Web exclusive 4/29/02
Agreeing to disagree
What was the upshot of Crown Prince Abdullah's five-hour meeting with George W. Bush April 25?
By Michael Barone
What was the upshot of Crown Prince Abdullah's five-hour meeting with George W. Bush April 25? No one can know for sure what was said by the two men, but we can read between the lines of the official accounts and also draw some conclusions from two extraordinary news stories based on high-level leaks. The first appeared in the New York Times the morning of the meeting and was extraordinary because of the audacity of the threats made by "a person familiar with the Saudi's thinking." The second appeared in the Washington Post the next day and was extraordinary because it was based on complaints from "State Department officials" in a Bush administration that frowns (to put it politely) on leaking.
In both articles the anonymous sources complained that President Bush was giving too much support to Israel and was not pressuring the Israelis to make concessions to the Saudis. Dire consequences would ensue, both anonymous camps agreed, with the Saudis predicting a "strategic debacle for the United States," while the State folks saw an administration policy "dead in the water."
But these predictions ring hollow. The complaints show the weakness, not the strength, of the Saudis and of the Near East Bureau of the State Department, which so often takes up their cause. The accounts of the Bush-Abdullah meeting are very strong evidence that the president ignored the leakers' counsel and kept to his course of opposing Palestinian terrorism and supporting Israeli resistance to it.
The Saudi source threatened to use the "oil weapon" against the United States unless it stopped supporting Israel and pressured it to make concessions to the Palestinians. This mysterious official also threatened that Abdullah might not complete his scheduled trip to Texas, would call for an Islamic Conference summit, and would renege on his commitment to blunt the effect of Saddam Hussein's announced 30-day suspension of Iraqi oil exports. "If Bush freed Arafat and cleared Bethlehem, it would be a big victory, showing a stiffening of spine," the Saudi said. Of course it would show exactly the opposite: To reward terrorists like Arafat and the desecrators of the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity would show a weakening of spine.
The Times's Saudi source said that Bush "made a strategic, conscious decision to go with Sharon, so your national interest is no longer our national interest; now we don't have joint national interests. What it means is that you go your way and we will go ours, economically, militarily, and politicallyand the antiterror coalition would collapse in the process." But Abdullah said much the same thing in a letter to Bush in August. And in fact the Saudis' actions have not been in our interest at all. Saudis, including members of the royal family, financed al Qaeda before September 11, and many still finance al Qaeda today. The Saudis have praised suicide bombers (their ambassador to Britain published a poem eulogizing one of them) and have refused Bush's request to condemn them. Around the globe Saudis finance Islamic clerics who spread the Saudi sect of Wahabbism, a doctrine that preaches intolerance and seeks everywhere the totalitarian society the Saudis have imposed on Arabia.
After the meeting, Bush proclaimed that the United States and Saudi Arabia have "a strong, important friendship." But accounts of the meeting make it sound like the two simply talked past each other, at length, with Abdullah decrying U.S. support of Israel and Bush decrying terrorism. The one point of agreement was everyone's insistence that the threat to use the oil weapon was "not on the table." It would not, in any case, have been a very strong threat: Any such Saudi oil shutoff would have far less effect on the world market than the oil embargoes of the 1970s, and the Saudi rulers today need the oil revenue desperately.
Also, Abdullah did not leave Texas in a huff, and it doesn't seem likely he'll call an Islamic summit. Militarily the Saudis have little leverage. Their own armed forces are derisory, and the United States has shown in its campaign against Afghanistan that it can proceed without using its bases in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. can do the same against Iraq. We have forces in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Turkey, and evidently have been transferring troops and facilities out of Saudi Arabia and into other countries. The bitterness of the Saudis' complaints in the Times shows not that they are strong and we are at their mercy but that they are weak and we are positioned to do what we wish.
Similarly, the bitterness of the State Department staffers' complaints in the Post shows not that they have a policy that would work in America's interest but that they don't. Their argument is that Bush and top Defense Department officials "repeatedly undercut" Colin Powell's effort "to break the Middle East deadlock." They claim that Powell was not allowed to pressure Ariel Sharon to get Israeli troops out of the West Bank and to produce negotiations between Israelis and Yasser Arafat. The problem with this view is that the Israelis at least started the process of meeting Bush's demand that they leave the West Bank, while the Palestinians and other Arabs did nothing to meet Bush's demand that they renounce the terrorism of suicide murders.
The State Department complainers were displeased that Bush, speaking with Powell after he returned to Washington, praised Sharon as a "man of peace" and for taking satisfactory steps to leave the West Bank. But part of that concern is parochial. "We're getting hammered for that quote throughout the Arab world," one State Department source said. No doubt these officials, who have to talk to Arabs every day, are getting their ears burned. But why should the psychic comfort of a few State Department officials count for more than asserting opposition to terrorism and support of those who effectively oppose it? The facts overwhelmingly point to the conclusion that there is at present no possible comprehensive settlement of the issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The desire of some in the State Department to produce such a settlement by getting the Israelis to make more concessions has run up against an immovable obstacle: The president doesn't want to do that.
You hear from the State Department and various Arab sources that Israel's attempts to stamp out the terrorist network in the West Bank will just produce more terrorism. But the real fear, among the Arabs at least, is that Israel's tough response will prove as effective in the medium and long term as it has in the short term. The Arabs are afraid that the Palestinians are losing their terror war and that Israel will be able to go along living in peace, without pressure to make concessions to Palestinians.
The Palestinian terrorists, like the Saudi autocrats, are holding a losing hand. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a democratic, peace-minded Iraqi government threaten to weaken their hands further. For the past month, they have tried to distract George W. Bush from the war against terrorism's target of Iraq and to get him sidetracked in the cul-de-sac of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But Bush has evidently seen through this game. He refused to treat Palestinian terrorism and Israel's defense against terrorism evenhandedly, and he has refused to pressure Sharon to negotiate with the terrorist Arafat. His agree-to-disagree meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah suggests that Bush has his eye firmly set on Iraq and that he intends to go therewhether or not the Saudis or the State Department like it.