Thursday, July 08, 2004

Michael Moore's Dilemma: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and John Kerry

There are two conspicuous absences in Fahrenheit 9/11: John Kerry and Israel. The two absences are dependent on each other.

Bob Dreyfuss asks if Michael Moore is "blind, or a coward" for his total avoidance of the question of Israel in Fahrenheit 9/11 (The Dreyfuss Report, June 30, 2004). From personal experience, I know for a fact that Moore is neither blind nor cowardly when it comes to his support for Palestinians. When news about the decision to hold the third annual conference of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement at the Ohio State University on November 7-9, 2003 -- with the Committee for Justice in Palestine (a registered OSU student organization) as the conference's sponsor -- got around, right-wingers predictably attacked it, pressuring the OSU administration not to allow it on campus. As it happened, an OSU student group Students for Labor and Economic Justice scored a deal to piggyback an invitation to Michael Moore on his appearance at the College of Wooster on October 29, and Moore arrived at OSU on October 30. CJP organizers contacted Moore and asked him to plug the Palestine Solidarity Conference at his OSU lecture. And he did, calling for justice for Palestinians, praising Palestinian solidarity activists, and urging the audience to attend it, despite an awkward moment of several visibly upset students walking out of the Ohio Union ballroom as soon as they got the drift of his talk at this point. We were of course ecstatic about receiving a very strong endorsement from an immensely popular celebrity, at a time when we were confronted with right-wing flaks and a split in the Palestine Solidarity Movement (the other faction held their conference in New Jersey).

So, the only reason for Moore's conspicuous silence on the question of Israel in Fahrenheit 9/11 that I can think of is his support for John "the-cause-of-Israel-is-the-cause-of-America" Kerry. For those who are caught in a dilemma of wanting to "re-unelect" George W. Bush at all costs without being able to support what Kerry stands for, the less said about Kerry, the better -- hence another conspicuous absence in the film (the only time when John Kerry's absence is felt in the film is near its beginning, when we see the Congressional Black Caucus unable to find a single Senator to sign onto their letter to contest the 2000 presidential election).

Imagine what Fahrenheit 9/11 would be like if it turned its gaze on the Democratic presidential candidate's plan for Israel. Here's the John Kerry campaign's latest position paper on Israel, originally "sent in mid-June to a group of people in the Jewish community" (Nathan Guttman, "John Kerry Position Paper Outlines Support for Israel," Haaretz, July 2, 2004) and now available at the websites of Jews for Kerry and The Electronic Intifada among other places:
John Kerry: Strengthening Israel's Security and Bolstering the U.S.-Israel Special Relationship

John Kerry has been at the forefront of the fight for Israel's security during his nineteen years in the US Senate. His pro-Israel voting record is second to none.

John Kerry did not wait until he was running for president of the United States to visit Israel -- he has been there on numerous occasions throughout his public life. Through his meetings with Israeli political and military leaders -- and especially his interaction with ordinary Israelis -- he has experienced the everyday security threat that Israelis face and this has deepened his understanding of Israel's security needs. In short, John Kerry will never do anything to compromise that security.

John Kerry believes that particularly in uncertain times like these we must reaffirm and indeed strengthen our special relationship with Israel, our most steadfast friend and ally in the region. His commitment to a safe, secure, democratic Jewish state of Israel is unwavering. It comes from a personal belief that Israel's cause must be America's cause.

John Kerry understands that anti-Semitism masked in anti-Israel rhetoric is a dangerous trend threatening both Israel and Jewish communities around the world. John Kerry has always fought against anti-Semitism and as president, he will take governments around the world to task for failing to address this escalating threat.

Israel's Right to Respond to Terrorism

Kerry supports Israel's right of self defense to eliminate threats to its citizens, including actions taken by Israel against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups in Gaza. In spring 2002, when Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield to root out Palestinian terrorists and dismantle the Palestinian infrastructure, Kerry co-sponsored a resolution expressing solidarity with Israel and called for continued assistance in strengthening Israel's homeland defenses.

Supporting Israel's Plan to Withdraw from Gaza

John Kerry expressed support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unprecedented plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. He recognizes that in any final settlement for Israel to remain a Jewish State, Palestinians must settle in a future Palestinian State rather than in Israel, and that in light of demographic realities, a number of settlement blocks will likely become a part of Israel.

Israel's Security Fence Is A Legitimate Right of Self Defense

John Kerry supports the construction of Israel's security fence to stop terrorists from entering Israel. The security fence is a legitimate act of self defense erected in response to the wave of terror attacks against Israeli citizens. He believes the security fence is not a matter for the International Court of Justice.

