The Kingdom and the Power

FIGURING out how seriously to take particular conspiracy theories can be tough. If well drawn, such theories share many of the same elements as good fiction: densely constructed plots; dark, shadowy cabals; and dashing, larger-than-life personalities.

Moreover, like fiction (or religion), conspiracy theories offer the illusion that things happen for a reason. This is a fantasy people seem to crave; it is much harder to accept that events occur for a variety of complicated causes (or for none at all) than it is to believe in an unseen plan at work.

Yet the problem with such theories is that life rarely obliges us by being so simple. In politics, for example, policies emerge haphazardly from the clash of competing interests, not from any one individual or office (though politicians have often wished otherwise).

Take, for instance, United States policy toward Saudi Arabia, the subject of Craig Unger’s ”House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties.” It is Unger’s thesis that America’s Saudi policy has been determined largely by the financial ties between the Saudi royals and the Bush family (or the ”House of Bush,” as he giddily insists on calling it).

Unger, a former deputy editor of The New York Observer who has written for The New Yorker, Esquire and Vanity Fair, goes to great lengths to outline just how attached the two clans have grown over the years. The Bushes and al-Sauds do indeed share a close (if complicated) relationship; in fact, these connections have already been extensively documented elsewhere. Yet the stakes in the relationship are so high that it is probably worth reading about them one more time. For this reason, Unger’s muckraking impulse to explain the awkward United States-Saudi alliance should be applauded.

There’s certainly plenty of muck for him to uncover. As he meticulously details, both George Bushes have made fortunes over the years by trading on their famous name to persuade rich backers to invest in their various (usually oil-related) businesses. Sometimes these backers have been Saudi, sometimes even members of the royal family. And a few have come from another Saudi clan: the bin Ladens.


Although Unger relies too heavily on other people’s work in sketching the Bush-Saudi links, he does provide a valuable service in highlighting the enormous amounts of money involved. He even puts a price tag on the Saudis’ contributions to the Bush family: a staggering $1.476 billion, paid out over 30 years as gifts to Bush-related charities, as generous perks (including a Saudi-sponsored European hunting trip for George H. W. Bush and his 1991 gulf war cabinet just after the November 2000 general election) and as investments in Bush-related businesses like Harken Energy or the Carlyle Group.

Unger, however, wants to do more than just underscore how avaricious -and unconcerned with the appearance of conflict of interest — the Bushes have been in their long climb to the upper-upper-class. The book claims that, as compensation for big bucks, both Bush presidents have actually given Saudi Arabia a ”pass” — that is, deliberately overlooked the kingdom’s longtime support for Islamic radicalism and terror in return for personal profit.

Unger concedes that Washington’s indulgent attitude toward the Saudis may once have made sense. After all, the profligate descendants of King Ibn Saud do sit on the world’s largest oil reserves — oil we badly need — and are useful allies in an unstable region. Moreover, at times they’ve also acted as proxies for the United States: most famously, in the 1980’s, by funneling American arms to the rebels who bled the Soviets dry in Afghanistan.

But Unger is right to point out that the Saudis have always been fair-weather friends. The problem, in his words, was that they ”were already married to someone else”: Islamic fundamentalism. Washington may have once been able to overlook Riyadh’s other affections; indeed, during the 1980’s, the Reagan administration thought it could harness Saudi radicalism for use against the Soviet empire. But on Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi extremism quite literally blew up in America’s face, thanks to the work of the most famous Saudi of them all, Osama bin Laden.

This was classic blowback, as unintended consequences are known in the intelligence industry. In hindsight, it seems foolish that Washington ever thought it could domesticate armed Islamist radicals, who hated Western democracy only slightly less than Soviet Communism. But in hindsight, lots of things seem clear. To suggest, as Unger does, that support for the Afghan rebels was the result of Bush family corruption — especially when you remember that it originated in the Carter administration — strains credulity.

To prove his claim, Unger would have to establish that the Bushes deliberately acted in ways that went against America’s national interest. But this he cannot quite manage. Instead, he tries to detail all kinds of other unrelated, nefarious intrigues that the Saudis and Bushes have supposedly engaged in over the years.

Relying heavily on innuendo and circumstantial evidence, he alleges that these two powerful families were somehow responsible for (among other things): the Iran-contra scandal, the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (B.C.C.I.) and George W. Bush’s narrow victory in the contested 2000 presidential election. His charges are so extreme — and so varied — that you finish the book expecting to read that the Bushes and Saudis were also behind the Knicks’ lousy record last season, or the firing of the beloved Dallas Cowboys coach, Jimmy Johnson, in 1992. Oh, wait — Unger actually does make that charge, spelling out the Saudi-Cowboys link in an extended footnote.

The problem with this kind of conspiracymongering, which borders on self-parody at times (it is interesting to note that the book was pulled from publication in Britain at the last minute, out of fear of litigation), is that it threatens to obscure the very real problems in the United States-Saudi relationship. Many of America’s Saudi allies are corrupt, vicious and more sympathetic to Islamic extremism than to Western democracy. The entire alliance badly needs some serious reconsidering.

But it doesn’t follow from these problems — or from the Bushes’ admittedly shameless business deals — that America’s continuing indulgence of the Saudis is motivated by corruption rather than calculations (even if misguided) of national interest. As Unger admits at the end of his book, although the Saudi royals are unpleasant and unreliable, the alternatives are even worse.

After all, what are Washington’s other options? Should the United States invade the desert kingdom to seize its oil fields, as some neoconservatives in the administration urge? Should it yank its support from the teetering House of Saud — even though, if the family falls, it will be replaced by Islamist radicals? If you think this regime is unpleasant, imagine Stone-Age Sunni theocrats grabbing the reins of the richest petrostate in the world. Suddenly the kingdom’s current rulers start to look a lot better.

The fact is that United States-Saudi relations are ruled by a particularly rigid iron logic, which dictates a fairly constant American policy: support for the royal family and indulgence of its excesses in return for stable oil prices. It’s no coincidence that Washington’s attitude toward Riyadh has remained essentially static for 50 years now. Or that United States policy changed little during the eight years of the Clinton interregnum — an inconvenient fact that’s hard to square with Unger’s thesis (unless he believes that Clinton was on the take, too).

Yes, this lack of options is frustrating. Indeed, some of the United States’ best thinkers have gone gray trying to come up with alternatives. But so far, no one has, and so it looks as if we’re stuck with the current crop of Saudis for the time being. It’s definitely worth occasionally reminding ourselves just how unsavory they (and our own ruling family) can be. But beyond that, blaming sinister conspiracies for United States policy won’t help us find solutions. Quite the contrary: by misidentifying the causes of the current problems, it can actually make things worse.


The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties.
By Craig Unger.
Illustrated. 356 pp. New York:
Scribner. $26.