The American president and the Saudi prince


While it focuses mainly on Iraq, Bob Woodward’s new bestseller, State of Denial, also offers a troubling glimpse into Saudi influence on the White House.

WITH a first-edition printing of more than one million copies, the new Washington blockbuster by Bob Woodward, State of Denial, is already having an immense effect on US politics and audiences worldwide.

The strength of Woodward’s reporting – what makes it so electrifying – is the authoritative sense of bringing the reader into the Oval Office and other venues of power, and indeed into the minds of the principals themselves. Only Woodward gets what they are thinking because only to Woodward do they talk in such terms.

US President George W Bush and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hate this book, and while the White House can issue all the fact sheets it wants to rebut what Woodward relates, the fact is that none of the reporting has been discredited. It is on the money.

Woodward’s contemporary histories of Bush at war (State of Denial is the third) should not be considered a definitive history of the Bush presidency. There is virtually nothing on other foreign-policy issues, such as North Korea and Iran, and precious little on the president’s day job in crafting domestic policy. And there is only marginal focus on Israel, the second Palestinian intifada and Arik Sharon’s iron backbone.

But what Woodward reports on Israel is revealing – especially because a pungent subtext is the special relationship between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family, and the foreign policy realpolitik mentoring of the then-governor of Texas by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the legendary Saudi ambassador to Washington. Bandar is portrayed as the omniscient martinet whose dexterity is employed from Lebanon to China. (Woodward credits him with helping release the American crew from a jet fighter downed by the Chinese in 2001.)

And so it is Bandar who gives Bush crucial lessons in Middle East politics and conflict – lessons as earnest as those learned by Bush in his helicopter rides with Sharon over Israel nearly a decade ago.

In June 2001, Woodward reports, Bandar had dinner with Bush, then secretary of state Colin Powell and then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice that lasted from 7pm to midnight (keeping “Bush up well past his bedtime”).

Bandar said that the “impression the Arab world has now of the United States isn’t of a just and fair country but as one totally on the side of the Israelis”.

But Bandar’s killer punch was linking this to a strengthening of Saddam in Iraq. “Saddam’s continous calling for a jihad against the Zionist enemy and the imperialist America will create a very fertile ground,” Bandar warned.

“Mr President, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something. I mean, you’re killing us basically. We are being slaughtered right and left, and you’re not doing anything.”

Yes, we know a progressive and enlightened Saudi Arabia wants to fight Israel to the last Palestinian – but this is still pretty staggering stuff.

On August 27, 2001, Bandar carries what he says is “the most difficult message that I have ever conveyed” since his arrival in Washington in 1982. It was a letter from the crown prince to the president, who was “pained” because the “American ignorance of Israel upholding policies as if a drop of Jewish blood is equal to thousands of Palestinian lives”.

This was followed by the threat that Saudi Arabia will no longer communicate with the American president “in any form, type or shape” and will undertake its own policies “without taking into account American interests anymore because it is obvious that the United States has taken a strategic decision adopting Sharon’s policy”.

Bush and Powell were shocked. As the AJN is a community newspaper, the unprintable expletives used in reply cannot be repeated here.

But Bandar’s work had its desired effect. Two days later, Bush replied to the crown prince in writing: “I firmly believe the Palestinian people have a right to self-determination and to live peacefully and securely in their own state, in their own homeland, just as the Israelis have the right to live peacefully in their own state.”

It was the first time an American president had committed to a Palestinian state. The crown prince replied on September 6, 2001. Your letter was “a great relief to me”, his majesty wrote. He was “particularly pleased” with the US commitment to the Palestinians and “their independent state”.

Both leaders felt they had time to work the issue further, but it was not to be.