Did Bush Give the Saudis a Free Pass?

I’m looking forward to the opportunity provided by Slate to really dig deeply into the issue of U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. I read your book carefully and have followed closely much of your commentary.

Let’s get right to the heart of your concern. You write:

I understand that we’re an oil-dependent nation that has to have a strong relationship with the oil-rich Saudis. But that shouldn’t mean we have to give the Saudis a free pass.

I agree. But I’m not sure what free pass Bush has given them. I think the Bush administration has made a series of very serious and consequential mistakes, especially when it comes to the postwar planning in Iraq and how it is fighting the war on terror. But where is the free pass for the Saudis?

You mention that Saudis were allowed to leave the United States soon after Sept. 11. In Michael Moore’s film, he interviews an FBI agent who was very disappointed that Saudis on those flights weren’t carefully screened. But here’s what a 9/11 staff commission report says about these flights (the 9/11 commission reports have been considered very fair and are often critical of the Bush administration, so I take their views pretty seriously):

The Saudi flights were screened by law enforcement officials, primarily the FBI, to ensure that people on these flights did not pose a threat to national security, and that nobody of interest to the FBI with regard to the 9/11 investigation was allowed to leave the country.

Twenty-two of the 26 people on the flight that took most of the Bin Ladens out of the country were interviewed by the FBI, and “many were asked detailed questions.” Those on the flights had their names checked against the FBI database, and there was no suspicious activity, at least as far as the 9/11 commission is concerned, associated with those names. Richard Clarke, hardly a fan of the administration and hardly a lightweight when it comes to counterterrorism, knew of the flights and their passengers. Everything was handled “in a professional manner.”

So, while I’m willing to be convinced that there was something underhanded going on, I haven’t yet seen anything that would convince me.

Is Bush compromised by his Saudi money? $1.4 billion is a lot of money. But what did Bush do that other presidents would not have done, given the money he received? The fact that Bush 43 declared war against Iraq actually argues against the idea of Bush being in the Saudis’ pocket. The Saudis were way out in front arguing against this war. They didn’t want it; they worried about the post-conflict environment, about chaos on their border if things went badly, about a democratically elected Shiite neighbor if things went well. Yes, Saudi Arabia provided the United States with enormous help in the war, but they didn’t want it. They, for some reason, thought we could instigate a coup in Iraq, something I still think was entirely unrealistic, given that we had already tried that and it hadn’t worked. Operation Iraqi Freedom went directly against a key Saudi Arabian foreign policy preference. That hardly suggests that Bush is in their pocket.

Finally, I believe the focus on the Bushes starts the story much too late.

The Saudis have been close friends of many Republican administrations. The Republicans, after all, are a party of big business, and oil is a heck of a big business. Adnan Khashoggi, an infamous world-renowned Saudi arms dealer, was a big supporter of Richard Nixon. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia had extraordinarily good relations with the Reagan administration. Saudi Arabia has been closely involved with U.S. politics for decades. Bush may have taken it to a new level, but it is still not at all clear to me that it has mattered all that much.