January 18, 2008

Bill Moyers talks with Craig Unger

BILL MOYERS: Regular viewers of THE JOURNAL know that one of our all-time favorite movies is the film NETWORK, written by the incomparable Paddy Chayefsky. President Bush's visit to Saudi Arabia this week brought it to mind. Take a look.

NEWS COVERAGE: You think you've merely stopped a business deal -- that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance! There are no nations! There are no peoples! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and insane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multi-national dominion of dollars! Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi- dollars..."

BILL MOYERS: So what was President Bush doing in the petro-dollar capital of Saudi Arabia? Given the long-standing political and personal relationship between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family, it's surprising that he waited until now to travel there. They put on quite a spectacle for him. Look at that sword and the gifts of jewels and gold that weighed down the Secret Service who had to carry them away. Watching this coverage, I decided it was time to talk to Craig Unger. He's written two informative books on the subject. HOUSE OF BUSH, HOUSE OF SAUD: THE SECRET RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE WORLD'S TWO MOST POWERFUL DYNASTIES was a best-selling account of the 30-year ties between the Bush and Saudi families. This is his latest, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BUSH. He lays out the political intrigues of the administration. For his investigative reporting, Craig Unger has been widely praised. He's now a contributing editor to VANITY FAIR. Welcome to THE JOURNAL.

CRAIG UNGER: Thank you for having me, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Watching the footage from Saudi Arabia, from that visit to the Gulf states, the ceremonial sword, the emeralds and the gold, the Secret Service carrying them off, what were you thinking?

CRAIG UNGER: Well, I can't help but think of a recent quote that President Bush himself said which is that America is addicted to oil. Well, this is the story essentially of the oil addict coming to the dealer

And I also think of this long-term relationship that's both personal but in terms of the Bush family and the Saudi family and the larger strategic relationship of the United States and its need for oil.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of job do you think the American press does on reporting a story like this, the President's trip and this balance of power, the stability or instability in the Middle East? What kind of job is the American press doing of telling people what we really need to know about this relationship?

CRAIG UNGER: Well, I think they do very little about it. And the truth of the matter is, I mean, it's so easy to read the foreign press on the internet these days that it's sort of pathetic when you compare even the best American newspapers with that. And you rarely see that - you see again and again the wonderful rhetoric we have about democratizing the Middle East, about trying to fight for the cause of freedom in the Middle East. What you don't see there — you don't see much attention put on what's really going on in Saudi Arabia. It's the human rights abuses. And why are we backing a theocratic monarchy when we say we're fighting for democracy?

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, as I watched the footage, I was struck by the incongruities. Bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were born and raised in the kingdom. Until 9/11 Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban. The Saudis don't even acknowledge Israel's right to exist, one of America's great allies. And yet here's the President holding the hand of the king and kissing his cheeks. How do you explain a relationship like that that's lasted so long?

CRAIG UNGER: Well the bottom line really is oil. But it's also been a very personal relationship with the Bush family. The elder George Bush, George H.W. Bush, was very, very close friends with Prince Bandar, and--

BILL MOYERS: Who was the ambassador for many years to Washington.

CRAIG UNGER: Right. For more than 20 years. And he would just drop by unannounced at the White House or at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, pop into the kitchen and cook dinner with him. He-- a very, very close friend. They went on hunting trips and whatnot. What we've seen in recent years is that relationship has diminished. And the United States has also emerged I think in a weaker and weaker position vis--vis the Saudis.

BILL MOYERS: And, you know, no sooner had the President asked to lower the price of oil than the finance minister of Saudi Arabia said not unless the market makes it possible. What does that say about a special relationship?

CRAIG UNGER: Right. Well, I think again and again you're finding what he's asking the Saudis is not going to happen. Another thing we want the Saudis to do is-- or that Bush does is to isolate Iran. And this comes just after we have the national intelligence estimate on Iran saying that Iran, in fact, does not have an active nuclear weapons program. So this completely takes the rug out from under Bush's position.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think he asked the Saudis to help him isolate Iran?

CRAIG UNGER: I think he did. Or at least that's what was said in the background briefings in the White House. One of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War is that we have empowered, we've unwittingly empowered Iran. And this has been terrible for the United States. It's been bad for Israel. It's been bad for Saudi Arabia as well. And yet Bush seems to persist in trying to get the Saudis to be hostile to Iran.

BILL MOYERS: The big news of this trip was the President's promise of a $20 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, including 900 kits for making precision smart bombs. Why would he bear arms to a country that hasn't lifted a finger to fight terrorism and has an appalling record of human rights?

CRAIG UNGER: Well, we need the Saudis. We need their oil. We need them in geo-strategic terms. And frankly that's about all we have to give them are weapons. That's been part of the long-term relationship with Saudi Arabia. Effectively, we have defended them and in return we've gotten a reasonable oil for many, many years from them.

BILL MOYERS: We defended them when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, right?

CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: For which we get $100 a barrel of oil, right?

