How Does the Saudi Relationship With the Bush Family Affect U.S. Foreign Policy?

The Focus on Family Ties Is a Distraction
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July 8 2004 1:31 PM

How Does the Saudi Relationship With the Bush Family Affect U.S. Foreign Policy?

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Craig,

In private meetings, from what I've heard, Bush made it clear that the kingdom needed to shape up. In July 2002, the Defense Policy Board (informal advisers to the president and very close to him) actually debated a proposal suggesting that we invade Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia was the subject of a major bad-publicity blitz. Saudi Arabian money became suspect at major banks across the globe. Much quiet diplomacy also occurred. Treasury sent teams over to address our terrorist-financing concerns. Counterterrorism teams went over as well. Our intelligence agencies went too, and they are now working very closely with the Saudis. Perhaps that's not enough. But the result has been exactly in the direction that I think we both want to see. So something seems to be working. You still haven't laid out what we've given them a pass on. What would you like to have seen, and would it have resulted in different behavior?

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On the topic of "giving Bush a pass": Before 9/11, Bush didn't focus nearly enough on terrorism. Clarke makes a compelling argument when he points out that our state of alert in the summer of 2001 was nowhere near as high as it was around the millennium. Was it because Bush was connected to the Saudis? Or was it because he was always on vacation and his team was predisposed not to focus on it? I believe the latter. Look at Condoleezza Rice's article in Foreign Affairs before she became national security adviser. Terrorism is hardly mentioned, but when it is, it becomes a justification for a national ballistic missile defense system. The outgoing Clinton team was very frustrated that they couldn't get anyone to focus on terrorism. Look at the background of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others. Rumsfeld had just chaired a major commission on ballistic missiles, hence his focus on building a national missile defense, which, incidentally, continues to take precious resources away from the war on terror. Rumsfeld's other main focus was getting the military to skip a generation of technology and embrace the revolution in military affairs. They were an experienced team and could have changed their focus once in power. Unfortunately, they didn't.

I think Clarke would have liked to go much further in closing down terrorist financing. He couldn't because of other Clinton concerns having to do with an open global economy. Lewinsky or no Lewinsky, there were deep structural issues that were only overcome after a severe terrorist attack. There is no doubt that Clarke had more running room under Clinton and that Bush shut him out. But even under Clinton, Clarke wasn't able to do all that he wanted or all that was apparently needed. But it doesn't seem to me that the evidence points to the fact that Clarke was shut out because he was fingering the Saudis and Bush didn't like it.

I fear that focusing too much on the House of Bush/ House of Saud inadvertently gives the administration a "free pass," to use your term, on things like homeland security, a problematic FBI, Iraq reconstruction, and Middle East policy, because it diverts attention away from these very compelling and serious issues. It also doesn't help us determine why relations are so close between successive American presidents and Saudi leaders, or what we can do about it.

It's been a pleasure.

Rachel

Rachel Bronson is a senior fellow and director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she is currently writing a book on U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia.

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