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Blundering in the Mideast with Prince Bandar

At the Camp David summit convened by Carter in September 1978, his perseverance eventually converted days and nights of bitter recrimination and confrontation into the Camp David Accords, a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. In the final middle-of-the-night session, Carter was unable to fight off Begin’s last ambush—he would not pledge to suspend settlement building in the West Bank. With the world awaiting a successful outcome of the talks in the morning, Carter and Sadat had to choose between sacrificing the restoration of Sinai to Egypt or swallowing Begin’s bitter pill. They chose Sinai.

Ronald Reagan’s profound ignorance of the Middle East and the arro- gance and partisanship of his first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, grievously eroded Reagan’s credibility in the Arab world. The loss of 242 US servicemen in a terrorist attack in Beirut and the subsequent withdrawal of US forces also proved that the US was highly susceptible to terrorism. US support for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, tolerance for Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, and the surreal Iran-contra affair further fueled the astonished skepticism of much of the world. As Tyler puts it, “Only a crippled administration could have secretly joined both sides of the Iran–Iraq War, rationalized the use of chemical weapons, or abandoned Lebanon for blatantly political reasons.”

President George H.W. Bush reversed Reagan’s penchant for Saddam Hussein, whose 1990 conquest of Kuwait posed the urgent problem of the protection of Saudi Arabia. Operation Desert Storm—forty days of aerial bombardment and one hundred hours of ground battle—was ostensibly a success, tarnished by the fate of the northern Kurds and the southern Shia who responded to Bush’s call for resistance and were abandoned to the harshest of reprisals by the supposedly defeated Saddam Hussein. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, had a more balanced approach than their predecessors to the Arab–Israeli problem. The Madrid conference, co-chaired by the US and Russia in the fall of 1991 with all the parties including the PLO, created, for the first time, a comprehensive diplomatic process for the pursuit of peace in the Middle East.

Bill Clinton presided over the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO on September 9, 1993, but personally took over the peace negotiations too late to achieve results. He was, Tyler writes tactfully, “driven more by domestic requirements and less by the real exigencies of the Middle East peace.” During Clinton’s presidency, which cov- ered the five years of the Oslo peace process, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories more than doubled, a development that enraged Arabs and encouraged the steady growth of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Tyler, whose chapter on George W. Bush is relatively short, considers that

Bush’s tenure appeared as a cynical opting out of the labor-intensive Middle East peace process…. His legacy in the Middle East would be defined as much by the forsaken mantle as by the blunder of an unnecessary war.


The most engaging character, as far as there is one in this tale, is the former fighter pilot Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the genial and long-suffering Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington during four administrations. Bandar became the fixer, financier, enabler, adviser, rescuer, and, above all, shoulder to weep on for top US officials for more than twenty years. Bandar’s Washington odyssey is a striking measure of the unusual, not to say bizarre, atmosphere in which Washington’s engagement with the Middle East has often been carried on.

Tyler’s book opens in Bandar’s palace in Riyadh in 2004 with the now famous scene in which CIA Director George Tenet, suddenly aware that he is the designated scapegoat for the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and not adequately sedated by a sleeping pill, allegedly emerges from his bedroom in his underclothes, drinks half a bottle of scotch, denounces his enemies in Washington in unbridled terms, drinks more scotch, and then, to Bandar’s alarm, throws himself into the swimming pool where, grasping a large Havana cigar, he does imitations of Yasser Arafat and Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief.

On the day in 1982 when the White House announced Alexander Haig’s resignation, the Haigs were expected at a dinner at Bandar’s embassy.7 Haig asked Bandar to tell the other guests not to come and make it “just the four of us.” After dinner, Haig began sobbing uncontrollably and, like George Tenet twenty-two years later, railed at the White House for “setting him up.” Nineteen years later when another former general, Colin Powell, became exasperated with George W. Bush’s refusal to engage with the Israeli– Palestinian problem and his seemingly permanent tilt toward Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “Powell…vented his frustrations during evening bull sessions with Bandar.”

Bandar, you are the only person who can save me,” President Bill Clinton told the astonished Saudi ambassador. Clinton was obsessed with the prospect that Yasser Arafat, an Olympic-class kisser, would kiss him in front of the cameras at the signing of the Oslo agreements on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. Bandar told Arafat that King Fahd wanted a display of dignity and poise at the ceremony, and that would mean manly handshakes and no kissing. Arafat protested that he wanted to show the affection of the Palestinian people for the new American president, but Bandar at last prevailed. Yitzhak Rabin also took preemptive measures against being kissed.

Bandar’s services were not a one-way street. He exercised extraordinary influence in Washington. On the day after September 11, when all civil flights had been banned throughout the United States, Bandar was able to arrange for two Boeing 747s to take off, carrying selected Saudi civilians back home.

Before the state dinner that was the climax of King Fahd’s 1985 Washington visit, the Saudis could not obtain the customary advance text of the President’s speech, and the King was reduced to asking Reagan, at the dinner itself, to let him see the text. He quickly discerned why it had been kept from him: Reagan’s speech ended with a strong appeal to the King to extend his hand to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Fahd, furious, ordered Bandar to arrange with Bud McFarlane, Reagan’s national security advisor, that all of the President’s speech, except for the opening and closing formalities, be omitted. Astonishingly, Reagan agreed and improvised a warm and completely insubstantial speech instead. Next morning Bandar was able to tell McFarlane that Saudi Arabia would begin at once the payment of $2 million a month—twice what Reagan had requested—to the Nicaraguan contras.

Bandar’s missions were seldom dull. In April 1990, King Fahd sent him to Baghdad to find out if Saddam Hussein was really crazy. Saddam told him:

When I am suspicious of a guy, I kill him.”

