US Middle East policy turns on Perle of wisdom

Having put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “on hold” after President George W. Bush’s late-June speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the White House planned to spend the summer building international support for ousting Saddam Hussein. The primary goal in building such support, National Security Council experts believed, should not be military but diplomatic: to convince the Saudi royal family that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein remains a clear threat to their survival – and that “stabilization” of the region would not be possible without “regime change” (as Washington’s foreign policy community now prefers to call it) in Baghdad.

There was every expectation of success. While Saudi-US relations have been strained in the wake of the September 11 attack, George Bush has gone out of his way to build a personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, and had instructed the State Department to carefully rein in any criticism of the Riyadh government. Bush’s personal diplomacy had been working; even the harsh anti-Arafat rhetoric of his June speech was ignored by the Saudis, who decided to focus instead on his pledge to work for Palestinian statehood within three years.

All of that changed on August 7, when the Washington Post reported on the details of a Rand Corporation briefing given to a group of foreign policy experts at the Pentagon the previous month. Comprised of 22 slides and accompanied by a detailed paper, the closed-door briefing (held in the offices of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board established by the administration to provide expert foreign policy advice to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) was attended by DPB officials and one dozen specially invited high profile “guests.” The briefing itself was given by Rand Corporation employee and Middle East expert Laurant Murawiec, a relatively unknown figure in foreign policy circles.

Like any other briefing in Washington (and there are dozens every day) the audience had low expectations: most such briefings are simply an opportunity for attendees to spend two hours away from their regular jobs and touch base with their colleagues. But this briefing was different, its premises controversial, its conclusions startling.

After introducing himself and turning down the lights so that his audience could better see the slides, the Rand Corporation analyst characterized Saudi Arabia as “the seat of international terrorism” and “an enemy of the United States.” Murawiec urged the Defense Policy Board to recommend that the secretary of defense and President Bush give the Kingdom an ultimatum “to stop, without conditions, all support for terrorism” or “face the seizure of its oil fields and financial assets” by the American military. As the audience sat in stunned silence, Murawiec concluded that such military actions could follow an attack on Iraq. “Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our friends,” Murawiec concluded.

In the subdued atmosphere that followed, only one voice was raised in dissent: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rose to protest the Murawiec presentation. He began softly, but his words became increasingly strident. “How can you come to such conclusions?” he asked Murawiec. “What is your expertise?” Continuing, his voice rising in anger, Kissinger said that in his opinion the briefing’s conclusions were “totally wrong,” “very inappropriate” and even “politically dangerous.” Privately, Kissinger believed that even scheduling “this kind of discussion” could have “the worst kind of impact on US-Saudi relations, especially if the briefing is made public.”

Kissinger’s warning was unmistakable. In the wake of the briefing there was an unstated but unambiguous agreement among the attendees that Murawiec’s views would be all-but-forgotten. Everyone agreed; everyone, that is, except Brent Scowcroft, former President George Bush’s National Security Advisor, and a man known in Washington as a prudent, patient, and exceedingly deliberate diplomat. Scowcroft’s prestige has grown throughout the years and he is now viewed as perhaps the best and most widely respected national security expert in American history. Known for his reticence with reporters and his unwillingness to raise his voice, Scowcroft was enraged by the briefing and wanted it made public.

It was a difficult decision. Scowcroft knew that word of the briefing might irreparably harm America’s position in the region, could plunge US-Saudi relations into a crisis, and would raise public doubts about George Bush’s expertise on the Middle East. Like his political mentor and good friend – the current President’s father – Scowcroft had pledged not to interfere in “junior’s” presidency. It would be best if the new Bush administration, he agreed, were not seen as an extension of that of George Senior. But in the aftermath of the Rand analysis, Scowcroft decided he needed to take action and, in a series of calculated moves, leaked word of the briefing and provided information on its author to a number of Washington journalists.

Scowcroft was likely motivated by his views of the Defense Policy Board and its members. The DPB has taken an increasingly public role in Washington foreign policy circles. Its head, Richard Perle, is a former hard-line conservative Reagan administration official who opposed entering any nuclear arms reduction negotiations with the then-Soviet leadership. Perle once characterized his negotiating style with the Soviets in the following terms: “We win, you lose, sign here.” Dubbed “the Prince of Darkness” by Scowcroft himself, Perle is an unwavering supporter of Israel (“I have never disagreed with any Israeli policy,” he told one interviewer, “except when they agreed to give back land to the Palestinians.”) and is the proud leader of a new class of “neo-imperialists.”

Now sprinkled throughout the Bush administration, these “neo-imperialists” are Perle disciples. They believe the United States is engaged in a “new crusade” to bring democracy to the Middle East. But Scowcroft (and he is not alone) has privately characterized the Perle viewpoint as “just plain stupid” and has little regard for Perle and his colleagues.

