House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties , by Craig Unger. Scribner, 368 pages, $26.
‘Tis the season for Bush-bashing, by means fair or foul. Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies was merely the crescendo-oris itBob Woodward’s Plan ofAttack?Recent months have brought us Kevin Phillip’s American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, wherein we learned of the perfidious intertwining of public policy and personal interest that is the hallmark not only of President George W. Bush but his entire family. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill skewered the Bushies as “Mayberry Machiavellis” in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty. Joe Conason disrobed them in Big Lies, as did David Corn in The Lies of George W. Bush. The question for the White House seems to be: “What part of the word ‘truth’ don’t you understand?”
The title of Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties reeks of conspiracy theory, and therein lies a flaw. The book suffers from a kind of split personality: When he’s in conspiracy mode, Mr. Unger wants to portray the Bush clan as the most powerful political dynasty in American history, nefariously linked through friendship and business to that other powerful dynasty, the Saudi royal family. From this complicity, all sorts of bad things flow. Early Saudi sweetheart deals bought Dubya to the Presidency, Mr. Unger argues; from there, he traces a direct arc to the United States’ soft-peddling of Saudi involvement in international terrorism. When he forgets about conspiracy, Mr. Unger fruitfully probes the ambiguous-and fatally compromised-Saudi-American relationship spanning two decades. This part of the book succeeds, sometimes brilliantly: It’s must reading for anyone who wishes to understand the origins of 9/11 and America’s precarious position in the world today.
We begin with a puzzle: Why did the Bush administration approve the secret airlift out of America of 140 Saudis, including two dozen relatives of Osama bin Laden, on Sept. 13, 2001, when all other air traffic was officially grounded? Why didn’t the F.B.I. get a chance to question any of them, and why did the administration initially deny that the flights even took place? Mr. Unger doesn’t offer a specific answer (nor has anyone else-as yet). But he richly sets forth the context in which any significant policy involving Saudi Arabia is decided: It’s a murky world of oil, banking and business deals, laced with compromises and contradictions that sometimes strain credulity, not to mention common sense. Here we are reacquainted with a succession of U.S. administrations that built up Iraq to protect Saudi Arabia from Iran. When that plan backfired, we ended up going to war with Iraq (twice)-again to protect the kingdom. We urged the Saudis in the 1980’s to support the Afghan mujahideen in their war to drive out the Soviets and win a victory in the Cold War. Yet when Moscow pulled out its troops in 1989, the Saudis kept up their financial support-helping to transform the muj into Al Qaeda, and a war on America’s old enemy into a war on us instead.
House of Bush, House of Saud is full of such ironies. Had Republicans not courted Saudi-backed Muslim voters in Florida during the 2000 election, we learn, Mr. Bush would not be President. (Among those supporters was an infamous character named Sami Al Arian, an ardent Islamist who was a guest at the White House and has since been arrested for conspiracy to finance terrorism.) Most perniciously, there’s America’s partnership with the Saudis in creating Osama bin Laden himself.
Publicly, Washington has always accepted Saudi assurances that Mr. bin Laden was cut loose in the mid-90’s, after attacks on American targets in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, and that his citizenship was revoked. At least officially, it also accepted conventional explanations of Mr. bin Laden’s behavior-that he’s a Saudi “black sheep,” a fringe member of society turned bad, an aberration. Mr. Unger shows that to be utterly false. To the contrary, Mr. bin Laden was a star in the Saudi firmament. He may have found his own way to the jihad in Afghanistan-but, once there, he became the Saudis’ go-to guy, in charge of channeling billions of dollars from the kingdom to the sacred cause of defeating the Soviets-and, later, to building the Taliban.
Mr. Unger sheds new light on another conventional fallacy-the role of the bin Laden family in the affairs of the kingdom, and their enduring ties to Osama. Within the echelons of Saudi officialdom, no one except the royals themselves command more power and position. They run the national bank; their Saudi Bin Laden Group controls all construction contracts in the country. Yet Osama was not the only member of this prominent family linked to Islamic terror. An older half-brother, Mahrous, apparently became friendly with the violent Muslim Brotherhood in Syria during the late 70’s; the Brotherhood subsequently used trucks owned by his family to seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca, precipitating a bloody two-week siege that claimed hundreds of lives. Arrested briefly, Mahrous went on to become the manager of the Saudi Bin Laden Group’s offices in Medina. Another relative, brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, has been implicated in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Yet another, Khalil bin Laden, is suspected by Brazilian and German intelligence authorities of funding Hezbollah. Along with other shady characters, he was on the plane that slipped out of U.S. airspace so soon after Sept. 11. As was Saudi prince Ahmed bin Salman, a member of the royal family who allegedly has been an intermediary between Al Qaeda and friendly members of the ruling family. According to one Al Qaeda operative arrested in Pakistan, the prince had advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks.
House of Bush, House of Saud is less a virtuoso investigation than an impressive synthesis. Mr. Unger has sorted through an enormous amount of information from other publications and pulled it together into a coherent picture. Yet he hasn’t managed to prove that the Bush family and the Saudi royal family have joined in a sinister cabal. Yes, the Saudis famously helped bail out George W. Bush’s failing oil enterprise, Harken Energy-but Harvard University and George Soros also invested heavily in the company. Yes, the Bush family and friends have done business with Saudi Arabia for decades, from Richard Cheney as head of Halliburton to George Bush Sr., acting as an adviser to the Carlyle Group. Still, compared with major oil companies and other investors in the same markets, the Bushes were bit players. As for the notion that the Bush family is America’s ruling “dynasty,” implicitly rivaling the Saudis in wealth and clout? That’s a stretch. After all, the Bushes don’t even make the Forbes 400. Young George’s wealth is estimated at between $8 million and $21 million-little more than a top New York investment banker makes in a year.
Let’s not elevate the Bushes into something they’re not. The real threat, as Mr. Unger make fearsomely clear, is the Saudis and their increasingly incompatible loyalties.
Michael Meyer is European editor of Newsweek International.