Cold War Blinders Are the Problem

You’ll have to forgive me, but I still don’t see how terror has taken a back seat to oil interests. Michael Moore tries to make the point, but he never really connects the dots. What I do see is that Cold War blinders—not oil interests—prevented this administration from taking terrorism seriously. The administration came to power believing that terrorism was more of a Clinton obsession than a national security threat. We were the big superpower. We had to worry about potential peer competitors like China and a possibly resurgent Russia, not annoying little asymmetric threats like terrorism. Clinton administration officials couldn’t get anyone in the incoming Bush administration to focus on terrorism. Because of oil? No, I think because they had all left power during the Reagan and Bush I eras and had their Cold War glasses on, and they weren’t prepared for the new threat of the day. They willfully ignored the threat because it was a Clinton-era problem.

On the debate about whether the Saudis left the country on Sept. 13 or Sept. 14, your book does dig into this question. But according to the 9/11 commission report, “[W]e have found no credible evidence that any chartered flights of Saudi Arabian nationals departed the United States before the reopening of national airspace.” Clark has come out very, very hard on the FBI, and so your posting makes a lot of sense, and as you point out, the FBI might not have even checked the requisite databases. But the 9/11 commission has gone back and run those names and found that even if the FBI had done so, the names would have been given an OK. I’ll stick with the 9/11 commission on this one. But even if one doesn’t, the problem would be an incompetent FBI, not oil wealth and greed.

On Ambassador Jordan: I think you’re identifying a larger problem with our ambassadors, which is that across the board they are increasingly political appointees (i.e., friends of the president) rather than being longtime foreign service officers. Margaret Tutwiler, now head of public diplomacy, was made ambassador to Morocco without ever having worked in the foreign service (although she did work at the State Department in public affairs under Bush the father). Wyche Fowler, Robert Jordan’s predecessor, was made ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Clinton after serving 16 years in the House and Senate. So, I think you’ve hit upon something. I don’t have too much of a problem with an ambassador to Saudi Arabia having a strong background in oil. It’s an asset. But we should demand that our ambassadors come from within the foreign service and have served at length in the region to which they are assigned. Secretary of State Powell made that a priority when he took his current position, and I support him on it.

The fact that Bush the father and son have pursued very different policies toward Iraq suggests to me that this isn’t all about the Bushes and their connection to oil and the Saudis. If it were, you’d expect to see the same behavior. Unless, of course, you argue that Bush the father didn’t overthrow Saddam because of reasons of oil, and Bush the son did for reasons of oil, in which case it’s not a very interesting argument.

But here’s a larger issue for U.S. policymakers: You say that the U.S.-Saudi relationship could be entering the end-game. On that, we agree. Too many Saudi and American officials give the impression that this relationship can coast on autopilot. In fact, it is a Cold War relationship, built on a Cold War rationale. Left to coast on autopilot, the serious problems in the relationship could cause the relationship to collapse now that the Cold War is over. After all, Saudi Arabia is a country that doesn’t let women drive, uses the Quran as its constitution, and beheads people. There’s not a lot to keep us working together. Oil interests alone will not keep this relationship glued together.

But here’s my question to you: Is it good for the United States and the world if the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship collapses? The thought terrifies me. With Saudi Arabia and the United States on different sides of a war, we will indeed enter a true clash of civilizations. We are not there yet. But a real clash of civilizations will be ugly and extraordinarily dangerous. I believe we need to find a way to both work on the same side.

Skeptics will say this can never happen; we’re already on opposite sides. I disagree. Since May 2003, when Saudi Arabia experienced its own terrorist attacks, the ruling family has come down hard on terrorism. The most radical clerics have been rounded up—by some counts, up to 2,000 people. Charities are now either shut down or have been reorganized so that they can be closely monitored. Anecdotal evidence that I’ve collected suggests that in Pakistan and the West Bank, officials see a drop in Saudi money to Hamas and Pakistan’s madrassahs. There are now running gun battles in the streets of Riyadh between al-Qaida and Saudi forces. Even though the Saudi crown prince and other members of the ruling family have tried to pin some of this on Israel and Zionists—a fact that I agree the Bush administration should come down harder against, because it’s so absurd and only fosters hate—they are going after al-Qaida cells and charities, much as we’ve been asking them to. The Saudis most certainly haven’t just blamed the terrorism on Zionists and then swept it under the rug. There is now unprecedented information-sharing between Saudi Arabia and U.S. intelligence services. Do we need to stay on top of this? Absolutely. Will Saudi Arabia get distracted? They could if we, too, lose our focus, as we are prone to do.

Administration officials have become much more positive toward Saudi Arabia since May 2003. Appropriately, they were not terribly generous toward the Saudis before then, suggesting the “free pass” simply wasn’t there. At no point before May 2003 did the administration come out in a coordinated fashion and try to stop the constant attacks on the kingdom in the press. After 2003, when Saudi behavior changed, the administration began making much more positive statements. It would be useful to know what you’d need to see in order to believe Saudi Arabia is not getting a free pass.

The problems we see today are a product of policy choices from the 1980s that were left to fester by everyone in the 1990s, through sins of omission and commission, a point I’d be happy to expand upon in our next exchange.