How do you know if he is guilty?” Bandar asked.

I look into his eyes and if I see it in his eyes, I kill him,” Saddam replied, terrifying Bandar with a cold-blooded gaze….


Rashid Khalidi, in Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East, presents an Arab view of the history covered by Tyler. The two writers are often in agreement. Khalidi, former director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia, is a Palestinian scholar and historian of Middle East affairs. His basic theme is that current conflicts in the Middle East were both shaped and exacerbated by the cold war.

Although both Desert Storm and the Madrid conference took place after the end of the cold war, Khalidi maintains that these assertions of unrivaled US power in the region had their roots in the perceived necessity to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East. He believes that their rivalry was far more important to both superpowers than the Arab–Israeli conflict itself or the attempt to achieve peace; the region and its states were, to them, proxies during the cold war in the “cold calculus of power politics.”8

It is, perhaps, idle to speculate whether the Arab–Israeli conflict might have been more easily resolved if there had been no cold war. Khalidi maintains that the cold war was more often than not a catalyst for Arab–Israeli conflict, with both superpowers providing vast quantities of weapons and manipulating regional rivalries to provide proxy cold-war battlefields. Occasionally the superpowers lost control of their proxies and were dragged into confrontations with each other, as in the 1973 war that brought them to the brink of nuclear confrontation.

Khalidi emphasizes the essentially unilateral nature, from Kissinger onward, of US policy in the Middle East, “meant primarily to establish the paramount position of the United States in the Middle East at the expense of the Soviet Union.” In a different ideological context, he describes the disastrous effects, especially in Iraq in 2003 and in Lebanon in 2006, of the George W. Bush administration’s “utterly unilateral vision of the international order.”

Khalidi gives credit to Jimmy Carter for making the first good-faith attempt at a comprehensive Arab–Israeli settlement and for proclaiming the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people rather than treating them merely as a refugee problem. However, the bilateral deal over Sinai at Camp David in 1978 left the Begin government free to “achieve its primary objective, of colonizing the West Bank with Israeli settlers, without hindrance.”

Khalidi’s catalog of American mishaps and errors painfully reflects the dismay of a highly intelligent Palestinian scholar. He describes the “War on Terror,” misleading and wrong-headed concept that it is, as having a “quasi-religious significance” for Bush and his neoconservative advisers, rather like the crusade against communism fifty years before. It was, he declares, psychologically understandable for American domestic reasons after the shock of September 11; but the efforts to execute it often created terrorists where there were none before. The constantly trumpeted slogan also served to justify starting two still-unfinished and very bloody wars and provided cover for an expansion of presidential powers that might otherwise have been strongly opposed.

The Middle East,” Khalidi concludes bitterly, “is simply too important to the vital interests of too many people the world over to be left much longer to the sometimes brutal ministrations of a reckless, stumbling, delusional giant.” Under the Bush administration, moreover, the US was operating in a world without rules because

the framework of international law and institutions painstakingly devised at the end of World War II has been systematically disdained and degraded in part by the arrogant unilateralists who were in power in Washington for eight years, at times openly expressing their contempt for the United Nations, international law, and human rights.

Khalidi finished his book in the summer of 2008. It would be interesting to know his view of the efforts of the new administration.


In his conclusion, Patrick Tyler writes, “America’s destiny in international relations is to play the role of a just, magnanimous, and stabilizing power.” That is more or less what Eisenhower succeeded in doing during the 1956 Suez crisis, and what Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush tried to do in the Middle East in 1978 and 1991 respectively. President Obama’s basic policy on the Israeli– Palestinian peace process is now being worked out and explained. He has appointed as his representative on the Middle East peace process a respected and successful negotiator who is the author of the 2001 “Mitchell Report on Israeli–Palestinian Violence.” George Mitchell is generally thought to be as near to objective and fair-minded as a negotiator can be.

Obama is insisting on a two-state solution as the basis for peace negotiations and has called for a freeze for all Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. The openness and level-headedness of his approach should at least reduce the paranoia that has sometimes confused attempts at peacemaking in the Middle East. Obama’s speech in Cairo was, among other things, an unprecedented attempt to clear the air with all those concerned with the peace process and to lay out the lines on which he proposes to assist in it.

How far this promising start will advance the prospect of peace remains unclear. The Palestinian leadership is hopelessly divided. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a hard line on peace talks and on vital issues like the freezing of settlement growth and the future of Jerusalem.9 But this is only the beginning of what must be hoped to be a new era in the pursuit of Middle East peace.

In July 1947, Ralph Bunche, who was about to draft the report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, wrote:

One thing seems to be sure, this problem can’t be solved on the basis of abstract justice, historical or otherwise. Reality is that both Arabs and Jews are here and intend to stay. Therefore in any “solution” some group, or at least its claim is bound to get hurt. Danger in any arrangement is that a caste system will develop with backward Arabs as the lower caste.

After sixty years of tumultuous and often violent developments, that still sums up fairly well a negotiator’s dilemma.

—July 14, 2009

  1. 7

    The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 created a rift in Reagan’s cabinet between those who saw the Israeli attack as a dangerous blow to the US position in the Middle East and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who, without informing the President, had aligned the United States with the Israeli invasion strategy. The 1982 Israeli intervention in Lebanon led to the emergence of the Iran- supported Shiite organization Hezbollah, now a fixture of Lebanese politics.

  2. 8

    Khalidi actually uses this phrase in defining the true nature of the League of Nations Mandate system.

  3. 9

    For a highly perceptive analysis of these problems see Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “Obama and the Middle East,” The New York Review, June 11, 2009.

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