New Palestinian Leadership

John Kerry believes that Yasser Arafat is a failed leader and unfit partner for peace and therefore has supported his total isolation. He has demanded a new, responsible Palestinian leadership, committed to ending the violence and fighting terror -- in word and in deed -- and will work tirelessly to ensure that this new leadership emerges.

Foreign Aid to Israel

John Kerry has always voted to maintain critical foreign aid to our ally Israel, resisting any attempts to cut it over his years in the Senate. In the early 1990s, he fought President Bush when his administration restricted aid to Israel through the loan guarantees program.

The UN and other International Organizations

John Kerry has always believed the US must stand solidly behind Israel at the UN and other international organizations. He recognizes the UN must establish more credibility on Arab-Israeli matters and would never hesitate to wield a US veto on the Security Council in the face of anti-Israel/anti-Zionist resolutions.

Fighting to Move the American Embassy to Jerusalem

John Kerry has long advocated moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Israel's indisputable capital. In 1999, he signed a letter taking President Clinton to task for not moving the embassy.

Maintaining Israel's Military Superiority

John Kerry understands that America must guarantee Israel's military superiority and supports carefully restricting arms sales to Arab countries in the region. He opposed the sale of Maverick missiles and F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia.
As for Kerry's choice for his vice president, The Forward's E. J. Kessler notes: "Lionel Kaplan, a former Aipac president who swung behind Edwards after Senator Joseph Lieberman dropped out of the primaries, said he is 'very happy' with Kerry’s choice, which he said 'reinforces' the Massachusetts senator’s 'outstanding record' on Israel. Aipac gave its official seal of approval. Spokesman Andrew Schwartz noted that Edwards always has been a 'strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship' and that Edwards traveled to Israel in 2001 on a trip organized in part by an Aipac-linked foundation" ("Here's the Column," July 7, 2004).

If Moore's silence on Israel in Fahrenheit 9/11 is determined by his grudging support for Kerry, whose positions on Iraq and Israel are clearly at odds with his own, Moore's focus on Saudi Arabia may be shaped by his desire to supply ammunitions for Kerry's rhetorical anti-Saudi campaign. I have wondered why Moore relied so heavily on conspiracy theory in the film, which makes a big deal out of the George W. Bush-James R. Bath-Salem bin Laden triangle, the George W. Bush-George H.W. Bush-the bin Ladens-the Carlyle Group-Harken circle, and Saudi investments into US economy, without saying exactly what the big deal is all about while hinting at a vaguely sinister "link" among Bush's Saudi Connections, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq: "Okay, so let's say one group of people, like the American people, pay you $400,000 a year to be President of the United States. But then another group of people invest in you, your friends, and their related businesses $1.4 billion dollars over a number of years. Who you gonna like? Who's your daddy?" The suggestion that Saudi Arabia is the puppet master of the Bush administration doesn't make sense: "If Bush is so 'in the pocket' of Saudi Arabia, why is he Ariel Sharon’s strongest backer? Why, when he had Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah down at the Texas ranch a few years ago, did he flip off the Saudi’s peace plan? And most important, why did he invade Iraq —- since Saudi Arabia was strongly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Why did he launch his Iraqi adventure over Saudi objections, with many of his advisers chortling that Saudi Arabia would be 'next'? Why did he stock his administration with militant neocon crusaders who see Saudi Arabia as the main enemy?" (Dreyfuss, June 30, 2004). Besides, given the recent spate of fatal terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, it is possible that the Saudi political elite will someday become the single biggest political casualty of the fallouts of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, which have expanded and reinvigorated the loose network of ruthless Islamist terrorists for whom pro-Washington Arab regimes like Riyadh are bigger enemies than the Evil Empire itself.

In light of Kerry's pronouncements on Saudi Arabia which seek to distinguish his Middle East policy from Bush's, however, Fahrenheit 9/11's conspiracy theory about Bush and Saudi Arabia makes a lot of sense at least for the very narrow purpose of electioneering:
Kerry used the occasion of a June 28 conference call to a B’nai B’rith confab to reiterate his position that he would continue the American policy of isolating Arafat. He also criticized Bush’s record on fighting antisemitism and the war on terror.

"I believe that I can run a far more effective war on terror and do better by Israel. And I’ll tell you why," he said, according to excerpts of the call circulated by his campaign. "Because I think the sweetheart relationship between this administration and Saudi Arabia and the lack of willingness of this administration to hold Arab countries accountable for their newspaper articles, for their antisemitism, for their conspiracy theories, to stop the funding that goes to Hezbollah, to Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, to Hamas, has not made the world safer and has not protected Israel." (Kessler, July 7, 2004)
See, also, Carol Giacomo/Reuters, "U.S., Saudi Ties Could Face Changes with Kerry" (July 8, 2004).

