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The Vast Power of the Saudi Lobby

John R. MacArthur

GIVEN MY DISSIDENT politics, I should be up in arms about the Israel lobby. Not only have I supported the civil rights of the Palestinians over the years, but two of my principal intellectual mentors were George W. Ball and Edward Said, both severe critics of Israel and its extra-special relationship with the United States.

Nowadays I ought to be even bolder in my critique, since the silent agreement suppressing candid discussions about Israeli-U.S. relations has recently been shaken by some decidedly mainstream figures. These critics of Israel and its American agents include John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, of the University of Chicago, and Harvard's Kennedy School, respectively; Tony Judt, a historian at New York University; and former President Jimmy Carter.

Somehow, though, I can't shake the idea that the Israel lobby, no matter how powerful, isn't all it is cracked up to be, particularly where it concerns the Bush administrations past and present. Indeed, when I think of pernicious foreign lobbies with disproportionate sway over American politics, I can't see past Saudi Arabia and its royal house, led by King Abdullah.

The long and corrupt history of American-Saudi relations centers around the kingdom's vast reserves of easily extractable oil, of course. Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt met aboard ship in 1945 with King Ibn Saud, the special relationship with the desert kingdom has only grown stronger. The House of Saud is usually happy to sell us oil at a consistent and reasonable price — and then increase production if unseemly market forces drive the world price of a barrel too high for U.S. consumers.

In exchange we arm the Saudis to the teeth and turn a blind eye to their medieval approach to crime and punishment.

Even during the Saudi-led oil embargo of 1973-74, an exceedingly hostile action against the United States supposedly justified by Washington's support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, the Nixon administration treaded very softly. Despite the illegality of the embargo — it arguably violated international law as well as a bilateral commercial agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia — the White House and the State Department could hardly have been more diplomatic toward their Bedouin friends.

As the historian J.B. Kelly recounts, the U.S. ambassador to Riyahd, James Akins, did his best to placate King Faisal by urging the Saudi's American-owned oil concessionaire ARAMCO to, in Aken's words, "hammer home" to the White House that the embargo wouldn't be lifted unless "the political struggle [between Israel and the Arabs] is settled in [a] manner satisfactory to [the] Arabs."

In all, as Kelly wrote, "a most peculiar recourse for an ambassador to employ to influence the policy of his own government."

But this was a blip on the screen of harmonious petrol politics. After Iran's Islamic revolution overthrew the trusted shah, in 1979, the thoroughly anti-democratic Saudi oligarchy appeared an island of stability and thus of greater strategic value to Washington. Indeed, in a head-to-head match-up with the Israel lobby in 1981 over the proposed American sale of AWACS planes to the Saudis, the Saudi lobby won a close vote in the Senate. Leading the Arab charge on Capitol Hill was the debonair Prince Bandar, who demonstrated that charm mixed with a lot of money could beat the Israelis, even during the pro-Israel administration of Ronald Reagan.

Bandar was quickly promoted to Saudi ambassador to Washington, where, in 1990, he was assigned the task by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney of, in effect, doling out press passes to the U.S. media before the Gulf War — this in spite of the fact that tens of thousands of U.S. troops were swarming into the kingdom to defend it against a perceived invasion threat from Saddam Hussein. When he wasn't entertaining congressmen and spreading good cheer through his highly paid lobbyist, Fred Dutton, Bandar was busy making friends with, at first vice president, and then president, George H.W. Bush, and by extension with Bush's son, the future president. This personal relationship with the Bush family has served Bandar and his family very well, as documented in Craig Unger's book, House of Bush, House of Saud.

But the prince and his royal relatives evidently also impressed the Clinton administration. Before he died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, the former FBI counterterrorism chief John O'Neill complained to French investigator Jean-Charles Brisard that Saudi pressure on the State Department had prevented him from fully investigating possible al-Qaida involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen, and of the destroyer Cole in 2000. As with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, there's always talk of the Saudis playing a double game with al-Qaida — publicly denouncing it and privately paying it off — but you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the Saudis don't have America's best interests at heart.

So it gets worse. Now, according to Seymour Hersh, Bandar has virtually joined the Bush administration as a shadow cabinet member. Hersh's New Yorker article last month described "the redirection" of U.S. foreign policy against Iran and Arab Shi'ite terrorists in collaboration with such Sunni-dominated countries as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt (this in spite of the fact that Sunni rebels, funded in part by Saudi "private citizens," have killed the bulk of American solidiers who have died in Iraq).

The wise men in this new policy council reportedly include Vice President Cheney, deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams (an Iran-Contra convict who is very pro-Israel), the nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, and none other than Bandar, now the Saudi national-security adviser. Such is the cynicism of Bushian, Israeli and Saudi foreign policy that Abrams collaborates with Bandar, whose country does not recognize Israel and whose "charities" give money to the families of suicide bombers who blow themselves up inside the Jewish state.

Lately, King Abdullah has been making anti-American noises, calling the U.S. presence in Iraq an "illegitimate foreign occupation." But like the Saudis' paper-thin devotion to the Palestinian cause, this is just so much realpolitik. In March 1974, the oil embargo was lifted without any conditions concerning Palestinian rights. Today, as the Shi'ism scholar Amal Saad-Ghorayeb told Mohamad Bazzi, of Newsday, "the Saudis are being more autonomous, but it's a very contrived sense of autonomy" designed "to give [them] more political cover so they can rally Arab support against [Shi'ite] Iran."

If you're naíve enough to believe that the Saudi king's rhetoric signifies a genuine break with the United States over Iraq, or anything else, then you might also believe that the Israel lobby is more powerful than the Saudi lobby. And if you think that Israeli security means more to George Bush than Saudi oil, then you might even believe that Bush saw 9/11 coming.

John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.

© 2007 The Providence Journal


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine. An award-winning journalist, he has previously written for the New York Times, United Press International, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Under his stewardship, Harper's has received eighteen National Magazine Awards, the industry's highest recognition. He is also the author of the acclaimed books "The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible" (2012), "The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy" (2001), and "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War" (2004). He lives in New York City.

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