Clinton’s Saudi Policies Were No Different Than Bush’s


As we conclude this debate, I think it’s worth returning to the original question: Has the money that has flowed and the history that has passed between the House of Bush and the House of Saud affected the course of American politics to the detriment of the American people? I think we both agree that the administration has made some major missteps. But I don’t think the evidence stacks up that it’s because of a personal relationship between the families.

Had Saudi terrorists been able to leave the United States because Bush liked Bandar, that would be something. But there’s no evidence that that’s what happened. They were probably given preferential treatment and allowed to begin organizing themselves to leave when the airspace fully opened, but they didn’t leave until it was opened, and their names did not match suspicious ones in the database when they were checked. More to the point, I don’t believe any administration would have acted differently in such circumstances. They were given preferential treatment to start organizing themselves because Saudi Arabia is a long-standing close partner of the United States and had an ambassador with strong personal ties to each and every president since he became ambassador under Ronald Reagan.

Had Bush attacked Iraq because the Saudis wanted it or to divert attention from the Saudis, that would have been something, too. But we know that folks in this administration wanted to attack Saddam well before 9/11 for reasons having little to do with terrorism. Terrorism was something they added to their list after 9/11, but again with very little reference to Saudi Arabia. After 9/11, the administration was rightly or wrongly concerned that Saddam might pass WMD to terrorists. The Bush/Saud relationship has little if anything to do with this.

Before 9/11, did Bush pursue such a different policy toward Saudi Arabia than Clinton did? Clinton’s relationship with Saudi Arabia around terrorism was relatively cordial, much to the chagrin of those in Clarke’s shop. Clarke was pushing Clinton to come down harder on terrorist financing, but Clinton worried that if he did, it would have a significant and possibly unrecoverable negative effect on the global economy, and so he chose not to pursue the advice of Clarke on that one. There’s no evidence that the Clinton folks were coming down hard on the Saudis and then Bush suddenly changed course. The Clinton folks, by the end, were much more concerned with terrorism than the Bush team was at the beginning of their tenure, but for reasons addressed earlier, it has less to do with money and ties than Cold War blinders.

On your larger question about how the United States has come down hard on terror, we’ve seen an enormous shift in how Saudi Arabia is dealing with terrorism. Sources working for the U.S. government in Riyadh report that over the course of 2001-03, reports from the FBI, Treasury, and intelligence agencies stated that “cooperation was very good” and went “far beyond what was expected.” There is always more to be done, and cooperation can always be better, but there has been an enormous shift. A recent report by the Financial Action Task Force said that Saudi Arabia’s response to terrorist financing was sound. It led Coffer Black, America’s counterterrorism chief, and others to begin making positive statements about Saudi efforts in the war on terror. I detailed a litany of changes in Saudi policy in our first exchange.

Saudi Arabia is struggling through enormous problems, some a result of bad domestic decisions, some a result of bad foreign policy decisions, in which we have sometimes been involved. Rather than focus on the connection between the families, which I don’t think has led to policies very much different from Reagan’s or Clinton’s, I think we should probably better understand why the relationship between the two countries had been so good for so long and how to make sure that we don’t devolve into a true clash of civilizations.

In the 1950s, American policy-makers decried the lack of positive political opposition in Saudi Arabia that could serve as an alternative to the current leadership. In 1964, in a meeting with Lyndon Johnson, Saudi King Feisal lamented that education in the kingdom wasn’t good and foreign teachers were pursuing an agenda that wasn’t in Saudi Arabia’s national interest. The problems in Saudi Arabia have been there for decades. Unlike elsewhere in the world, we’ve done very little to support political and economic liberalization. For me, the question is: How can we help assure that in 10 years we are not in the same place we are now—bad educational institutions and political opportunities in Saudi Arabia that come back to hurt us. Some may say push for the fall of the regime. To me, that doesn’t seem smart or helpful; it will bring us more danger. But we must become more creative in supporting nascent civil society and encouraging the regime, and many others, to do the same. But it is very, very hard to do. And, in fact, it might help to have personal contacts with the ruling regime in order to prod them in the right direction. Bush 41 may be a better emissary for this kind of change than anyone else because of his ties.

There is a huge debate going on inside Saudi Arabia about domestic reform. Is there anything we can do to help the reformists? Should we help? How much would it matter? These are the key questions. It’s not clear to me that Bush’s relationship with the Saudis affects their ability to address these questions.

On more specific issues that you raise, let me take those in turn:

On the meeting on the Sept. 13, you say it was cozy, too cozy. That implies that the president should not have met with Bandar. I think it’s worth just stating that on the afternoon that 241 Marines were killed in Lebanon in 1983, President Reagan spoke by telephone with President Amin Gemayel of Lebanon. This is how high-stakes, high-level politics works. We may not like it, but it’s not unusual.

You say that if the Clintons and Gores had had such close relations with the Saudis, the Republicans would be screaming. You are right; they would be. King Fahd, of course, did donate $18 million to the University of Arkansas, but nothing like the $1.4 billion you chart. But neither Bush 41 nor Clinton nor Bush 43 were really tough with the Saudis. This is because in the foreign policy realms we cared about at the time (i.e., Iraq, oil), they were, by and large, helping us. Their decisions in Afghanistan appeared questionable, but it wasn’t a high enough priority to really draw attention.

On Richard Clarke, I do not believe he was running the show. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary. The point of my previous posting was that Richard Clarke understood the threat of terrorism well before most because it was his job to do so, and he was very good at it.

Finally, I should be big enough to let this pass, but I can’t. You insinuate that had I lost someone close to me during 9/11, I would analyze the situation differently. You have no idea who I lost and how it affects my judgment. Such wild speculation and ascribing motives to it does not serve your analysis well, nor does it do a service to this debate. I will leave it at that.

I think we end up agreeing that the Bush administration has made some grave mistakes. We can also agree that there are real and serious problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and that we are not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. But when it comes to the importance of familial ties, it seems like we will agree to disagree. I’m glad we had the opportunity to air our differing views. There is perhaps no more important foreign policy issue of the day than this one.