Needless to say, it is impossible to work out a rational and coherent US policy on Saudi Arabia in particular and the Middle East in general based on Kerry's laughably incoherent stance on oil -- for instance, accusing the Bush administration of not putting enough pressures on Saudi Arabia to lower oil prices at the same time as criticizing it for not coming up with a policy to make America "energy independent" -- as Ashraf Fahim's deft dissection of Kerry's anti-Saudi posturing shows:
Late in Senator John Kerry's May 27 speech in Seattle explaining his national security strategy, he did what he does in nearly every foreign-policy speech that he gives -- excoriate Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism and President George W Bush for supporting the Saudis and failing to end America's dependence on foreign oil.

"If we are serious about energy independence, then we can finally be serious about confronting the role of Saudi Arabia in financing and providing ideological support for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups," said Kerry, neatly eliding several election hot-button issues. The presumptive Democratic candidate for the presidency went on to promise that he would impose "tough financial sanctions" and "name and shame" nations that launder money for terrorists. "To put it simply," he warned, "we will not do business as usual with Saudi Arabia."

Saudi-bashing has been a national sport in the United States ever since September 11 and revelations that not only was former Saudi national Osama bin Laden the mastermind behind the attacks, but 15 of the 19 hijackers had Saudi citizenship. With effortless demagoguery, the Kerry campaign has sought to capitalize on this, playing to Saudi bashers of all political stripes by promising to do what the Bush administration, with its long ties to the House of Saud, hasn't: confront the supposed real villains of the "war on terror" and magically "free America from its dangerous dependence on Middle East oil".

There is only one problem with Kerry's strategy: he may actually win the election. And on his first day in office reality is going to take a hefty bite out of his rhetoric as he grapples with the strategic necessity of the longstanding US-Saudi alliance and the complexity of the situation inside the kingdom, which is presently reeling from attacks on foreigners and its security services. These realizations could force some embarrassing backtracking.

Bipartisan scapegoating

John Kerry's pillorying of the Saudis is certainly good politics. From the airwaves of Air America, the new left-wing radio station, to the pages of the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, and in a raft of books with titles like Hatred's Kingdom, by Ariel Sharon's adviser Dore Gold, and Sleeping with the Devil, by former Central Intelligence Agency agent Robert Baer, the Saudis are lambasted as tyrannical, misogynistic, clandestine purveyors of terror.

Kerry has scored points with the pro-Israel right, who resent the Saudis for supporting anti-Israel groups. "The Saudi regime openly and enthusiastically supports Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Hamas," he wrote in the Jewish weekly, the Forward. "The Saudis cannot pick and choose among terrorist groups." And he has pleased the left by attacking the financial ties between the House of Bush and the House of Saud and making insinuations about the infamous charter flight that spirited the bin Laden brood out of America after September 11. Finally, he has serenaded the middle by blaming high gas prices on the "the Saudi-George Bush gasoline tax", and Bush's failure to strong-arm the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Nations, while repeating rumors of an election deal between Bush and the Saudis to lower the price of oil.

Threatening the golden goose

Though politically expedient, Kerry's attacks on the US-Saudi relationship are ill-considered. Firstly, the kind of wholesale re-evaluation of the US-Saudi alliance he suggests is simply unrealistic. In an era of increasing demand for oil and depleting supplies, the United States and world economies will be dependent on oil, particularly from the Gulf, for decades. Saudi Arabia currently provides 18% of the crude consumed by the United States and commands 25% of the world's proven reserves. With 2 million barrels of surplus production capacity, only Saudi Arabia can keep prices stable, and it has done so during numerous crises -- most recently after September 11 and during the Iraq war. The United States is thus poorly positioned to tinker with its alliance to the present regime.

While some have speculated that the actual motivation for the invasion of Iraq was to supplant Saudi supplies with Iraq's prodigious reserves, the dilapidated state of Iraq's infrastructure and the current security situation render such a plan moot.

Kerry does have an ambitious plan to break this dependency relationship by increasing fuel efficiency and investing in alternative energy. "As president, I will not stand by and allow America to be held hostage to Saudi oil," he has written. "We can unleash the spirit of American ingenuity to meet this challenge." His as-yet loosely fleshed out scheme does not fully kick in until 2020, however, and analysts are split on whether it will be sufficient to break America's dependence on foreign oil. What is certain is that no amount of "ingenuity" is going to break the dependence of the world economy, on which US prosperity hinges, on fossil fuels any time soon.

