Forget the missing WMDs, the 16 words, the uranium from Niger. Potentially the most dangerous foreign-policy issue confronting the Bush administration, and its greatest dereliction in the War on Terror, is its see-no-evil approach to terror’s bankers, the Saudis.
Alex Alexiev (see p. 20 of the Sept. 1 issue of NR) sketches the big picture. The news peg for this issue has been the administration’s refusal to declassify 28 pages of Congress’s Joint Inquiry Report into 9/11. The Bushmen said that publicizing the information might jeopardize national security. After their announcement, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince (of course) Saud (of course) al-Faisal, demanded that the info be released, declaring, “We have nothing to hide.” But this was probably kabuki — a PR lamentation only after he was sure the case was closed.
A leak to the press opened the case a bit. The embargoed pages of the report discussed the strange case of Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national formerly of San Diego, who was allegedly a student, though he seemed to have unlimited amounts of cash. Bayoumi also knew two of the 9/11 hijackers, helping them get an apartment and paying their first month’s rent. Bayoumi is now in Saudi Arabia, and recently was re-questioned by the FBI.
The Bayoumi episode, however lurid-seeming, may turn out to be a true coincidence. The flood of Saudi money — much of it from government-run charities — into Islamist hate and terrorism worldwide is quite deliberate. Congress is beginning to ask what the administration is doing about it. On July 31, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, led by Susan Collins (R., Maine), heard testimony from John Pistole, the acting FBI director for counterterrorism, and Richard Newcomb, the director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Pistole and Newcomb credited the Saudis with being more cooperative after the May 12 terror bombing in Saudi Arabia — the first that seemed to target the regime directly. But they were not yet satisfied with what the Saudi government was doing: “The jury’s still out” (Pistole); “coordination is . . . complex” (Newcomb). The senators were not satisfied with what the American government is doing. How many Saudi terror-funders, Collins wanted to know, had been fingered by the Treasury Department, only to have the designation blocked by other agencies? “More than 50 percent of the recommendations? . . . As high as 95 percent?”
Why does the Bush administration treat the Saudis with kid gloves? Partly because of State Department Arabism, and State Department love-thy-enemy. Partly because of a misguided policy of Muslim outreach, which in practice reaches out to established, and corrupt, Muslim groups in this country. Partly because of inertia. The United States was allied with the Saudis in the Cold War and the first Gulf War; it is hard to see them now as weaselly or treacherous.
Old friends do not stay friends forever. Japan and Italy were Allied powers in World War I. We fought alongside the Soviets in World War II, against them a few short years later. Mature strategists take account of changing realities. The Saudi regime exports dissidence, while fomenting a Nazi-like hatred of the Other at home and throughout the Muslim world. They see the process of Iraqi rebirth as a threat to their own unreformed status quo, as well they should. Maybe Bush is telling them, behind the scenes, that they must stop funding our enemies and make a transition to constitutional monarchy. If not, he may suffer serious political damage. Dick Gephardt is already to the administration’s right on the Saudis, urging a frank confrontation over their terror funding. May other Democrats join him there.