Cheney, Baker, and the House of Saud

Posted by Cutler on December 13, 2006
Right Arabists, Saudi Arabia

In a November 30, 2006 post, I suggested the following:

[T]here are signs of a growing Right Arabist split regarding US policy toward Iran. The factions within such a split are representing by Vice President Cheney, who is trying to bolster Saudi resolve to resist Iranian regional dominance, and James Baker, who is trying to facilitate Saudi detente with the Iranians.

These signs may also be linked to factional battles within the House of Saud although limited transparency make these more difficult to discern on the basis of open source reporting.

Today’s New York Times article by Helene Cooper–“Saudis Say They Might Back Sunnis if U.S. Leaves Iraq“–seems to suggest that the Saudi split may indeed be part of the story.

Along the way, Cooper sheds light on a number of significant developments regarding US-Saudi relations.

Cooper reports:

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who told his staff on Monday that he was resigning his post, recently fired Nawaf Obaid, a consultant who wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post two weeks ago contending that “one of the first consequences” of an American pullout of Iraq would “be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”

Mr. Obaid also suggested that Saudi Arabia could cut world oil prices in half by raising its production, a move that he said “would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today’s high oil prices.” The Saudi government disavowed Mr. Obaid’s column, and Prince Turki canceled his contract.

But Arab diplomats said Tuesday that Mr. Obaid’s column reflected the view of the Saudi government, which has made clear its opposition to an American pullout from Iraq.

And, Cooper also makes news by reporting new details on the substance of Cheney’s meeting with Saudi King Abdullah in late November:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia conveyed that message to Vice President Dick Cheney two weeks ago during Mr. Cheney’s whirlwind visit to Riyadh, the officials said. During the visit, King Abdullah also expressed strong opposition to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, and pushed for Washington to encourage the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, senior Bush administration officials said.

Abdullah is opposed to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran. That idea was floated by James Baker. So what ever happened to James Baker’s famous intimacy with the Saudi Royal family?

One answer is that a Cheney-Baker split reflects a split in the house of Saud:

In Riyadh, there was a sense of disarray over Prince Turki’s resignation that was difficult to hide. A former adviser to the royal family said that Prince Turki had submitted his resignation several months ago but that it was refused. Rumors had circulated ever since that Prince Turki intended to resign, as talk of a possible government shake-up grew.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister and Prince Turki’s brother, has been in poor health for some time. He is described as eager to resign, with his wife’s health failing, too, just as the United States has been prodding Saudi Arabia to take a more active role in Iraq and with Iran.

The former adviser said Prince Turki’s resignation came amid a growing rivalry between the ambassador and Prince Bandar, who is now Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser. Prince Bandar, well known in Washington for his access to the White House, has vied to become the next foreign minister.

“This is a very high-level problem; this is about Turki, the king and Bandar,” said the former adviser to the royal family. “Let’s say the men don’t have a lot of professional admiration for each other.”

Is Bandar Baker’s man (and vice versa)?

And Cheney? Is he now aligned with King Abdullah?

Or has Cheney decided that the Bandar/Bush branch of the Saudi Royal family–the Sudairi Seven that let Cheney station 500,000 US troops on Saudi soil in 1990 over the objections of Abdullah–has lost the battle for control of Saudi Arabia?

Was Cheney’s trip to Riyadh was a farewell visit? Did Cheney tell King Abdullah that he was backing the Shiite Option in Iraq?

The last time Prince Turki resigned abruptly was on September 4, 2001, exactly one week before the September 11 attacks. Mark your calendars.

6 Comments to Cheney, Baker, and the House of Saud

  • Not much to add to the tealeaves – Steve Clemens certainly agrees with the split in SA. (He argues for Turki:

    What I do not get is A. why do you think Cheney is a right arabist – I do think he is by now much to far out in the neocamp site to be seen as such (though not a real zionist). B. why you think Cheneys visit to SA was voluntary. He was “Summoned” – the Washington Post did even use that word yesterday as did Pat Lang (

  • There’s certainly something to your analysis of the Cheney-Baker struggle. But I take issue with something you said in the Nov 30 post:

    “Cheney may be somewhat isolated within the administration at times, but he remains untouchable. And he has a number of important Right Arabist allies who have long favored a more confrontational approach toward Iran. This include some diplomatic figures with very close ties to the House of Saud–including former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Akins–and much of the military brass, including former CentCom commander Anthony Zinni, who appeared to be “dovish” on Iraq because they opposed an invasion that set out to establish Iraqi Shiite rule but are
    more than anything, very hawkish on Iran.”

