House of Cards

If the Saudis keel over, we'll always have Iraq


One can sympathize with Craig Unger, whose book House of Bush, House of Saud has lately become a bible for neoconspiracists who cannot stomach George W. Bush. As books on the administration's transgressions in the Middle East have multiplied, Unger had to advance his own title on a pretty crowded conveyor belt. The best way to do so was apparently by stretching his contentious interpretations to the limit to sell a pretty anemic case.

In describing the ins and outs of the connection between the Bushes and the Saudi royal family, Unger makes many claims, several fairly embarrassing to the two George Bushes, but also a most extravagant allegation: "[H]orrifying as it sounds, the secret relationship between these two great families helped trigger the Age of Terror and gave rise to the tragedy of 9/11." Even using innuendo, generalizations and certified unfairness, Unger provides no strong evidence to make the case. In fact, if one uses this argument alone as a benchmark, he has written a load of hogwash.

The thing is that Unger does more than that. What he describes more adroitly than the Bushes' sins of omission or commission on terrorism is the tremendous influence the Saudis have had in the US for decades, which has surely blinded Washington to the kingdom's evils (a charge that can be leveled against many other American alliances). Unger's fault is that he insists on personalizing what is a systemic problem in the Saudi-American relationship: By focusing on the Bushes, Unger may have sold more copies of his tome, but he misses the point that with or without the sires of Kennebunkport and Crawford at the White House, Saudi Arabia was anyway going to be a fount of extreme Islamism, and that the United States was going to continue defending the half-century quid pro quo that preserved the Saudi monarchy: American security for the kingdom in exchange for Saudi help in supplying oil, stabilizing international oil markets, and buying high-cost American technology.

As Rachel Bronson of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote to Unger in an exchange the two recently had in Slate: "I believe the focus on the Bushes starts the story much too late. The Saudis have been close friends of many Republican administrations. The Republicans, after all, are a party of big business, and oil is a heck of a big business… Bush may have taken it to a new level, but it is still not at all clear to me that it mattered all that much."

Bronson actually defines a more profound potential quandary than does Unger, who implies that once the Bushes are sent packing, everything will be better. The real difficulty with Saudi Arabia is that it poses a problem with no solution, at least in the short term: The despotism, brutality and corruption of the Al-Saud has reinforced domestic Islamists, many of whom sympathize with Osama bin Laden and detest the United States; yet democratic elections could well bring these people to power. At the same time, if the Al-Saud crush Al-Qaeda in their midst, this would allow the royal family to ward off real change, generating new forms of violent opposition.

That said, the idea of domestic Saudi reform is laughable. The Saudi royal family will never transform itself into something more enlightened—not, for example, when so much state funding goes to paying lavish salaries to the kingdom's estimated 7,000-8,000 princes and princesses. (In 1995, Jean-Michel Foulquier, a pseudonym for a French diplomat who had worked in the kingdom, wrote a prescient book on Saudi Arabia's woes, where he estimated the monthly allowance at between $15,000-20,000, not including myriad other subsidies.) Nor can a nation of institutions peacefully replace a kingdom that is named for, and mostly run as a private domain, by a single family. For the near future, nothing short of enforced change, internal or external, will alter power relations in Saudi Arabia.

So what is the U.S. to do? The former CIA agent Robert Baer asked the same question in his 2003 volume Sleeping with the Devil, and came up with an elusive answer, namely that someone in the royal family had to impose the "rule of law" on the kingdom. He defined this as "outlawing righteous murder, jihad, the Muslim Brotherhood. That would be a start; then you could move on to outlawing grotesque commissions, theft, and bribery." Only when those problems were addressed, Baer concluded, could one think about democracy.

That was moralistic boilerplate—true, but more normative than practical. Baer's additional suggestion, specifically to the U.S., was far more tangible: In case of crisis, Washington should be prepared to seize the Saudi oil fields. Sure, he wrote, this would create political difficulties, "but would all that be worse than standing idly by as the House of Sa'ud collapsed and the world's largest known oil reserves fell into the hands of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired fundamentalists dedicated to jihad against Israel and the West? I don't think so."

Short of this option, there is an alternative, namely deriving advantages from democratization in Iraq. This may be a long shot given the ambient (and utterly mistaken) perception of failure there. But as Americans consciously turn their attention away from the grand ambitions that accompanied the war in Iraq and embrace a more urgent desire to head for the country's exits, they might want to recall that one of the inherent aims of the Bush administration's campaign was to protect the U.S. against the dangerous vicissitudes of Saudi politics.

Nothing has changed: In the long run a truly democratic Iraq would surely be more stable than most other Arab states; it could also provide a substitute model to the Saudis than the one presented today by Islamist extremists—Saudi liberals may be weak, but they are not nonexistent. But if pluralism proves too idealistic an alternative for the kingdom, and fails, a democratic Iraq, which will presumably also be a fairly pro-American Iraq, will be a far better regional bet than Saudi Arabia. That means that heading for the exits in Iraq is simply not an option.

There may be few solutions from inside Saudi Arabia to resolve the dilemma of how the U.S. must deal with the kingdom; but the American presence in Iraq has offered Washington new opportunities outside, if this or a new administration sticks to the original game plan and doesn't abandon the Iraq project altogether.