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.


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