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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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