Sunday, April 29, 2007

Saudi Arabia and George W. Bush

Although Bush has had a close relationship with a number of powerful individuals from Saudi Arabia, his strange 'can't do' presidency has done damage to our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. Because the Iraq fiasco is in their backyard, the Saudis have particular reason to be disturbed. We continue to be allies with Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries though of course it is a difficult relationship at times.

Several bits of news in recent days have come to my attention and they highlight the complexity of our relationships and the dangerous damage Bush has done to our foreign policy (without the president having any clue where to go next). For all of Bush's posturing, the question hangs dismally in the air: how is Bush's war on terruh going? Here's Mary of The Left Coaster reminding us that Bush's war on terror has unfortunately done an effective job of creating more terrorists:
Based on the State Department report that the number of terrorist incidents in the world were up 29% in 2006, it would appear the answer is not so good.

Then there is that report from McClatchy today that the Saudis are unhappy to find that the detainees emerging from Gitmo are more extreme than when they went in. Enough so that the Saudis are providing them extensive help including counseling, financial aid and even match-making in order to woo them away from their attachment to terrorism.

Give the article and links a read. Bush's pretentious and ultraconservative ideas about how to do things are obviously not working. But Bush is not the only president who has ever made blunders. Among various presidents who have made blunders, we have to include Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest president of the 20th century. The difference between Bush and Roosevelt is that Roosevelt was a pragmatist; if he made a mistake, he talked to some experts and tried something else until he got it right. When Bush makes a mistake, he simply repackages his policies, tries a new public relations campaign and gives us more of the same.

Saudi Arabia is not pleased with Bush and one can hardly blame them. Among other things, we have made Iran stronger in the region and that does not make the Saudis happy. Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to the US and close friend to the Bushes, Prince Bandar, appears to be in eclipse thanks to Bush's mangling of our foreign policy. Here's that part of the story from Helene Cooper and Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times:
Bush administration officials have been scratching their heads over steps taken by Prince Bandar’s uncle, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, that have surprised them by going against the American playbook, after receiving assurances to the contrary from Prince Bandar during secret trips he made to Washington.

For instance, in February, King Abdullah effectively torpedoed plans by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a high-profile peace summit meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, by brokering a power-sharing agreement with Mr. Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas that did not require Hamas to recognize Israel or forswear violence. The Americans had believed, after discussions with Prince Bandar, that the Saudis were on board with the strategy of isolating Hamas.

(snip)

Since the Iraq war and the attendant plummeting of America’s image in the Muslim world, King Abdullah has been striving to set a more independent and less pro-American course, American and Arab officials said. And that has steered America’s relationship with its staunchest Arab ally into uncharted waters. Prince Bandar, they say, may no longer be able to serve as an unerring beacon of Saudi intent.

(snip)

Robert Jordan, a former Bush administration ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the Saudis’ mixed signals have come at a time when King Abdullah — who has ruled the country since 1995 but became king only in 2005 after the death of his brother, Fahd — has said he does not want to go down in history as Mr. Bush’s Arab Tony Blair. “I think he feels the need as a kind of emerging leader of the Arab world right now to maintain a distance,” he said.

Arab Tony Blair? Ouch. It's appear the British Prime Minister will be appearing as a metaphor for political poodles for some years to come. That never described the Saudis, even in the best of times. One cannot ignore that our relationship with them has always been complex just as our relationships with other Arab countries on the Saudi peninsula have also been complex.

Today we read in the paper that after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration ignored, mishandled or botched almost a billion dollars of aid from various countries around the world. The aid from those countries included generous offers from Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Kuwait eventually acted on its own and donated large sums to the Red Cross and to the Katrina fund headed by Bill Clinton and Bush's father. Call it aid from friends, call it good public relations, it's worthy of note and should be remembered.

Even our oil relationship is becoming curiously more complex. The Saudis were not happy when Bush talked about ending our dependence on foreign oil a couple of years ago but the Saudis understand the oil situation better than anyone given that they're still sitting on the world's largest reserves and they know the numbers better than anyone. But note that a curious thing has happened in Kuwait. Years ago, the Kuwaitis raised the total of their oil reserve by a significant amount; the economists were happy with the numbers but various geologists and oil experts always considered the numbers suspect. Kuwait's recent trend towards democracy, as slow as it is, has apparently led to something of an accounting because the Kuwaitis themselves want a say in their own energy policy and they need facts to develop that policy. The result is that, practically speaking, the Kuwaitis now assume a smaller total reserve of oil left and they're pragmatically thinking, from their own point of view, of how they can stretch the time that they can make their reserves last for the benefit of their country. There are hints that the Saudi may be quietly doing the same thing: moving towards the long view instead of simply pumping as much wealth as they can as they move closer to a time when their oil production begins to significantly decline as all oil producers eventually do in a given region. The long view for the Saudis means not producing as much as they can, but holding back reserves for their own future. That may or may not be happening but it is in the interest of Saudi Arabia. Not suprisingly, if one is paying attention, that is also in the interest of the United States: it will force us make transitions in our energy policies while there is still oil to pump and a reasonably healthy economy (flawed though it is in some ways) to facilitate such a transition.

Iraq is a fiasco, and a foreign policy blunder of historic proportions, but both Democrats and Republicans are going to have to continue to pay attention to what is going on in the Middle East and particularly along the Persian Gulf. It is in our interest to keep paying attention, but it is important to be realistic and recognize we may not always get our way, particularly until the United States restores its credibility, preferably without resorting to reckless military adventurism. In fact, the time is rapidly approaching where war is far more expensive than simply working on partnerships with various countries throughout the world, whether they are friends, competitors or foes.

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