MIKE BARNICLE, HOST: Welcome to volume one, edition 134. I'm Mike Barnicle, in for Jerry Nachman, who is on medical leave. … In some circles, after a lifetime of service, you get a gold watch. But now a new report says some journalists covering the Saudis can get a $20,000 Rolex just for writing a puff piece about the royal family. That's next.
BARNICLE: Saudi Arabia, reluctant to grant permission to use its bases in a war with Iraq, also the home of almost all of the September 11 hijackers, is under fire once again. This time, Saudi officials are accused of trying to influence western journalists by plying them with $20,000 Rolex watches. The allegations first surfaced in a New York Daily News column last night by Zev Chafetz, who says the watch giving is a time-honored tradition the Saudis use to win favorable news coverage.
Hume Horn is a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He is now an MSNBC analyst. Newsweek magazine's senior editor, Jonathan Alter, is also an NBC News contributor who was just in the Middle East. And columnist Daniel Pipes, of the Middle East Forum, says beyond journalists the Saudis also seek to influence foreign diplomats with cash. Gentlemen, thank you all for being here.
Ambassador, let's start with you and we'll get to the Rolex watches in a while. We'll ask Jonathan Alter to tell us the time, and hopefully he will go like that, and we'll see what kind of watch he's wearing. But off of today's news story, "The New York Times" especially, front page, what do you think, ambassador, the Saudis fear most? A war with Iraq or democracy in Iraq?
HUME HORAN, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA: The most proximate cause of their fear is a war with Iraq because of what might spill over from whether we win or whether we lose. The shockwaves will be disturbing to the Saudis, and the Saudis like a-so to speak as a cosmologist-a steady state universe with no ripples.
BARNICLE: Jonathan Alter, you have just come back from the Middle East. Give us your sense of the Saudis, the sheiks, the royal family. Do they get it? Do they understand that the United States is now on their case big time?
JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK: Well, first of all, here's my watch.
BARNICLE: What is it? Is that a Mickey Mouse watch?
ALTER: It's a plain one. So it's not-I didn't get a Rolex. Nobody offered me one. And it's just blows my mind that reputable journalists would actually take that if it was offered. But we'll see if there's some proof of that.
They are seductive, though, with journalists. And when you see them on TV, they're kind of frowning and they're looking very forbidding. But when you get them in private they're often very urbane, well educated, intelligent. And you can see how some people get sucked in.
It didn't tend to be a problem for me. They actually banned the "Newsweek" with my story in it after I came out of Saudi Arabia. They yanked it off newsstands. So that gives you some idea of what happened after I visited.
But I felt a little bit of the way they play the game in that, for instance, it's a dry country. It's a serious offense to drink alcohol. But one night I was invited to the home of an official with a lot of other high-ranking officials around.
I walked in, they said, "What do you want to drink?" And I said, "I don't know, a Coke." And they said, "No, we got scotch, bourbon." So I didn't take a watch, but I did take a gin and tonic from the Saudis.
BARNICLE: We'll let that pass, Jonathan. Daniel Pipes, the Saudis traditionally have bought a huge chunk of favorable American public opinion with their money, have they not? Is this continuing? Does it still pose a great danger?
DANIEL PIPES, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: I this it does, Mike. And I think the key to understanding it is not just the money, though that's important, but is the sense of a cozy and privileged relationship between high-ranking officials, politicians, diplomats, military officers, lobbyists, business leaders, and their approximate counterparts in Saudi Arabia.
This is a relationship that, from the very beginning, in the 1940s, has been out of sight of the American public and not subject to scrutiny. But I think there's a wonderful anecdote that when President Roosevelt met the king of Saudi Arabia in 1945, just days before his death, the Saudi king made it clear he didn't want smoking. And Roosevelt, of course, was a habitual smoker. He did not smoke. Winston Churchill, when he met the king, he did smoke. So we've been deferring in this way in this cozy atmosphere for decades. And money, of course, is part of the contamination that we see over and over again. Politicians, diplomats, journalists, you name it.
BARNICLE: Ambassador Horan, the relationship between our two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United States, since September 11 has been smoking at the edges a bit off of what Daniel Pipes just said. Are they truly a real ally of ours?
HORAN: Mike, Saudi Arabia has always had its own interests first and foremost and then nothing and then nothing and then still nothing. There have been many years when our interests were more or less in harmony, to some degree, at least the important ones. And the important ones to the Saudis were the Americans like oil, the Americans like money. And quite frankly, the Saudis have developed over the years a rather cynical view of America and America's idealistic priorities.
