wouldn’t that have been giving the Saudis “a pass?”

Before 9/11, considerable funding, much of it from the Gulf and much of that from Saudi Arabia, went into Afghanistan and to radical cells across the globe. Of this, there is very little question. During the 1980s, the United States and Saudi Arabia poured about $3 billion into Afghanistan. Three billion dollars!

After the end of the Cold War, Bush the father turned his attention elsewhere, notably to the unification of Germany and establishing workable relations with Russia. Somalia was the failed state that received any remaining attention. Afghanistan was left awash in weapons. Saudi Arabia allowed money to continue to flow in. They believed it was the only way to control politically what was going on. We believed we could just walk away from the mess. Neither side was right, and the consequences were very serious.

Clinton started to get very concerned about Afghanistan and al-Qaida toward the end of his tenure. The key question for me is what happened after 9/11. For the first 18 months, the Saudis moved slowly. After that, they got serious. I hold them accountable for not acting more quickly.

But they are now moving in the right direction. The Bush administration must stay on them, but they have come to realize that it’s in their own self-interest to crack down on terrorism.

On your question of would 9/11 have happened without Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida would not have been well-financed without Gulf money, much of it from Saudi Arabia. The Taliban would not have been in power to harbor Bin Laden without Pakistan’s military support. Osama Bin Laden would not have tapped such a core if the United States had invaded Iraq in 1997 (when the Clinton administration had planes in the air headed to attack Iraq, even had Syrian support, and turned the planes back when Saddam agreed to let weapons inspectors back in), or in 1998 (instead of bombing for four days in what became known as Operation Desert Fox), and then gotten its troops out of the kingdom. Al-Qaida would not have been so pervasive if many countries didn’t turn a blind eye to them for years. Saudi Arabia is a major player in all this, but I’m more interested in what their policies have been since we’ve all come to realize the horrors of global terrorism. Richard Clarke realized it before most. But it was his job to focus on counterterrorism.

I’m not sure what exactly you’re saying about Iraq and 9/11. Are you saying Bush attacked Iraq so he didn’t have to discuss terrorism with Saudi Arabia? As I’ve said in prior postings, the Saudis didn’t want an Iraq war. The war was no favor to them. For me, Iraq was never about the war on terror. Many in the Bush administration were gunning for Iraq before they took office. You only have to look back to a letter from 1998, arguing for then-President Clinton to take a harder line against Iraq (i.e., promote regime change). Those who signed it now play key roles in the administration. I believe that 9/11 delayed an attack on Iraq. I wasn’t surprised when Paul O’Neill wrote in his book that the plan was on the shelf when they took office. In my mind, the fact that the administration grasped onto such a weak argument linking Iraq and terrorism suggests to me that they would have used any excuse.

Those who came into power believed that Saddam Hussein should have been removed in the 1990s. Should we have waited to go to war in Iraq? I argued that case in the New York Times in March 2003. Had we waited six months, I think we would have gotten more international support and been able to make a bit more headway on Afghanistan. But the war was not undertaken to appease the Saudis, if that’s what’s being suggested.

On your point on the Saudi flight: Did they get preferential treatment? Probably. Whether we like it or not, Saudi Arabia and the United States have been very close political partners for a long time. Did anyone leave who wasn’t screened? Not as far as I can tell. Were the names on the flights suspicious when run again known databases? Not according to those who have run the names. Was the FBI involved in the screening? Yes. Did they leave the United States before anyone else was allowed to leave? No.