At a time when the United States could use friends in the Arab world, Senator Charles Schumer has been doing everything in his power to arrange a divorce between Washington and one of its most important partners in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia.
With an intensitynormally reservedfor constituent-pleasing local issues, Mr. Schumerhas been demanding that the Bush administration disownthekingdom’sroyal establishment, which the Senator sees at the center of an international web of terror, hatred and oil price-gouging. He has given interviews on the subject to any and all interested members of the media. He is asking Republicans and Democrats in Congress to speak out forcefully on the subject. And most recently, Mr. Schumer said, he has been coaching the Democratic Presidential candidates on how to make Saudi-U.S. relations a major issue in the 2004 campaign.
“I’m getting support on this from everyone from the National Review to Howard Dean,” Mr. Schumer told The Observer . “There’s now internal pressure on the administration from the hard right and neocons, and external pressure from Democrats who are going to make this an issue.”
It’s not unusual for Mr. Schumer to harp on an issue at high volume; he’s well known in the political world for his assertive manner. And now would seem to be a particularly opportune time to urge a harder line with the Saudis, with the Bush administration already on the defensive for classifying sections of a recent report by a commission investigating Sept. 11 that dealt with the role of the Saudis.
But given that most Americans hardly need reminding that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, what, exactly, is Mr. Schumer trying to achieve? The answer, according to the Senator, is that he wants to bring about an end to America’s “friendly” relations with Saudi Arabia. “The Saudis are a large part of the terrorism problem-without the Saudi government exporting extremism, we wouldn’t have had 9/11-and yet this administration has been coddling them,” he said. “It should be our policy that we’re not friendly with them.”
Mr. Schumer has demanded that Saudi Arabia turn over an intelligence officer alleged to have aided the 9/11 hijackers, and he has been among the loudest voices urging the administration to make public everything they know about the Saudi role in the attacks. He also wants to put economic pressure on the Saudi regime by releasing some of America’s petroleum reserves onto the market, thus driving down the price of oil worldwide.
But, Mr. Schumer says, these kinds of changes are not happening-at least not fast enough-and he assigns a good part of the blame to the State Department. “The State Department has always had a very pro-Saudi attitude,” he said. “They feel we need the Saudis for diplomatic purposes. The usual State Department attitude is that diplomacy trumps everything.”
He also blames the Bush administration’s ties to the Saudi establishment and to the oil companies that do business there. Serious transgressions are “swept under the rug,” Mr. Schumer said, by an administration disinclined to disturb longstanding diplomatic and financial relationships. “The Bush family has always had a close relationship with the Saudi royal family, including George Bush the first,” he said. “Relationships are also there with the oil companies who are close to the Bush administration and the Saudi regime.”
An administration spokesman could not be reached for comment.
A tougher attitude towards the kingdom, Mr. Schumer hopes, would force Saudi leaders to reassess their policies. “I think the best-case scenario is that it will become clear to the Saudis that they can’t get away with their duplicity,” he said, “that they start withdrawing from funding terrorism and teaching hatred, and that the Saudi government quietly sends out a message to religious and economic leaders there, saying: ‘This is bad, it’s hurting us-don’t do it.’”
A Complex Problem
Of course, it’s unlikely to be that simple. The ruling family of Saudi Arabia has long enjoyed a strong relationship with the U.S. It has been a pretty straightforward exchange: Washington has provided the Saudis with military backing and the largest consumer market for its oil. In exchange, the U.S. got a strategic toehold in a vital region, and American oil companies were guaranteed access to a never-ending oil supply. All of which makes it unlikely that the administration could afford to follow the Schumer prescription anytime soon.
“I don’t think any of this is going to have a significant impact on U.S.-Saudi relations,” said Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Given the situation in Iraq, the last thing the administration would want to do is create even more problems in that part of the world, and taking swipes at the Saudi royal family isn’t likely to advance U.S. interests or the interests of the Bush administration.”
Mr. Walt also said that America’s leverage over Saudi Arabia was more limited than politicians like Mr. Schumer have suggested, given the country’s economic self-sufficiency and its control over so much of the world’s oil. He dismissed the tough talk as more political than practical, given the possible alternatives to the current regime. “Does Senator Schumer mean America should stop buying oil overseas?” he said. “And is he prepared to live with civil war inside Saudi Arabia? I don’t think so. I think a lot of this is just grandstanding.”
There is little doubt that Saudi-bashing has become a popular sport of late, with the American public showing impatience over the seemingly fruitless investigations into the Saudis’ role in terrorism, and books about the U.S.-Saudi relationship on The New York Times best-seller list with titles like Sleeping with the Devil . “Saudi Arabia’s favorability ratings have gone down in the U.S., so beating up on Saudi Arabia can be popular,” said pollster John Zogby. “And in New York, it can be extremely popular-both because there is a substantial pro-Israeli constituency, and an intense constituency of 9/11 families and victims who have also singled out Saudi Arabia.”
Whatever the political considerations, though, Mr. Schumer’s campaign is continuing apace. He recently co-wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post with Arizona Republican Senator John Kyl that criticized the Saudi funding of madrassas (schools that teach a militant version of Islam), and he is planning more vigorous forms of expression in the fall, when he takes part in the Senate Banking Committee’s hearings on Saudi investments in America.
At his most recent Sunday-morning press conference-that famous staple of Mr. Schumer’s exhausting public schedule-the usual local-consumer issue was transformed into yet more attacks on the Saudis. On the morning of Aug. 31, the Senator could be found standing in front of the pumps at a Mobil station on the West Side of Manhattan, talking about the price of gas-which, as the sign behind him illustrated, had shot up over the past two weeks.
“What is the cause of this?” he asked. “Some would have you believe it’s something small and tiny. Today, I’m revealing that the Saudis have cut back production … at a time when other OPEC nations are producing less than we figured.”
And he expressed exasperation that the Bush administration, instead of pressuring the Saudis to produce more oil, had once again “coddled and covered up for” their friends.
“It is time,” he said, “to lay the blame where it belongs-at the doorstep of the Saudis.”