Thursday, July 29, 2004

House of Bush, House of Saud

Politics rarely has a dearth of partisanship. Even when times are good and there seems to be no unifying focus for political parties, partisanship becomes gratuitous. The booming 90’s of the Clinton administration strongly attest to that fact. Whitewater, Travel-gate, and, more prominently, the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio, among others, are illustrative of the length to which excessive partisanship impedes sound, sober analysis. Moreover, these partisan excursions, some with merit, though a great many without, show how incredibly dangerous a lack of political focus can affect a country. While a vapid pantomime played its self out on the world stage during the late 90’s, sulking in the backdrop, and dutifully rehearsing act II, was Osama bin Laden and his foot soldiers of Jihad. After introducing himself and his cadre of Islamist fundamentalist to the world on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden has managed to change the rules of the game, thus shaking the operating dynamics of the West. Yet partisanship still persists in both its good and deleterious forms.

On the other side of the aisles, now, are the Democrats. In an almost Renaissance—though clearly in a vulgar sense—the Democratic/Liberal intelligentsia is engaging itself in debate, sometimes civil, yet most often heated, about the relevance and principles of the Progressive movement and, subsequently, the direction of the Country. Similar to the Conservatives who found themselves bereft of the executive for two Clinton Administrations--however much worse because both houses of Congress are in GOP control-- Liberals, Progressive, and Democrats alike have too much time on their hands to either chase after conspiratorial and blatantly partisan stories or formulate, articulate, and propagate a vision of where they think the country should be headed. The acuity of these variables has only been intensified as the presidential election approaches.

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How it Distorts the Truth, and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America are just a few of the titles you’ll see gracing shelves at your local bookstore. Political discourse, especially criticism of the Bush administration, has been busting at the seams with deleterious partisanship. Where this critique has discredited itself by imitating all that it criticizes, it has also, on rare occasions, moved beyond the tired paradigm and offered intelligent, evocative dissent. One such critique is Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.

Craig Unger, former deputy editor of the New York Observer, is an investigative journalist who has written on the Bushes before. House of Bush, House of Saud meticulously delves into the mostly ambiguous financial dealings between the Bush family, George H. W. and George W, and their associates, former Secretary of State James Baker, Vice President Dick Cheney and a slew of others, and the House of Saud, the Saudi Royal Family and their associates, the Saudi business elite and, ominously, the bin Laden family. Unger’s aim is to put flesh to the skeletal of the whole sordid and mysterious relationship, attempting to show, at the same time, that this relationship has “… helped trigger the Age of Terror and give rise to the tragedy of 9/11.”

Unger’s book is excellently sourced and vividly smooth in its prose, following a well constructed timeline of the evolution of this relationship and presidential politics and foreign policy in the US. As a muscular journalistic polemic the book has its moments. But, on measure, the argument Unger posits rests on too many, though probable, unwarranted assumptions.

Thus, although House of Bush, House of Saud is a gripping and suspenseful narrative that deals, chronologically with the convoluted financial relationship between the House of Bush and the House of Saud and its effect on US foreign policy in general and US-Saudi relations specifically, it fail where it intends to succeed, and unintentionally succeed where it shouldn’t. I will expand on this further by, first, looking at the some of the inferences that Unger draws from his admittedly shaky assumptions, and, second, by noting areas that Unger could have explored at greater length.

On Valentine’s Day in 1945, the president of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to set in motion what would be a long standing mutual relationship between the two countries. The Saudis needed security, which, in the aftermath of World War two reconstructions, the US was becoming a pre-eminent provider of, and the US needed oil, a resource the Saudis had in abundance. This is a relationship that has endured a lot; but, it is also a relationship that has as it sole quality: strategic interests.

This being said, one of the assumptions that Unger’s argument relies on is the notion that this strategic relationship, though seemingly untenable now, has somehow always been unnecessary. Unger does this through example of the Bush family, or the House of Bush. The evidence Unger brings to bear with respect to Bush Sr. and his relationship with the House of Saud is tangential at best and unremarkable in the main.

After Bush sold his stake in Zapata, his oil company, he entered the realm of politics, a decision that had more to do with deference to his father than purely an ambitious power grab. What’s interesting is that Bush Sr. received more help from the Kuwaiti government at the time than from the House of Saud. It is true, however, that it wasn’t until Bush Sr. started rising in political visibility that financial suitors took notice, especially Saudi financial. Unger points out the canny nature of the Saudis’ goal of securing their political desires in this passage:

Like the Israelis, The Saudis had one overwhelming need that they sought in this new alliance—defense. For all its newfound wealth the House of Saud was more vulnerable militarily than ever… the Saudis sought strong political ties to the United States through personal friendships with the powers that be… To many Americans, the Saudi investments with politicians seemed unsavory, though it was not always precisely clear why. The most obvious assumption was that Saudis were trying to buy access to the White House or to influence policy toward Israel—or against it.

