The Magazine

The (Hon.) Shills

Dishonest analysis on Saudi Arabia from former U.S. ambassadors to the kingdom.

Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By JOSH CHAFETZ
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IN A TIME OF INTERNATIONAL STRIFE, when Americans are struggling to understand an unfamiliar part of the globe, one wishes we could call on a cadre of experts who had lived in the region and were experienced in promoting American values and interests. One would think that former U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East--including ambassadors to our traditionally closest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia--would be naturals for this role. But one would be wrong. Instead, most members of this cadre have spent their time since September 11, 2001, shilling, spinning, and distorting the news to fit not American but Saudi interests. And--surprise, surprise--it turns out that many of them are on the Saudi payroll.

The former ambassadors profess themselves shocked at accusations that the Saudi monarchy might in some way be tied to funding for terrorists. Over and over they tell us--as Bush Sr.'s envoy to Riyadh, Chas W. Freeman Jr., told National Journal--that "al Qaeda is directed first and foremost at the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy," and of course the monarchy would never intentionally fund its chief enemy. Freeman is president of a company that helps arrange global business deals, including many in Arab countries. Clinton appointee Wyche Fowler Jr.--now chairman of the board of the Middle East Institute, which receives over 13 percent of its budget from Saudi sources--told the New York Times that "Saudis are not in the business of funding terrorists against their friend, the United States." Reagan appointee Richard W. Murphy goes even further: "They don't fund terror. I mean, they've been accused of sending hijackers to the planes on September 11. The target of September 11 was the Saudi regime, not the United States."

But if al Qaeda hates the Saudi monarchy more than it hates the United States, it sure has a funny way of showing it: Of the two known al Qaeda attacks on Saudi soil, both were directed against U.S. military targets. Furthermore, Saudi authorities did everything in their power to frustrate U.S. investigations into those attacks, including beheading suspects in the 1995 bombing of a Riyadh building used by U.S. military trainers before the FBI could interrogate those suspects. This didn't stop Fowler from assuring CNN's Mark Shields in October 2001 that Saudi Arabia can "absolutely, without any question" be considered an ally in the war on terrorism.

Even less convincing is the ambassadors' claim that everyone in Saudi Arabia loves America. Fowler told Wolf Blitzer in December 2001 that "there hadn't been any hatred being spewed out of Saudi Arabia . . . against us." Fowler was apparently unaware of a Saudi survey two months earlier which found that 95 percent of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 supported Osama bin Laden's cause. In January 2002, Freeman told the Middle East Policy Council Forum, "It is widely charged in the United States that Saudi Arabian education teaches hateful and evil things. I do not think that is the case." He didn't bother to explain an October 2001 New York Times article which found that textbooks required for Saudi high school students contain "extremist, anti-Western" messages; for example, the statement: "It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy." And when Freeman proclaimed that Saudi social attitudes had moved forward "centuries in 50 years," one couldn't help but remember the Saudi girls who burned to death in Mecca last March after the religious police refused to let them leave their burning school building because they were not wearing proper Islamic dress.

Glossing over such minor inconveniences, the former ambassadors tell us that things couldn't be better in the kingdom. Crown Prince Abdullah "is running the country, and doing it quite well," Nixon appointee James E. Akins told the Christian Science Monitor. He also informed the Monitor that Saudi Arabia is "moving toward representative government," although those of us less expert in the region are still waiting for evidence.

But evidence isn't exactly the ambassadors' strong suit. Murphy, sounding like a parody of himself, told the House Armed Services Committee in May that "the danger of Wahhabism is--and I don't like to even refer to it as a danger--the danger is the export. Because in Saudi Arabia they're not training up people to be bloody attackers, savages of--savagers of the West, of the United States. It's when it is exported into a community where there is no other funding for education, where there's no ministry operable--in the northwest province of Pakistan is one good example." Fifteen of the nineteen "bloody attackers" of September 11, however, were Saudis. None was a Pakistani. Moreover, according to a classified list put together by U.S. intelligence agencies, 7 of the 9 top financiers for al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups are Saudi. And, by some accounts, 80 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo hail from the kingdom.

Even more absurdly, Fowler told CNN's Jeff Greenfield that "Wahhabism . . . does teach tolerance for Jews and Christians." Perhaps Fowler should tell that to Sheikh Muhammad Al-Saleh Al-'Athimein, who, in a sermon at the Great Mosque in Al-'Unayza, Saudi Arabia, said, "The Jews are treacherous and deceitful people over whom lies the curse and anger of Allah. . . . He cursed them and turned them into apes and pigs." Or Sheikh Nasser Muhammad Al-Ahmad, who, in a sermon at the Al-Nour mosque in Al-Khobar, said, "Moral corruption is a general trait of the Jews, all the Jews. . . . If you want to know the Jew through and through, imagine a group of perverse moral traits." Or perhaps he should speak with Sheikh Muhammad bin Abd Al-Rahman Al-'Arifi, imam of the mosque of King Fahd Defense Academy, who recently wrote, "We will control the land of the Vatican; we will control Rome and introduce Islam in it. Yes, the Christians . . . will yet pay us the Jiziya [poll tax paid by non-Muslims under Muslim rule], in humiliation, or they will convert to Islam." In fact, anyone can read these and hundreds of other recent examples of Wahhabi tolerance at, the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute, which performs the invaluable service of translating Arabic media and sermons into English. But when former U.S. arms control director Ken Adelman pointed this out to Fowler on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports," Fowler dismissively (and cluelessly) responded, "I guess that the last word I think I can say on this is my evidence doesn't come from chatrooms and websites."