Likewise, Kerry's threat to "shut [Saudi Arabia] out of the US financial system" if they don't end alleged support for al-Qaeda is far-fetched. "The Saudis keep around a trillion dollars in US banks and another trillion on the stock market," wrote Baer in the Atlantic Monthly. "If they were suddenly to withdraw all their holdings in this country, the effect . . . would be devastating." The fine print of Kerry's remarks suggests he is cognizant of this reality. "The truth is that, for the moment, we have deep and inescapable energy ties -- corporate and energy dependence," he has said. This admission makes his bluster seem all the more rash.

Kerry's sound-bite rhetoric also trivializes the seriousness of the crisis unfolding inside the kingdom. A low-intensity guerilla war has left the House of Saud teetering, with the extremists feeding off popular discontent with an authoritarian royal house that has been unwilling or unable to staunch the excesses of its 30,000 members, reverse an economic tailspin, or separate itself from unpopular US policies in the region. And the May 29 Khobar attacks, in which 22 foreign oil workers were killed, demonstrate an ominous strategic premeditation to the militant operations that have swept the kingdom.

While both Kerry and the Bush administration's calls for reform in the kingdom have centered on the need to curb "extremism", neither has echoed the calls of Saudi reformers, liberal and conservative alike, on the need for genuine political power-sharing. An awareness that genuine democracy will bring to the fore the priorities of Saudi rather than US interests may be behind this reluctance. Some, though not all, of the organized Saudi opposition is conservative Islamist in nature and deeply critical of the royal family for its alliance with the United States.

In any event, given the unpopularity of US policies inside the kingdom, the internal debate on Saudi Arabia's future is not one that the United States should lend conspicuous voice to. So for better or worse, America's position in Saudi Arabia is married to the future of the House of Saud for the present. It is a corrosive embrace, to be sure, but necessary to maintain a consistent ally in a critical region, especially when the alternatives are so unpredictable. If a president Kerry were to ramp up the rhetoric, he would risk destabilizing a regime whose collapse could cause a worldwide recession.

Kerry's critique of the Bush administration's ties to the Saudi royal family is also somewhat disingenuous. The Saudi gravy train, an endless, multibillion-dollar carousel of kickbacks from "recycled" oil sales, arms shipments and industrial contracts facilitated by companies like the Carlyle group and Halliburton, has benefited Kerry's Democratic colleagues as much as the Republican elite. "Almost every Washington figure worth mentioning has been involved with companies doing major deals with Saudi Arabia," wrote Baer. (Ashraf Fahim, "John Kerry's Sucker Saudi Punch," Asia Times, June 10, 2004)
Saudi Arabia, as well as Kuwait, is a pure product of colonialism that should never have been created. And yet, there is no time machine that would allow us to undo its creation, and, as Fahim reminds us, there is no easy way to untie the unhappy Saudi-American knot. As long as Washington, be it under the Republican or Democratic White House, is committed to keeping its status as empire, running on deficits to police the capitalist world order fueled by oil, it is probably impossible for it to change its foreign policy -- especially its contradictory policies on Israel and Saudi Arabia -- without wreaking havoc on the world.

Trapped in the aforementioned dilemma of having to support the Democratic Party presidential candidate whose policy violates the most basic principles of his own, Moore could not explore the true relation among Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in Fahrenheit 9/11. Perhaps, he will make another documentary to do just that, once Bush gets fired and Kerry takes his place, "staying the course" on Iraq and Israel. I wonder how much money such a film will make, though.


The estimated figures of the total Saudi investment in the United States, both Robert Baer's estimate ($1 trillion in the US banks and $1 trillion in the US stock market) cited by Ashraf Fahim above and Craig Unger's ($860 billion) and Michael Moore's ($1 trillion in the US banks) mentioned in Fahrenheit 9/11, appear to be exaggerated, two to five times larger than the actual investment, perhaps the result of mistaking the total Saudi investment in the world for the total Saudi investment in the US:
In February 2003, total worldwide Saudi investment, including investment in the United States and Europe, was conservatively estimated at U.S. $700 billion. The United States received approximately 60% of the global Saudi investment allocation. (See exhibit #2)

Exhibit #2 Estimated Saudi Geographical Investment Allocation
(Publication: Middle East, London; February 2003 and IRmep)

(Tanya C. Hsu, "The United States Must Not Neglect Saudi Arabian Investment," Saudi-American Forum, September 23, 2003)
Since Hsu is "a senior analyst of Middle East political economy at the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy," which conservative writers say is a pro-Saudi think tank trying to emphasize the size and significance of Saudi investment in the US, most likely Hsu's figure itself is an overestimate.