    I have a hard time accepting the idea that Anthony Zinni is “more than anything, very hawkish on Iran”. Certainly he’s refused to accept the logic of his own observations about the course of the Iraq occupation, and doesn’t support withdrawal, but what evidence is there that he supports US military action against Iran? He is not a Cheney ally in a Cheney-Baker contest.

  • Nell–

    I did not claim that Zinni “supports US military action against Iran.” I said, as you quoted, that he was “very hawkish on Iran,” especially relative to Iraq. On military action, I would say Zinni hedges.

    His unwillingness “to accept the logic of his own observations about the course of the Iraq occupation” and his refusal to “support withdrawal” are both directly linked to his hawkish position on Iran.

    Here is one of many, many instances–a CNN interview from April 2006–in which Zinni lays out his position on the relative threat posed by Iraq and Iran:

    BLITZER: But you believe they should have never been put in harm’s way in Iraq to begin with. There were other options open for containing Saddam Hussein.

    ZINNI: I believe that Iraq was not the primary — not the priority. It was way down there. We had other business to do to help stabilize this part of the world and protect our interests…. We had Iran emerging as probably the major hegemonic threat in the region…

    BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on a new article that is coming out just today, and we’re going to be speaking with the author, Seymour Hersh, in the “New Yorker” magazine. I know you’ve been looking at it. Among other things, referring to Iran and its potential nuclear weapons development. He raises the possibility, quoting one source, as suggesting that the only way the U.S. might be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability would be to use a tactical nuclear bomb or multiple nuclear bombs to do so. What do you make of this conclusion that one of the sources has?

    ZINNI: Well, first of all, I know nothing about that or about that planning. I do know from my time at Centcom that any military plan involving Iran is going to be very difficult. We should not fool ourselves to think it will just be a strike and then it will be over. The Iranians will retaliate, and they have many possibilities in an area where there are many vulnerabilities, from our troop positions to the oil and gas in the region that can be interrupted, to attacks on Israel, to the conduct of terrorism. There are a number of actions they can take in response to that.

    So when we take military action in that case, we’re going to have to be prepared to in effect go all the way, whatever that means. And I don’t think we should kid ourselves that this can be simply ended by one strike. A nuclear-armed Iran is extremely dangerous. And I hope we don’t come to that position. There is a way, I believe, this can be stopped. And I believe that if the international community would stand fast, the Russians and the Chinese would stay with us, I think that kind of pressure, the fear of being isolated and condemned as a rogue state could have the effect that we need to halt the program…

    I’m not saying that there isn’t a military action that will become necessary at some point

    BLITZER: General Zinni, thanks very much for joining us.

    I hope that help clarify the basis of my characterization of General Zinni as hawkish on Iran.

  • B-
    I don’t know whether or not to think Cheney is still a Right Arabist. But I think there is plenty of historical reason to agree with Brent Scowcroft when he says Cheney is not himself a Neocon. As you seem to say, his is “not a real zionist.” I agree. Cheney may have tried to patch things up with the Saudis at various points in recent years.

    Either way, I’m increasingly convinced that the key to understanding Cheney is to think in terms of Great Power Rivalry. What do you call someone who thinks the “Great Game” is the only game there is?

    “Imperialist” would be an obvious contender, but there has to be a way to distinguish between imperialists who favor inter-imperialist collusion (say, Baker, Haass, etc.) and those who think this project is always already doomed and naive.

    “Unipolarist”? Perhaps. But I think Cheney and Kristol/McCain are not quite the same, either. Among other things, the Kristol/McCain camp favors a very direct approach to US empire–boots on the ground around the world. I think Cheney is more influenced by Nixon Doctrine notions that emphasize military transformation and the Machiavellian cultivation of “indigenous” proxies.

    Any ideas?

    (On Cheney being “Summoned”: I plead no contest).

  • Was Cheney’s trip to Riyadh was a farewell visit? Did Cheney tell King Abdullah that he was backing the Shiite Option in Iraq?

    Since this information came to the New York Times via Cheney and not the Saudis, and we have only “Arab diplomats” (Nawaf Obaid?) confirming, then I’d venture a Yes to both questions.

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