But why appeal to evidence, when it can only get in the way of your favorite pastime, which, if you happen to be a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is probably insinuating that the United States is at least partly to blame for September 11? Fowler, less than a month after the attacks, told a business symposium in Atlanta: "To continually say that 'they attacked our freedom' is not by any means the total picture. . . . It's probably our foreign policy that is the source of several of the grievances." In case there was any doubt about what he meant, he told National Journal the same thing: "The anger that has fueled extremism in the region can be partially tied to [Arab] distaste for U.S. foreign policy."

We needn't bother asking which policy he's talking about: "In the Arab world, the Palestinian cause has become the prism through which all policy is filtered. The Arabs believe in the cause. They know that Israel is on occupied land," Fowler told the Charlotte Observer. Akins told the Boston Globe that, as a result of our stance towards Israel, "there has never been such anti-American feeling." He added, "Abdullah has really put his neck out" proffering the Saudi peace plan. You remember the Saudi peace plan. It was that strikingly banal statement of the stunningly obvious: Peace will come only when Israel pulls out of the occupied territories and the entire Arab world agrees to recognize Israel's existence. The plan, of course, said nothing as to why Israel should begin withdrawing from the territories while Palestinian terrorists were still using the territories as staging grounds for attacks on Israeli civilians. Nor did it suggest a way to put an end to those attacks. But that was no obstacle to Reagan appointee Walter Cutler--now head of the Meridian International Center, of which he says Saudi donors have been "very supportive." Cutler told the Christian Science Monitor: "The Saudi plan provides a framework to work from. The time is ripe to put some major flesh on those bones."

Perhaps the ambassadors are unconcerned about terrorism against Israel because, well, one person's terrorist group is another person's political party. Murphy expressed outrage that the Bush administration would target Hezbollah in the war on terror: "Hezbollah," he said, "is in the process of turning into a Lebanese political party, and that is toward mainstream Lebanese politics." It only made the list in the war on terror, he said, because of the "unsettled grudges of the 1980s." This statement was made while Hezbollah continued to launch missiles against Israeli citizens from Lebanese territory. Ambassador Freeman, taking the high road, advised capitulation to the terrorists: "I'm a very practical man, and my concern is simply this: that there are movements, like Hamas, like Hezbollah, that in recent decades have not done anything against the United States or Americans, even though the United States supports their enemy, Israel. By openly stating and taking action to make them--to declare that we are their enemy, we invite them to extend their operations in the United States or against Americans abroad." Neville Chamberlain would be so proud.

And, of course, if Palestinian terrorism doesn't bother the ambassadors too much, then why should Saudi financing of Palestinian terrorism? When Bill O'Reilly asked Murphy whether he'd been surprised to learn that the Saudis were giving money to the families of suicide bombers, Murphy replied, "No, they're giving money to widows and orphans, which has been a long-standing act of charity on their part, and they're not funding terrorists."

But it's not just terrorists that the ambassadors are interested in appeasing--it's tyrants, too. Akins, for example, signed an open letter to President Bush arguing against an attack on Iraq. The letter stated, "We are concerned that any new military strikes would further erode any possibility of access for the vitally needed U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq"--as if inspection, rather than disarmament, were the goal. Freeman told NPR's "Morning Edition," "There's something inherently illegitimate about one country conquering another and then proposing to remake it in the new image," although he was silent as to the "legitimacy" of Saddam's rule. In fact, at a Middle East Policy Council Forum, Freeman went so far as to analogize the administration's desire for regime change in Iraq to Islamist terrorism, referring to the "American crusade, jihad, I don't know what it is--struggle against Saddam." And Fowler whined to the Charlotte Observer, "We did a job on [Saddam]; that's been 10 years ago. [Arabs] do not understand why we won't leave him alone."

The former ambassadors don't exactly have a sterling track record when it comes to prognostications. Akins predicted the imminent demise of the House of Saud in a 1979 cable to the White House, and Fowler told the New York Times that, "with hindsight," he wished he'd "thought to raise" the issue of young Saudis' heading off to jihad. On October 30, 2001, Freeman told a forum at the Cato Institute, "We are successfully rearranging the rubble in Afghanistan, but we have flushed no terrorists from the earth"; also, "there is increased Afghan unity behind the Taliban." Within two weeks, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul had fallen, and Kandahar would fall soon after.

The relevant question isn't whether these former ambassadors have sold out for Saudi money or whether the Saudis fund them because they are naturally inclined to act as mouthpieces for the House of Saud. Instead, the relevant questions are, first, why we listen to them, and, second, why we continue to appoint people like them. The current ambassador, George W. Bush appointee Robert Jordan, is out of the same mold: He penned an obsequious op-ed in the Dallas Morning News last June asserting that the kingdom remains a steadfast ally. Indeed, as Thomas Friedman reported in October 2001, since King Fahd requested that Ambassador Hume Horan--a notable exception to the pattern delineated above--be withdrawn in 1988 (reportedly because the Saudi government disapproved of Horan's habit of talking to the regime's critics), the United States has never again sent an Arabic speaker as our emissary to Riyadh. Small wonder, then, that they return knowing little other than what the Saudi government has chosen to tell them. They go in as dupes, and they come home as shills.

Josh Chafetz is a graduate student in politics at Merton College, Oxford, and the co-editor of