What appears at first as flagrant disregard for American interest turns out to simply be systemic. The Saudis or the House of Saud consistently “buy access” through bailing out and financially aiding associates of political prominent figures.

This apparently was the case with Jimmy Carter’s close ally Bert Lance, who upon resigning at OMB(Office of Management and Budget) was helped out financially through some questionable transactions from the BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International), a shadowy merchant bank founded by Agha Hasan Abedi, a Pakistani with close ties to the Saudi royals.

BCCI was alleged to have dealings in money laundering, the arms and drug trade. It’s a wonder that such a bank was freely operating in the US—let alone with reputable standing among Washington’s political class. It is no surprise that BCCI would also figure into the murky world of oil and politics in Saudi Arabia and America.

Unger, though it is conceded to begin with, fails to qualify one obvious counter-argument: That is, the relationship between the House of Saud and the House of Bush is more a function of American dependency on oil and Texas expertise in oil exploration particularly, as well as Saudi desire to position themselves with the political elite. These conditions created a perfect cocktail wherein the perception of growing political power, with the Bush family, only attracted the attention of the Saudis. And, in turn, once this loose relationship was formed, a nasty feed back loop created privilege, patronage, and patrimony.

Geography is destiny, and never were two institutions more congruent than this.

As this relationship pertains to foreign policy, again Unger misses the point—or at least doesn’t give all too convincing an argument. That the dynamics of international politics in the Middle East during the decade of the Soviet-Afghan war created the framework from which Islamic fundamentalist grew is not in doubt. But whether it was causally related to Bush Sr. relationship with the House of Saud is an entirely different contention. This does seem to be the implication in Unger’s tone, yet he arrives about it in a roundabout way.

A policy to roll back the Soviets from Afghanistan found its origins in the Carter Administration. Zbignew Brezenski, Carter’s National Security Advisor at the time, believed that supplying insurgent guerillas, notably the Eastern Alliance, with arms and intelligence would draw Soviet troops into Afghanistan, creating a war of attrition that would surely demoralize the Soviets. This policy was carried through to the fist Reagan-Bush Administration, although the intensity was ratcheted up. In order to finance this policy, Saudi Arabia became the intermediary, funneling cash and arms to the Islamist fighters eager to protect Muslim land.

The Afghan-Soviet war, subsequently, not only became an ideological and military proxy war that helped defeat Soviet communism, it also became a breeding ground for idealist young Muslims who disdained modernity. One of those young idealistic Muslims was Osama Bin Laden, however. As the United State poised its self to become the only legitimate super power in what was gradually looking like a unipolar world, the strategic exigencies of financing Islamists during the Afghan-Soviet war would turn out create a monster of their own making.

But, try as he might, Unger is unable to persuasively make the case that ex post facto that that strategic gamble wasn’t in the best security interest of the United States, at the time. Further, endemic in the foreign policy constraints of the US is there ability to project power to the extent to which it will not endanger there strategic interest, namely oil. Even as regards the first Gulf war, strategic interests shifted making Saddam Hussein a liability, when only 10 years prior he was an ally against Iran. It may be with equal proportion the extent to which Osama bin Laden abhors the Saudi Royals and the West, the United States specifically. But to say, even imply that in any way the House of Bush as a causal factor in creating the ferocity of Osama bin Laden is tortured logic. Post hoc, ergo Propter hoc is a fallacy often committed when looking for causal blame to assign.

A myriad of variables created the type of Terror practiced by Osama bin Laden. And the House of Saudi is, I think, largely to blame. The United States, as an entity, operates in such a way that its interests are always protected, much like any other state. The exception with the United States is that because of its unrivaled military strengths it can compel other weaker states to act against their interests, while, at the same time, fulfilling theirs. The relationship with the House of Bush and the House of Saud clearly looks sinister, though Unger gives the relationship too much credit.

Unger does, however, manage to produce a pithy and comprehensible account of the short history leading up to 9/11. With twists and turns, House of Bush, House of Saud raises far more questions than it answers. For example, why were140 Saudi Arabians allowed to fly out of the United States, without seriously being questioned, shortly after 9/11? Is James Baker a more nefarious character in this drama than either Bush Sr. or Bush Jr.? Was Osama bin laden really behind the downing of the Black Hawk in Somalia?

These are all interesting questions with which, I think, Unger should have dealt with more. But were Unger is to be commended is in his investigative breadth. He was able to cull together disparate governmental documents, old interviews, policy papers, financial disclosure forms and construct a cogent story about the pre-9/11 variables that helped bring about the post-9/11 world.

