Turki Dinner

A revealing evening with the Saudi ambassador.

Saudi Arabian Ambassador Turki al-Faisal

Saudi Arabian Ambassador Turki al-Faisal’s remarks Monday night were as carefully tailored as his gray suit. He called for peace in the Middle East and a face-saving solution for all parties involved in the violence. Speaking in a measured tone, as if a baby were sleeping in the next room, he quoted Robert Frost and Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. But beneath the diplomat’s even manner was a sharp message for President Bush: If you keep failing to act in the Middle East, the region will be irrevocably damaged.

Prince Turki spoke to a few dozen scholars, journalists, administration officials, and foreign-service officers clustered in the dimly lit upstairs room of a Washington, D.C., restaurant. The dinner was hosted by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, who directs timely salons with newsmakers brave enough to endure follow-up questions and durable enough to be onstage from the tomato salad to the tiramisu. (Monday night, ambassador Turki talked for more than two hours.)

The Bush administration has been faulted for not acting quickly enough after the recent violence started, but Prince Turki criticized Bush for not acting to solve the tension long before the recent flare up began. Two months ago, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, brought a letter to Bush from King Abdullah advocating the steps necessary for implementing Middle East peace. “The president expressed excitement and willingness,” said the ambassador, “but, alas, there was no follow through.” The inactivity contributed to the current crisis: “The decisions made yesterday bear their bitter fruit today.”

The president and his advisers have said that the current violence is helping clarify the choices for all Middle Eastern leaders. When Saudi officials first spoke out against Hezbollah’s actions, the Bush team pointed to their remarks as proof that the new Middle East they have promised was coming to life. No longer would the Saudis and other Arab states react with knee-jerk anti-Israeli sentiment; instead, they were speaking out against the extremists.

Monday night, Turki continued to criticize Hezbollah, dismissing their “reckless adventure under the guise of resistance,” but the criticism was not the sign of a new worldview. It was almost a rhetorical device, an obligatory sentence that prepared the way for his larger, full-throated condemnation of Israel and, by proxy, its American ally. He placed the blame for the recent violence not on the extremists but on Israel, which he claimed was engaged in a “war on Lebanon” and a “siege of Palestine.” The Israeli “occupation of Palestine and Shebaa is the casus belli of all that is happening today in Lebanon and Palestine,” he began. He then went on to belittle Israel’s military: “Hezbollah and Hamas have captured three soldiers of the vaunted Israeli army, whose incompetence was clearly displayed by these captures. The same vaunted Israeli army has struck back with surgical accuracy in killing innocent civilians and U.N. observers in Lebanon and Palestine, further demonstrating their ineptness and brutality.”

Turki urged a return to the peace plan proposed by Abdullah in 2002 as offering Israel the most comprehensive solution, including an end of hostilities and normalized relations in return for total Israeli withdrawal from Arab occupied territories, including Jerusalem. “The United States must play the role of pacifier and lead the world to peace and not be led by Israel’s ambitions,” he said, characterizing the Bush administration not just as inactive, but as such a supine thing that it can be led around by Israel.

And remember, Saudi Arabia is our ally.

President Bush continues to portray the violence in Lebanon and Israel as an inevitable result of his push to spread democracy across the Middle East. “The current crisis is part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror,” he said yesterday. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the fighting was part of the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Saudi officials don’t know what to make of this rhetoric. They tend to find it almost amusingly detached from the realities on the ground. They also say while the president talks about his goals for democratizing the region in his big speeches, he doesn’t mention it when he talks privately to them.

The Bush administration won’t talk to Syria or Iran, and the recent bombing of Qana meant Condi Rice could not fly to Jordan or Lebanon for meetings with their leaders. There aren’t many other governments to talk to in the region. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it sounds like we are talking past each other.