After months on the talk show circuit, it's a rare pleasure to encounter someone who is not from the Jerry Springer school of politics. That said, I will try to stick to the facts.
It's not hard to argue that the Bush administration has given a pass to the Saudis. Consider the confirmation hearings of Robert Jordan as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia just 10 days after 9/11. "Tragedies of this magnitude show us who our real friends are. ... " Jordan said. "We seek to build an international coalition against terrorism. They have answered that call superbly."
Not a word, of course, about the role of Saudis in the attacks that killed 3,000 people. Or how wealthy Saudis helped fund terrorism.
Jordan, a former lawyer at Baker Botts (that's James Baker's firm), was accompanied at the hearing by another Baker Botts partner who helped expand the firm's Middle East practice. That's a basic point that my book and Fahrenheit 9/11 share—cracking down on the Saudi role in terror takes a back seat to oil-industry interests.
Jordan's sentiments have been echoed repeatedly by the Bush White House. There's been enormous Saudi resistance toward investigating Saudi charities that fund terrorism, but nothing about that from the White House. In Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill makes it clear that the Saudis have not been cooperative.
In addition, every time the Saudis say they're going to crack down on al-Qaida, something happens that shows the Saudis are really being torn in two directions at once. For example, after various al-Qaida terrorist attacks, Interior Minister Prince Nayef and Crown Prince Abdullah have actually pointed the finger at Zionists rather than at al-Qaida. But nary a peep out of the White House.
At least you're agnostic about to the Saudi evacuation. The 9/11 commission has been tougher on the administration than I expected, but remember that it's a bipartisan commission that is supposed to come up with a consensus—not a great recipe if you're looking for truth. Not surprisingly, there are divisions within the commission on partisan lines. Not surprisingly, their interim report on the Saudi evacuation is deeply unsatisfying.
Let me give just one example. The report says that the first Saudi flight took place on Sept. 14. But the first flight actually took place a day earlier, on Sept. 13, when restrictions on private planes were still in place. That means it took place when permission to fly was required from the highest levels of our government. I gave them this information months ago. Since then it has been corroborated by airport authorities in Tampa, Fla. When the commission knowingly omits crucial information, that suggests politics is involved.
Then there's Richard Clarke. True, he is a fierce critic of the Bush White House who has said that the Saudi evacuation was correct. But Clarke is also a brilliant and savvy bureaucrat who has been candid in saying he was part of that decision. Do you really expect him to characterize what he did as stupid or wrong? When I interviewed him, he told me that he granted approval for the Saudi departure contingent on it being vetted by the FBI. In the end, he said, "I have no idea if they did a good job." Given the FBI's sorry history, I have a hard time believing in their infallibility. One of the commission's findings is that the FBI did not even check the Saudi passengers against their terror watch list—an astonishing and horrifying oversight just a few days after 9/11.
Finally, there's the Iraq war. On this score, I agree with you completely. George W. Bush is not his father's son, and as a result I believe the Bush-Saud relationship has entered the end-game stage. I bet Bush Sr. and James Baker are secretly horrified at what young Bush has done.
I also believe Bush's policies are leaving the United States with the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we are giving the Saudis a pass on terrorism. On the other, thanks to the Iraq war, no moderate Arab leader can risk being friends with us. The U.S.-Saudi relationship may be coming to an end. And when it comes to our energy needs, that could leave us running on empty.