Harmless Groupies

Swap puts the Dip back in diplomacy


To the many oddities of the war on terrorism, we may now add a new one: It's the first war in which we have to exchange POWs with our putative allies.

Like a spherical burst aerial shell launched into a thick cloudbank, the July 4 news (reg. req.) of a detainee deal with Saudi Arabia, involving the release of five Saudi terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay, briefly ignited and then dissolved in the gloom, making little impression on the public.

Originally appearing on the front page of The New York Times, an obscure journal based in a metropolitan area some distance east of New Jersey, the story of the release, in which the Saudi suspects were given back to their home country in exchange for the release of seven British, Canadian, and Belgian prisoners held in Saudi Arabia, has gotten little followup. Half-hearted denials from Saudi and U.S. officials ("This is a case of connecting dots that don't," says a "senior Saudi official," while National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormick says, "There is no recollection here of any linkage between [the two releases]") encourage the impression that the story is correct in its general claims.

Even if the international dealmaking is less clear-cut than the Times suggests—and more importantly, even if the analysis by reporters Don Van Natta and Tim Golden, suggesting that the 2003 release was aimed at muting Saudi opposition to the invasion of Iraq, is unfounded—it is striking that our Saudi allies were able to get their nationals released from Guantanamo before such other American friends as Spain, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Perhaps those countries could learn a thing or two from the Gulf kingdom about firm commitment to the war on terrorism and scrupulous honesty in matters of law and order. In any event, the news raises some interesting points:

• Despite much publicity about the militant threat to the teetering House of Saud, it's still pretty good to be the king. The Saudis can still command priority of diplomatic treatment, and in exchange they have to do, well, not much. The seven prisoners released from Saudi in the 2003 exchange were held on fairly dubious charges; British officials believe they were tortured into making confessions.

• With questions about the guilt or innocence of Guantanamo detainees now causing much consternation in the United States, it's interesting that we'll probably never have any determination of the status of these five Saudi detainees. One official from the kingdom characterized them as "low-level foot soldiers or even groupies, who were working for charities and who posed no threat," while an American noted that they had clear Al Qaeda connections and had not cooperated with interrogators. In a final note of uncertainty, Saudi officials have even managed to lie about the prisoners' post-Gitmo fates, claiming variously that they were released from Saudi custody or are still being held. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the mushroom cloud before we can be sure about who's who.

• The State Department, always a handy villain where Saudi perfidy is at issue, is again on the scene, but with a twist. Devotees of the hard, massy books about State collusion with the Saudis that have darkened the countryside in recent years— Joel Mowbray's Dangerous Diplomacy, Robert Baer's Sleeping With the Devil, Thomas W. Lippman's Inside the Mirage, Patricia Roush's At Any Price, to name just a few—know the general outlines: careerist hacks and get-along-go-along Arabists willing to brook every despotism in pursuit of craven diplomacy. In this case, however, the mastermind of the scheme was no careerist, and certainly no Arabist, but then-Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan, a Houston-based lawyer with no diplomatic experience who earned his ambassadorial plum by getting George W. Bush off on an insider trading charge in 1990. (Interestingly, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld emerges here as an opponent of the trade.) Certainly an argument could be made that the real State Department threat is not coming from the devoted lifelong public servants but from the dilettantes, tourists and other bums who get patronage assignments overseas. (I'm not saying the argument is true, but if I were a State wonk I'd be pitching it to a publisher.)

• "This presented itself as a way for the United States to help its friends, both the Brits and the Saudis," one unnamed American source tells the Times. "It's what diplomacy is all about." Maybe so, but then, what is war about? The United States certainly has more dependable allies in the fight against militant Islam, who deserve at least as much courtesy as the Saudis. Australia, for example, actually supplied troops for the invasion of Iraq, but last anybody checked Prime Minister John Howard did not have clemency rights over Australians held in Guantanamo.

• Finally, where are the supporters of President Bush—a bunch not ordinarily reticent about condemning Islamists and their fellow travelers—when one of his flunkies makes a deal that at best appears highly unsavory and at worst is lethally contrary to American interests? It doesn't speak well of the right that the serious questions about Bush's closeness to the royal family of Saudi Arabia seem of interest mainly to highly impeachable figures like Michael Moore. The war on terrorism should demand more honest accounting. I already know the Saudis are on the other side. But how does the President feel about the Saudis?