Saudi Arabia is the wellspring of radical Islam, its primary source of sustenance and inspiration. Yet, since September 11, the Bush administration has consistently ducked the truth about Riyadh's role in nurturing terrorism -- and concealed the truth as well. Given the many business and personal ties binding the president, his family and his associates to the House of Saud, George W. Bush's see-no-evildoer attitude toward the Saudis is a vulnerability just begging to be exploited by the Democrats. And they need to do so if they hope to recapture the presidency next year.
Unfortunately, apart from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been blasting the administration for months over its pusillanimous Saudi policy, the Democrats appear largely oblivious to the opportunity staring them in the eye. True, several Democratic presidential hopefuls, notably Howard Dean, have recently begun to include Saudi Arabia in their bill of particulars against Bush, but the criticism has been episodic and rather tepid.
The Democrats are instead pinning their hopes on the economy. They really seem to think it's 1992 redux, and that now, as then, rising unemployment will prove to be the Bush-beater and their ticket back to the White House. However, with the amount of stimulus in the pipeline, the economy may not be all that weak a year down the road. And even if it is, the Democrats will not be able to send this Bush packing merely by howling about the number of jobs lost on his watch.
September 11 changed American politics. Voters care about foreign policy in a way that they haven't in a long while. The Democrats had little to say about terrorism and national security during last year's midterm elections, and they paid dearly at the polls as a result. Karl Rove plainly intends to wrap the president's re-election bid in the black crape of 9-11, and unless the Democrats can convince the public that they can be trusted with homeland defense, they are almost surely headed for defeat. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Saudi issue gives them a chance to demonstrate their mettle -- at Bush's expense.
The incubatory role played by Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabite sect in fostering Islamic extremism is well documented. The desert kingdom leads the way in financing and inciting Muslim holy warriors the world over. How much of this is done with the complicity of the Saudi regime is unclear, but what is clear is that the royal family is a kleptocracy that has forestalled its own inevitable demise by redirecting domestic unrest outward. September 11 was a plot hatched by an exiled Saudi dissident, and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
In the two years since 9-11, the Saudis have been an obstacle, not an ally, in the battle against Islamic terrorism. Sure, they've muzzled a few firebrand clerics and rounded up some lumpen Islamicists. But they've shown little inclination to stanch the flow of money from so-called charity organizations to al-Qaeda and other militant groups, and they've kept cooperation with the FBI and the CIA to a minimum.
The royal family's many American mouthpieces assure us that the May 12 suicide bombing in Riyadh was a watershed -- that the Saudis now understand how dangerous al-Qaeda is and will henceforth be tripping over themselves to help us. That hope is delusional and illogical. The royal family is interested only in self-preservation, and joining the fight against terrorism in any meaningful way would be an act of suicide.
John O'Neill, the sadly prescient FBI counterterrorism expert who perished in the World Trade Center attack, understood long before 9-11 that the problem of "Islamofacism" was chiefly a Saudi one. "All the answers," he said, "everything needed to dismantle Osama bin Laden's organization, can be found in Saudi Arabia." But that's only if you're willing to look, which Bush clearly is not. Indeed, he has protected the Saudis at every juncture.
The pattern was established within hours of the atrocities in New York and Washington, when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador (long known as Bandar Bush because of his coziness with the first family), was permitted to spirit members of the bin Laden clan out of the United States before the FBI could properly interview them. Since then, the Department of Justice has impeded the lawsuit filed against the Saudi regime by the September 11 families; the White House blacked out the portions of a congressional report that detailed the Saudi role in 9-11, and everyone from the president on down has steadfastly insisted that the Saudis are paid-up members of the anti-terrorism posse.
Bush can spew all the frontier rhetoric he wishes, but in the case of the Saudis, his inaction speaks louder. Why he would rather undermine the war on terrorism than confront Riyadh is an interesting question, and it doesn't require a particularly active imagination to wonder if there is more here than just oil and a bad case of realpolitik.
The links between the House of Bush and the House of Saud 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 these dots.
In short, the Bushies have profited mightily from a relationship with a foreign government that can be indirectly, perhaps even directly, implicated in the September 11 attacks and other terrorist incidents and that has been the driving force behind a worldwide jihad.
The administration's coddling of the Saudis presents the Democrats with an opening the size of Texas, and they need to seize it. Bush is never more inarticulate and unconvincing than when on the defensive, and no subject is going to set him on his heels faster, and keep him there longer, than the Saudi question.
It wouldn't take much for the Democrats to turn this issue into a political bonanza. Some sustained pot stirring by the presidential candidates and various party organs would arouse the interest of the press. Soon enough, all those media sleuths who so assiduously ransacked the lives of the Clintons would be shamed into finally giving the Bush-Saudi nexus the scrutiny it deserves, and in the flash of a news cycle, the president would have a problem. Who knows where it all might lead? There are still unanswered questions about the role Saudi money played in Bush Junior's oil ventures; ditto the Iran-Contra scandal, which never quite caught up with Bush Senior. The possibilities seem endless.
Playing the Saudi card would be a hardball move, setting the stage for a bruising campaign. But Bush is no stranger to brass-knuckle tactics (just ask John McCain), and Republicans have been sliming Democrats for decades on issues of national security. A little retribution is long overdue, and the Democratic faithful are clearly in a fighting mood; using the Saudis as a cudgel to bash Bush would be a very effective way of channeling all that rage.
Nor could anyone justly accuse the Democrats of demagoguery; the Saudi issue is legitimate. The administration appears to have two sets of rules in the war on terrorism: one for the Saudis and one for everyone else. It's fair to ask why (plenty of conservatives are), to plant that question in the minds of voters and to tell voters that things will be different with a Democrat in the White House.
Things need to be different. It is imperative that the United States end its dependence on Middle East oil and its dysfunctional relationship with the Saudi regime, a medieval theocracy headed for the proverbial dustbin, and rightly so. Robert Baer's new book, Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, meticulously details the odiousness of the royal family, and it is a mark of enduring shame that we ever crawled into bed with these characters.
Four more years of Bush will likely mean four more years of business as usual -- four more years of ignoring Saudi Arabia's links to terrorism and its egregious human-rights record. On the stump and on the airwaves, the Democrats should be hammering home this point, giving the Saudis the bashing they so richly deserve and promising the American public a long-overdue reckoning with Riyadh.
Vilifying the Saudis would not just be good politics and good policy; it would be good for the Democratic soul. In pledging to free the United States from this pathetic entanglement, the Democrats would, in a sense, be reclaiming Woodrow Wilson from the Republicans generally and the neocons specifically. It used to be that the Democrats were the ethical standard-bearers in American foreign policy, committed to ensuring that the United States conducted itself in a manner consistent with its founding principles. But they have ceded the high ground of late. Disinterest in global affairs among the party's rank-and-file, coupled with the economic emphasis of the Clinton years, has robbed the party of its traditional internationalist voice.
Excoriating Bush over his handling of relations with the Saudis and vowing to put abundant daylight between Washington and Riyadh would be a way of regaining that voice -- of making the Democrats once again synonymous with human-rights concerns and the quest for justice abroad. The Saudi issue is a winning one on every count for the Democrats, and they need to take advantage of it -- now.