Unger attempts to forward a foreign policy critique but isn’t able to consider the constraints on policy makers. The main thrust of his book forwards the thesis that the relationship between the House of Bush and the House of Saud has in some way deliberately created the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. This is far too ambitious a thesis which neglects the real foreign policy imperatives and constraints.

Nonetheless, on balance, Unger’s book is absent of the type of partisanship that muddles honest critique.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

A Non Sequitur in American Foreign Policy

The SSCI and the UK’s own pre-war intelligence inquiry have forced many liberal supporters of the war and humanitarian hawks to re-asses their own assumptions about the Iraq War. I, myself, have been at odds to reconcile the findings in these reports with my own hawkish position on the War. It turns out that most, if not practically all, the intelligence used as justification for the war was either too ambiguous or entirely false.

With the common perception that Saddam Hussein was years and possibly months away from reconstituting his nuclear weapons program, the international community, at some level, understood the US’s urgency in quickly acting to deter Saddam. And, certainly, in a post-9/11 political climate the issue of American national security became paramount, thus prompting the revisiting of the Saddam problem.

Though, it appears that the real triumph of both the Blair and the Bush administration was to move so quickly the foreign policy precept of a containable and controllable Saddam and Iraq, to the perception, now proven false, of the imminent and gathering threat Saddam posed to not only the US, but to the world.

Conventional wisdom was jettisoned, as the Bush administration moved frantically to connect the dots: 9/11, Iraq, al Qaeda, Saddam, and Bin Laden.

The foreign policy establishment wasn’t convinced; but that didn’t matter. Congress had overwhelmingly passed an Iraq resolution that would allow the president to use the force necessary to make Saddam comply with UN res. 1441. One must recall that res. 1441 compelled Saddam to allow UN weapons inspectors into Iraq, giving them unfettered access to all suspected areas. This, however, was facilitated by the presences of over 180, 000 troops ominously surrounding the country; the visible threat of force.

But all these procedural formalities made no difference since the war games—strategy for the Iraq invasion—had taken place as soon as Rumsfeld stepped into the Pentagon, in January of 2001. So if the invasion of Iraq was a fait accompli long before all the political maneuverings at the UN, then why was it a fait accompli? One word: Neo-conservatism.

Many posit, rightly, that Neo-cons have been intent on reestablishing American global hegemony in the Middle East, and the best way to do this was to go for the weakest link: Saddam and Iraq. This meant that despite the economic absurdity, the political stupidity, and the diplomatic idiocy of such a venture so soon after Afghanistan, it still had to be undertaken for the simply fact of committing to the venture while the Republicans were still in power.

9/11 gave them the requisite wiggle room.

The Realist establishment of foreign policy maintained that the Iraq was a good seven to nine years away from a weapons program, manageable for the meantime without aggressive military commitment, considering the exigent priorities of Afghanistan and the War on terror. And while I too maintain, much like the Neo-cons that the regional stability of the Middle East depended on what happened with Saddam, the US needed to be realistic and judicious with its resources, which now seem to be compromised.

My contention is that the neo-cons thought so lowly of the Realist that they assumed no good faith effort would have ever been made in the future( by a Democratic administration) to address the Saddam issue. That will never be known, but, to some extent, I share their misgivings. Realizing that their only possibility to broach, let alone implement, the Iraq venture, the neo-cons pushed the talks of the Iraq war harder and faster, it was a window soon closing .

And now, even when US political and diplomatic capital has been greatly squandered, the plan, in the Neo-cons eyes, is under way, whether or not this current Administration survives to see the second phase.

The US felt Iraq wasn’t adequately complying with res.1441 because no weapons or evidence of a weapons program were being found—likely because none actually existed—so they gave Saddam 48 hours to step down or else. In fact, it didn’t matter that the inspections weren’t turning anything up, because the war plan scheduled combat for early March. 180, 000 troops weren’t there to simply make Saddam comply, and the longer the inspectors were inspecting, the further off schedule the war was being delayed.

From purely a management perceptive, the Iraq war was a magnificent blunder in US foreign policy, quite possibly rivaling Vietnam. There are no short term benefits both politically and diplomatically, and the long term benefits will follow after only years and possibly decades of regional instability. Though, such a scenario would have also been likely had the US waited another 5 years. Since, it seems improbable that more support would have been given the coalition, especially considering the growing Muslim demographic in Germany and France, and perpetual Russian obstinacy.

