Craig "House of Bush, House of Saud" Unger and the Council on Foreign Relations' Rachel Bronson, who is said to be writing a book on U.S.-Saudi relations, debate the special relationship in a Slate dialogue that may be interesting enough to make it worth enduring the mutual congratulations these dialogues always seem to involve. ("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," Unger says.) I haven't read Unger's book and don't know anything about him, but since his name always seems to inspire an eye-rolling oh him! gesture, I think I'm supposed to be suspicious of him. So far, both debaters take at face value the dubious notion that the Saudi government was strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq; Bronson rightly notes that the Bushes are not unique among presidents with strong Saudi ties, but then mentions only "many Republican administrations" (wasn't it Franklin Roosevelt who began America's longest-standing diplomatic relationship in the Middle East?); Unger makes the intriguing claim that George W. is in fact beginning to sever the family's ties to the kingdom.
What I find really unsatisfying is the discussion of the 9/13 and 9/14 flights out of the U.S. by the famous 100+ Saudi citizens. This has of course become a big gotcha claim by Michael Moore, and his opponents have come up with the gotcha counterclaims that Richard Clarke approved these evacuations and the 9/11 commission doesn't believe any of the evacuees were suspects. Both Bronson and Unger are content to argue over these terms once again. But shouldn't the burden of proof be on the government rather than its detractors? Why were a bunch of Saudis granted a privilege—civilian air travel—that at the time was being forcibly denied to every American citizen? Is there any possible concern—their personal safety, diplomatic relations, business ties—that would make such a waiver necessary?