There is quite frankly a sense that Americans are prone, disposed to do an awful lot of things for money. And that includes their attitudes even towards some of our troops who were out there saving Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. We were seen to some degree, frankly, as mercenaries.
ALTER: You know one thing that's happened, Mike, is that this double game that the Saudis have been playing so long, where they tell their own people one thing and they say just really some rancid things in their press, and then they kiss up to us, it's a lot harder to talk out of both sides of your mouth in the Internet age. And we have places, like a place called memri.org, where you can see the kinds of things they're saying in the Arabic press.
And after September 11, I think that the Saudis are starting to realize that their old game is wearing thin. So you see a much more active involvement now in issues in the region. You had Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan for the Arabs and the Israelis and the Palestinians, and now there's some very interesting things going on, where they may be trying to get involved in buying off certain Iraqi political figures and tribal leaders.
And they really want to see if this thing could be settled with a coup instead of military action. Possibly a coup after military action begins. But they are not monkeying around in Iraqi politics.
BARNICLE: They would buy a coup, in other words? They'd use their money to sort of purchase a coup?
ALTER: There is some indication that that could be going on.
Obviously, we don't know very much about this, but it's possible. Everybody's assuming it's either war, delay with more inspections, but there's a third option now, which is some kind of a coup that has Saudi fingerprints on it.
BARNICLE: Daniel Pipes, do they have so much money in Saudi Arabia? Well, clearly, they've been able to use their money to purchase, if you would, blinds to prevent the sunlight of democracy and liberalism from coming into their society. But do they have the kind of money that they could indeed help purchase or fund a coup in Iraq, and would they want to do that?
PIPES: They really are not that well off anymore. There's a lot of private wealth that's been salted away, hundreds of billions. But the government itself has an enormous debt. And the people of Saudi Arabia are no longer gilded as they were 25 years ago. There's a lot of poverty.
What you have is an immense—what we might call nomenklatura, like in the Soviet Union. An immense kind of privilege class of the princes, who number in the thousands, who have enormous amounts of money. And there there's some business people who have got money. But the basic population is not that well off.
So what that translates into is the Saudis don't have the kind of funding they used to have. And while perhaps they could fund a coup, they're not really in the position to try to control the region through their funds, as they were some 20, 25 years ago. This is not a rich state. It's a rich country, but not a rich state. It's a poor state.
ALTER: But they don't want a democratic Iraq right on their boarders. And they will do what they can to prevent an American occupation in the building of-they think it might be contagious. If Iraq goes even semi-democratic, then they fear for their stability, which as we said, is their number one concern.
BARNICLE: Ambassador Horan, would that-is that real? I mean, would poor people in Saudi Arabia get a sense of a difference in the government of Iraq if there indeed came to be a difference?
HORAN: Mike, just two comments. One, if the Saudis perhaps were trying to buy a coup in Iraq, I'm sure they would find a lot of people that would be prepared to take their money but wouldn't do them very much good, because I don't think you can buy a coup in Iraq given the perfection of Saddam's internal Stalinist control system.
But secondly, the Saudis face two difficult alternatives. Either they face a situation in which war is averted and somehow thereafter Saddam emerges triumphantly having escaped a bullet the second time. Saddam becomes a hero. Radicalism is encouraged, and the Saudis cower even more.
Or Saddam is overthrown. And who knows, some dreadful toxin of democracy is being purveyed.
ALTER: You know, I really respect Ambassador Horan tremendously, in part because he's one of the only ambassadors of Saudi Arabia who didn't get bought off in some fashion by the Saudis after he came back to the United States. But I'm just wondering...
BARNICLE: He doesn't wear a watch.
ALTER: ... whether there's a third option here, Ambassador. And I'm curious. And that is that a war starts and then there is this question on the part of various tribal leaders and various parts of Iraq, or even generals in Baghdad, do we stick with Saddam or do we peel off and try to get a settlement that will be good for us? And at that point, isn't it possible that the Saudi money might be decisive for some of those guys if they see which way the wind's blowing?
BARNICLE: Quickly, Ambassador.
HORAN: The tribes can always be bought off, but they tend not to be very significant elements. Other people will be bought off, and not necessarily because of money, but because they feel they can make their move safely without risking the lives of themselves, their families and their extended family system.
PIPES: Right. The key here is not money. It is which way the wind is blowing.BARNICLE: Hume Horan, Jonathan Alter, Daniel Pipes, thanks very much.