Bloomberg: John McCain, who is trying to strike a distance from the policies of President George W. Bush, accuses Saudi Arabia of sponsoring insurgents in Iraq and condemns it for human-rights violations, including imprisoning people whose "only crime is to worship God in their own way."
By Hans Nichols and Janine Zacharia
May 16 (Bloomberg) — John McCain, who is trying to strike a distance from the policies of President George W. Bush, accuses Saudi Arabia of sponsoring insurgents in Iraq and condemns it for human-rights violations, including imprisoning people whose "only crime is to worship God in their own way."
That should make the prospect of a McCain presidency a nightmare for the Saudi rulers, who have enjoyed close ties to the Bush family. Instead, Saudis are privately rooting for the presumptive Republican nominee, discounting some of his rhetoric because he's the only candidate to promise to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and to deter Iran.
"The royal family and other elites would like to see McCain," Mai Yamani, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said yesterday in a telephone interview from London.
"He would keep the troops in Iraq, and that is their main worry, that the U.S. may withdraw or minimize its presence," said Yamani, whose father, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, was the kingdom's oil minister from 1962 to 1986. U.S. forces are needed to counter the spread of Iranian influence from Iraq, which many Saudis believe "now is ruled by Iran," she said.
Bush today will visit King Abdullah's horse farm to mark the 75th anniversary of U.S.-Saudi ties, which have been strained by what the Saudis view as mismanagement of the war in Iraq and soaring oil prices. Bush is set to discuss oil prices with the Saudis, the world's largest producer, during his visit.
As former Texas oilmen, Bush, 61, and his father, President George Herbert Walker Bush, 83, were both known quantities to the Saudis. McCain has no business experience, though the Saudis appreciate his military and national-security credentials.
The Saudis, like other Gulf Arabs, are comforted by McCain's repeated commitment to stay in Iraq. Campaigning in Columbus, Ohio, the Arizona senator said yesterday that he envisions a successful outcome to the war by 2013, when Iraq will be "a functioning democracy."
For the Saudis, that is preferable to the positions of either of the Democratic candidates — Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York — who both have vowed to undertake an Iraq withdrawal as one of their first acts in office, analysts said.
"They are worried about any deal the Democrats may cut with Iran," said Henri Barkey, a foreign policy adviser to Obama and former State Department policy planner, who now heads the international relations department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The Saudis are preoccupied by Iranian influence in their region. The McCain campaign points to Obama's pledge to engage in direct talks with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as evidence that the Democratic candidate lacks the experience to become president.
"Unconditionally meeting Ahmadinejad would fatally undermine any chance that we have of building a coalition of Arab states willing and able to contain Iranian power," said Randy Scheunemann, a McCain foreign-policy adviser.
Obama, 46, is eager to debate Iran policy with McCain, said Denis McDonough, an Obama foreign-policy adviser.
"What's evident is the status quo as it relates to Iran, and which John McCain seems to support, has resulted in an expanded Iranian nuclear program and expanded Iranian influence," McDonough said.
McCain has encouraged the perception that he would restore the pragmatist tradition of the first President Bush, and resolve conflicts with Saudi Arabia behind closed doors.
A McCain administration would practice a policy of "speak softly and press firmly," Scheunemann said.
McCain's signals to the Saudis, however, haven't been consistent. On the one hand, he said this month that his personal connections would allow him "to manage our strategic relationship" with the Saudis, while also pressuring them on other subjects.
McCain said May 6 aboard his campaign bus that he knows Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to U.S., "very well," citing a 25-year relationship and the bond they share as former military pilots. McCain's campaign co-chairman, Tom Loeffler, is a registered lobbyist for Saudi Arabia, which earned his firm, the Washington-based Loeffler Group, close to $10 million in the last two years.
'They Know' McCain
The Saudis "feel like they know John McCain," said Hady Amr, the director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center.
At the same time, however, McCain has used some tough language toward Saudi Arabia. He has promised to bring more pressure on the country on human rights and has accused the Saudis of sponsoring the Sunnis who are attacking U.S. forces in Iraq. Last week, McCain lumped Saudi Arabia with Iran, Burma, Sudan and North Korea, describing them as nations that have imprisoned "tens of thousands of people" for their religious beliefs.
Wyche Fowler Jr., a U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 2001 who is now chairman of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the criticism may not matter to the Saudis. Fowler met in Riyadh last month with senior Saudi officials, including King Abdullah.
"They are used to a certain amount of Saudi bashing every four years," he said.