Which is why, on August 7, the Washington Post was able to print an authoritative version of the briefing and characterize its chief critics as among the most respected foreign policy experts of previous administrations. But what followed the Washington Post report was even more damaging. As it turns out, the Rand Corporation briefing was contracted at the express request of Perle. Moreover, its presenter – Laurant Murawiec – is viewed by his colleagues as “almost pathologically anti-Arab” with “almost no experience in the region.” Murawiec had once been an operative of American political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, who is spending time in a federal prison.

The fallout from the briefing and its subsequent publication in the Washington Post plunged the White House and State Department into a crisis, prompting the secretary of state and a handful of Middle East experts to quickly dampen any criticism. Colin Powell called Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal to assure him “personally” that President Bush did not view his country as an emerging enemy. That same day, August 8, a State Department spokesman told the press that “the views expressed by private individuals do not reflect the views of the president of the United States or of the US government.” The phone calls were greeted graciously by the Saudis, who said that they dismissed the briefing as “an aberration” and told the Americans that, in their view, their six-decade-long alliance was “unshakable.”

But in private, the Saudi reaction was quite different. Saudi officials noted that prior to the briefing two articles leveling charges similar to Murawiec’s had appeared in major US policy journals. The July issue of Commentary (published by the American Jewish Committee) had printed an article entitled “Our Enemies, the Saudis” and a similar article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (“The Coming Saudi Showdown”) characterized the Saudi government as “corrupt, inefficient, ineffective and undemocratic.” Both articles argued for “regime change in Riyadh.” The Saudis sent copies of the articles to Powell.

To make their point crystal clear, the Saudis also privately circulated a copy of an editorial they had placed in one of their own daily newspapers. The editorial slammed the administration for its lukewarm views of the Saudi government and called into question the advisability of continuing the close Saudi-American relationship: “The Rand report was the climax in a year of US political and media campaign against Islam and those Muslims who abide by its fundamental teachings,” the editorial opined. “What is presented in the Rand report is a direct attack on the fundamentals of Arab and Muslim societies. It urges our leaders to control the religious commitment of our people. The report again shows America’s ignorance of the Ummah and its adherence toward Islamic teachings. Nobody on earth will be able to fight that commitment or adherence.”

A chagrined President Bush cajoled Saudi Ambassador Bandar at his Texas ranch, but although both cowpokes clad in shiny new Bush-purchased boots emerged smiling from the meeting, the crisis continues. Widely disseminated business reports published over the last four weeks note that upwards of $200 billion in Saudi investment funds have been removed from the United States. The “reinvestment decision” is viewed as a shot across the bow of the American economy. It is also seen by the Saudis as a fitting response to Murawiec’s conclusion that, since the US no longer relies on Saudi oil to fuel its economy, it has nothing to fear from an economic war with the Saudi government. While the investment decision has been soft-pedaled by Saudi investors, Bush is now faced with the specter of American bankers trooping angrily into the White House.

The investment decision has also given new courage to those handful of Middle East experts recently sidelined by the administration, and casts a new light on the White House’s ability to handle its Middle East obligations. Scowcroft is now more outspoken in questioning the administration’s regional policies, as is former secretary of state James Baker. Scowcroft and Baker are particularly disturbed by Bush’s lack of knowledge of the region – a view that they adopted in the wake of Bush’s speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in late June. Both are close to the Saudi leadership and have intimate knowledge of Saudi views on the conflict. Both are convinced that without a more active attempt by the administration to resolve the conflict, the US-Saudi relationship will worsen. And both have been unimpressed by administration appeals to the Saudis concerning an attack on Iraq.

And finally, both know that the April meeting between President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah on the Saudi plan for resolving the conflict was a disaster for Bush – “who was very poorly briefed on the plan and did not seem to understand what Abdullah was talking about.” During that meeting and another with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the administration was told that the Saudis would never agree to an American military offensive against the Baghdad government. Would Saudi Arabia agree to an American plan to remove Saddam Hussein, Vice President Dick Cheney asked Abdullah? “No, the answer is ‘no.’ I said ‘no’ in Saudi Arabia, I say ‘no’ now, and I will say ‘no’ tomorrow.”

It is not clear if, in the wake of the August Post article, the administration will put its plan to oust Saddam Hussein on hold, continue its hard-line stance on the Palestinian issue, or even take the decisive step of actually listening to its well paid and high-profile Middle East experts so far sidelined by Perle and the neo-imperialists. But what is certain is that Bush himself, as well as Perle, may be in line for what one Washington reporter calls “a very public, and very humiliating spanking administered by daddy’s closest friends.”