Thus, even if the US were unable to get the type of coalition it needed for a future invasion of Iraq, both materially and rhetorically, they undoubtedly would have been in a firmer position strategically if Afghanistan and the tribal area on the Pakistani border were more stable than they are currently. So the argument that the Iraq war diverted necessary resources from Afghanistan and has accomplished very little strategically becomes even stronger when you consider how tight militarily the situation is in Iraq. 135, 000 US troops will be in Iraq for a minimum of 3 years. After that, the situation is unknown. In an ideal world the Bush administration would have waited to invade Iraq; similarly, the following administration, it is hoped, would also take seriously not simply the threat of Saddam, but its inherent responsibility to remove Saddam. Therefore, the invasion of Iraq begins to look like a non sequiter in US foreign policy, accomplishing nothing else but starting something that should have been done years prior, and committing to something that has proven to be wholly unmanageable now.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the Bush administration didn’t pressure the Intelligence community, since it wasn’t their decision that Iraq be invaded. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Bush administration let it be known that Iraq and Saddam was a priority. By conceding that intelligence was faulty, and distancing its self from the CIA, the administration realizes that no rationale justified this war—at least one that would have warranted such hasty action. So again, the war, from any stretch of reality, didn’t and doesn’t make any sense (hopefully, for the US’s sake, it does in the future) and for that reason alone Bush shouldn’t be re-elected.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The Apostate

Dennis Miller has come a long way since his days at SNL. Today it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that he’s come full circle—or, for that matter, done the impossible by circling the square. Now Miller runs with a group of unappreciated, at least in their field, derided, and much scorned individuals: The Conservative Entertainers. Besides Miller, I’m unaware of any other comedian as conservative as him(Rickles notwithstanding). It is, to be sure, a truism that Hollywood Entertainers are congenitally liberal. But comedians tend to be equal opportunity satirist, attacking any and all public figures. In this, Miller wasn’t an exception.

Though after 9/11, and understandably so, Miller has purveyed a slightly edgier brand of humor, bordering, some have said, on crypto-racist. And when it seemed like satirists were again allowed to aim at politics, in general, and the Bush Administration, specifically, Miller didn’t follow suit. In fact, Miller was swept into the Administration’s gravitational force. On numerous occasions he was invited to meet the President and Vice President, offering his comedic thoughts on post 9/11 responsibilities—full throated and uncritical support of the Bush Administration.

The verve in his humor began to wilt under the sheer weight of gravity; he was in the Administration’s orbit.

Miller has always unabashedly cut through turgid, dim political rhetoric with a dour remark and smirk. Everyone was a target. Not out of disrespect, but because of respect, and some ironic sense of equal opportunity sarcasm. And, mostly, out of self-interest: first comic principle, go for the best laugh. With a wealth of comic material available today, Miller’s filter is too partisan and greatly limits his natural comic talent. That is not say that Miller’s liberal bashing isn’t sharp. It’s good; great even. But his Conservative bashing was even more brilliant. Miller doesn’t make the effort he’s usually know for making.

To be fair, The Daily Show tends towards liberal comedy, bashing Conservatives. But nowhere else will you find more irreverent liberal bashing, too.

The height of this self-restraint that Miller was begrudged to express, was during his very first show on CNBC were he proclaimed, astonishingly, that he wouldn’t criticize the President, at all. Not only has he kept dutifully to his word, he’s gone even further and towed the GOP party line. Forget about not criticizing Bush, he’s down right sentimental any time Bush’s name is uttered. Opportunities to clinically skewer any Conservative political figure, as a matter of form, of course, are constantly squandered. Still, though, Miller is tough not to enjoy when he lathers up a smooth patina of obscure political references and waxes the only way he can, and always has, linguistically flawless.

Yet Miller seems to be trapped inside an orbit he can’t escape. He also telegraphically conveys a muted self-imposition he’s applied to any dormant, seditious thoughts. You know he can’t believe what he’s saying. An almost strange wonderment crosses his face when he speaks the party line, as though the obvious punch-line, so closely standing on his tongue, is dragged back into this new self-censoring gravitational pull, somewhere between the pit of his stomach, what used to be his guts, down through his large intestine, all the way through his small intestine, down to where is ball used to reside.

To the extent that John Ashcroft is loathed by Democrats and Liberals alike, it should be fairly said of him that he is what he is. You know what you get with Ashcroft, and, at some level, he’s a Culture Warrior who has let it be known where he stands and for that some respect is deserved. Though, Miller appears to be captivated by the aura and power of the presidency, unable to think critically his way out of this golden cage. It’s difficult to know where he stands; but, if there is any sure indicator, it’s his eyes. They betray him every time.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Why George W. Bush will win the election.....

If nothing else, it appears that the War on Terror will win the election for Bush this November. You ever wonder why bin Laden hadn’t been captured up until now?—so has everyone else in the free world. And what of the claim about playing politics with national security—don’t be your f**kin’ life on it. Bush doesn’t f**k around, and this is why... My apologizes for the expletives; this is what it’s come to.