Pretty soon, the Anyone But Bush crowd is going to have to decide: Is the American president an Israeli shill or is he a Saudi shill? Does he do the bidding of the insidious pro-Israel neocons or of the insidious pro-Arab oil lobby? Is his foreign policy everything his father's was not and therefore disastrous or is it an extension of it and therefore equally disastrous?
A long time ago this would have been 2002 and the early months of 2003 the first set of views held sway. "The Bush administration paints a rosy scenario for the upcoming war in Iraq," wrote University of Chicago professor Fred Donner in the Chicago Tribune. "It is a vision deriving from Likud-oriented members of the President's team particularly Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith." On MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews observed that the war party consisted of "conservative people out there, some of them Jewish, who... believe we should fight the Arabs and take them down. They believe that if we don't fight Iraq, Israel will be in danger." In the pages of The Nation, the venerable organ of Leftist certitude, writer Jason Vest spun elaborate theories about the nefarious influence of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, or JINSA, on administration policy.
At the same time, alarms were being sounded about some of the lunatic ideas making the rounds at Club Neocon. In July 2002, Rand Corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec gave a briefing to Mr. Perle's Defense Policy Board, in which he called Saudi Arabia "the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" of American interests in the Middle East. Tom Ricks, the Washington Post reporter who broke the story about the briefing, noted the anti-Saudi line was gaining traction in such magazines as The Weekly Standard and Commentary, which, he helpfully added, "is published by the American Jewish Committee."
The president's critics went into a tizzy. Crown Prince Abdullah had only recently proposed an Arab-Israeli peace plan, and the Saudis were still in pretty good odor. Mr. Murawiec, wrote Jack Shafer in Slate, "lights out for the extreme foreign policy territory," and sounds like "an aspiring Dr. Strangelove."
Finally, 2002 was the year when administration critics rediscovered the sublime genius of Bush pere and his foreign policy team. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Secretaries of State James Baker and Larry Eagleburger, and retired General Norman Schwarzkopf all cautioned against the rush to war. Invidious comparisons were made between their statesmanlike prudence and the callow impetuousness of Bush fils.
HOWEVER, THAT was then. These days, everyone knows that President Bush is nothing if not his father's son not to mention Prince Bandar's poodle.
"The links between the House of Bush and the House of Saud," wrote Michael Steinberger in the October 2003 issue of the American liberal monthly, The American Prospect, "are deep, overlapping and notoriously opaque: The Saudi investment in the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm whose rainmakers include George Bush Senior; the Saudi bankrolling of Poppy's presidential library; the lucrative contracts the Saudis doled out to Halliburton when Dick Cheney was at the company's helm. The main law firm retained by the Saudis to defend them against the 9-11 families is Baker Botts as in James Baker, the Bush family consigliere. And, of course, there's oil, the black glue connecting all the dots."
These arguments were picked up in Craig Unger's bestselling House of Bush, House of Saud, and amplified in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. For Mr. Unger, the point of departure is the White House's post 9-11 decision to allow members of the bin Laden clan to leave for Saudi Arabia, while Mr. Moore makes much of the $1.4 billion Saudi Arabia paid over the years to Carlyle-connected enterprises.
True, the guy who gave the go-ahead for the flight of the bin Ladens was Richard Clarke, neither pere nor fils was ever shown to have profited from a Carlyle-orchestrated/Saudi-connected deal, and Carlyle is run by Carter administration official David Rubenstein. Also, the Clinton administration, like every administration since Franklin Roosevelt's, had been close to the House of Saud: In his memoirs, Bill Clinton reports that in February 1994 "We got a piece of good news when Saudi Arabia agreed to buy $6 billion worth of American planes, after intense efforts by Ron Brown, Mickey Kantor and Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena."
But never mind. What's really interesting is how much Messrs. Moore, Unger and Steinberger sound like those scary neocons of yesteryear. "The desert kingdom leads the way in financing and inciting Muslim holy warriors the world over," wrote Mr. Steinberger in his American Prospect article. So what's the difference between him and Mr. Murawiec? Answer: politics.
"It wouldn't take much for the Democrats to turn [the Saudi] issue into a political bonanza...." Steinberger writes. "The Saudi issue is a winning one on every count for the Democrats, and they need to take advantage of it now." Which is just what Mr. Moore has done.
Of course, Mr. Steinberger is right as Mr. Murawiec was right that Saudi Arabia is no friend of the United States. He is also right that the Bush administration hasn't formulated a muscular or even coherent policy toward the Kingdom, and so is vulnerable to criticism on the subject.
Then again, wasn't one of the main points of the war in Iraq to remove US military bases from Saudi Arabia, and therefore extricate America from an entanglement begun during the first Bush administration? And don't the shortcomings of administration policy stem in part from the neuralgic reaction by the Arabist wing of the State Department to Mr. Murawiec's ideas and the ideology he represents? Presumably, if the neocons had been allowed to run the show in the Bush White House, the 82nd Airborne would now be stationed in Mecca selling tickets to the next Hajj. Maybe that's something we can soon look forward to in the Kerry presidency.
In its review of Fahrenheit 9/11, al-Jazeera.net noted "the implicit suggestion that the Saudi government is somehow driving the Bush administration's policies toward the region flies in the face of Washington's unprecedented support for Israel as well as strong regional opposition to the invasion of Iraq."
It's a good thing at least some people have got their stories straight. Because either you believe the Jews are behind it all, or you believe the Saudis are. But not both. This is one conspiracy theory on which flip-flopping is not allowed.