CRAIG UNGER: Well, in recent years it has gone up to that. It was as low as $22 a barrel right after 9/11. And therein I think you can see the relat-- how the relationship has changed. Right after 9/11, the Saudis flooded the market with oil and they dropped the price from $28 to $22 a barrel. Now it's gone up to $100 a barrel in just-- what is it? Six years or so. So it's gone up nearly by a factor of five. And we have no leverage whatsoever in terms of getting it down again.

BILL MOYERS: Help us understand this paradox. The President goes to Israel and assures Israel that we will guarantee its security. Then he goes to Saudi Arabia, which does not recognize Israel, and takes them that big arms package.

CRAIG UNGER: Well, it does seem at times we don't seem aware of the consequences of our actions, we go around talking about democracy but the Saudis, of course, are-- it's a brutal theocracy. There's not much in the way of human rights there. The whole vision of democratizing the Middle East I think really, in practical terms, has fallen by the wayside. And America's objectives really when it comes down to it, seem to be Israel's security and oil. Those are the two main things that we're trying to do. And even on that score, it seems we're in an increasingly weak position.

BILL MOYERS: The Wall Street Journal just the other day quoted a leading newspaper in Lebanon that's been friendly to America saying, quote, democracy in the Middle East is now part of history. Nobody believes Bush anymore. He has turned the Middle East into a big mess. And you can't bring democracy and change with instability. What do you say to that?

CRAIG UNGER: Right. Well, I think that's absolutely the case. The whole vision is in tatters right now. And it's very unclear what-- what options the United States has right now. You sort of look for stability. But I don't think we're going to get very far in terms of bringing down the price of oil. We have no real leverage. The United States has always needed-- sort of-- we've had twin pillars of American policy in the Middle East. If you go back when the Shah of Iran was in power, it was Israel and Iran. When he was overthrown and after Khomeini took power, we switched to the Saudis. But even now it seems like that relationship-- at least the balance of power has tilted more towards the Saudis than to us.

BILL MOYERS: What do you make of the fact, Craig, that the President could hit all the hot spots and high spots in the Middle East, Israel and the West Bank, Kuwait and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia. But he did not go to Iraq five years after he invaded and occupied it. What's the message there?

CRAIG UNGER: Well, the message is we haven't done what we said we were going to do. It is there, you know, to the extent there is stability at all now and there has been some decreased violence, it's almost because Baghdad has become a Shiite city. You've almost had ethnic cleansing there. Democracy has not worked at all. I think that whole vision is in tatters.

BILL MOYERS: And the Saudis are Sunnis, right?

CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: They don't want to see a strong Shiite authority in Baghdad, do they?

CRAIG UNGER: No, not at all. And in many ways they regard al-Maliki as an agent of Iran. If you look--

BILL MOYERS: How come? Prime Minister of Iraq?

CRAIG UNGER: Well, if you look at the history of the Dawa Party, which is where al-Maliqi is from-- they were exiled into-- many of them were exiled into Iran during Saddam. Some of them helped shape Hezbollah. So these are our allies. Our policies are so full of contradictions. And I think if you go back to the roots of it, it was built on so many misconceptions that a lot of this is coming home to roost. And the Saudis find it very hard to take us seriously, as do a lot of people in the Middle East.

BILL MOYERS: You're very good at writing the unofficial narrative, the other narrative that we don't see when we watch television or read the New York Times. What do you think was the real narrative of this trip, the real story?

CRAIG UNGER: Well, I think in large part it was a photo op. And that if you look at recent events, we've had the Annapolis Peace Conference. You've had Condi Rice try to make peace with last-minute efforts to try to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You have us make-- showing how friendly are-- we are with the Emirates and with the Saudis. In fact, none of that is really happening. I think what's been going on in Israel is you've seen new settlements that's outside of Jerusalem. And the United States is not putting its foot down. And that means there's not going to be much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

You're not going to see much give in the price of oil. You're not going to see the Saudis try to isolate Iran. In fact Ahmadinejad was invited as a guest of King Abdullah to the Hajj in Mecca. He was also invited to the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council. And there you saw him walking arm in arm with King Abdullah. So it's almost as if the Saudis are going along without us. They're taking a lead. They're not looking at us to take a lead anymore.

BILL MOYERS: One of the Saudi papers, just as the President was getting there, said-- you know, Palestinians, Arabs, none of us believe he can do anything. He's made a mess out of Iraq. He's made a mess out of Afghanistan. He's about to make a mess out of Iran. We no longer have any confidence in the American President. That comes from the English-speaking newspaper in Saudi Arabia.

CRAIG UNGER: Right. I think he has very little credibility in the Middle East. And I think it extends even to our allies like Israel. There's a lot of fine ceremony on the surface but I think it's very unlikely that those oil prices will go down or that the Saudis are really in a position to help Bush fulfill his vision of reshaping the Middle East, that neoconservative vision that he started off with. And to me it lays in tatters right now.

BILL MOYERS: The book is THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BUSH. Thank you, Craig Unger, for joining me on THE JOURNAL.

CRAIG UNGER: Thanks for having me, Bill.