This week brought confirmation of something which diplomats and foreign correspondents in Washington have long suspected: that there is the job of an ambassador to the United States of America, which is the dream of every diplomat.
Oh no, we are not talking now of the occupant of 2107, Massachusetts Avenue — the Indian ambassador, who has the scant support of just one lobbying firm and has to apportion his time between fending off the Pakistanis, clamouring for attention from the state department, Capitol Hill et al, and is sometimes undercut unkindly by his own ministry and others in the government in New Delhi.
The man in question is a prince, who is also the prince of smoothness in Washington: His Royal Highness Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the US, to use his official title.
Last Sunday, during a media appearance, Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, America’s top general was asked a question which few generals anywhere in the world would want to be asked. Did he feel comfortable showing a document of utmost sensitivity to Prince Bandar, which had been withheld even from President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell'
Myers was a trifle uncomfortable with the question, but hoped to extricate himself by answering that he had no idea that the document had not been shown to Powell. To be fair, in an army under civilian control, it is not the job of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to go round showing classified stuff to cabinet members in other departments. The document under discussion was, however, no ordinary classified document. It was the Bush war-plan for Iraq. The date was January 11, 2003, and the White House spinmachine was working overtime to lull the world into believing that Bush was giving weapons inspectors a bit more rope and working with the United Nations to avoid war.
Prince Bandar was invited to the office of the vice-president, Dick Cheney, in the west wing of the White House. When he arrived, he found General Myers and his boss, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, waiting for him, in addition to the vice-president. Myers was holding a map that was classified “Top Secret”, which had the additional stipulation, “NOFORN”, according to a book, published yesterday, by Bob Woodward, the investigative journalist of Watergate fame. “NOFORN” meant that no foreigner should get to see the map. As Cheney and Rumsfeld watched, the General unfolded the map and explained to the Saudi ambassador the exact war-plans, according to Woodward’s account in Plan of Attack, which is based, among others, on interviews spread over three-and-a-half hours with Bush himself.
The Saudis had no love for Saddam Hussein. So Prince Bandar had one important question for the Americans present at that meeting. What if Saddam survived the US attack and remained in power as he did in 1991' He would be akin to a wounded tiger and reek horrible vengeance at the first opportunity on all those who had cooperated with the Americans. “Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast,” Woodward quotes Cheney as saying in answer.
Myers was asked on Sunday if the account in Woodward’s book was accurate. He replied that he had not yet read the book extract dealing with the events of January 11, 2003, which was published in The Washington Post that morning, but had heard about it. He conceded that what he had heard was largely a true description of what had taken place in the White House that day.
Prince Bandar’s job is a dream job for any ambassador not only because of this narrative. The Saudi envoy was not easily satisfied. He told Cheney, Rumsfeld and Myers in so many words that their word was not enough. But he could go to senior members of the al Saud family in Riyadh and try to convince them to support the war-plan if he heard directly from Bush what the three most powerful men in the current administration had just told him.
How many ambassadors in the world can make such a demand and insist on such a meeting with the head of state of the country they are accredited to' Yes, the American ambassador to Pakistan or to another client state of the US can — and they do. But here the roles were reversed. It was the Saudi envoy who was demanding a meeting with the US president. Within 48 hours, Bandar got what he wanted: a meeting with Bush on the prince’s terms.
This columnist was convinced by the end of January — or maybe it was early February, 2003 — that the Iraq war was unavoidable. A major reason was a speech by Prince Bandar in Cairo around that time to a pan-Arab conference. The speech was only mentioned in passing in newspapers outside the Arab world. But if Bandar was so sure that the Americans would remove Saddam Hussein, then there was no reason to doubt that Bush had made up his mind. No one had any way of knowing then where Bandar’s information had come from. It now turns out that it came from the horse’s mouth — in fact, from the mouths of several stallions in Washington.
Every ambassador in every capital tries to get things right. Some get things horribly wrong and pay a price. One central Asian envoy in New Delhi told his politburo-member-turned-“democratic”-president back home that P.V. Narasimha Rao was certain to return as prime minister with a big majority in the 1996 election. The man was recalled from his post after Rao’s defeat and has not been heard of since.
Some get things wrong and go on to a brighter future. The Indian ambassador in Baghdad, during Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, told his bosses in New Delhi that they could take any bet that the state of Kuwait was history. Of course, he knew that was what his external affairs minister wanted to hear. But that ambassador went on to have coveted postings till he retired a few years ago.
Prince Bandar not only gets things right: he occasionally knows more about what is going on in the highest levels of successive American administrations than some members of the US cabinet. The 55 year-old prince is the nephew of King Fahd. His father, Prince Sultan, is Saudi Arabia’s deputy prime minister and minister of defence. Prince Bandar is the grandson of the legendary King Abdulaziz al Saud and the son-in-law of the late King Faisal. But it would be a mistake to attribute his clout in Washington entirely to his pedigree or wealth.
Bandar has made his job the envy of every ambassador in Washington by combining this pedigree with a willingness to embrace the way Americans think and act. His mission to promote Saudi-US bonhomie may appear to be out of character with the popular image of the kingdom. But he has done this not by cultivating the stiff upper lip that diplomats, by convention, are famous for, but by plunging into the American way of life, cheering the Dallas cowboys on the football field with the same ease with which he has gone hunting with President Jimmy Carter or fishing with President Bush I.
When there was only an off-chance that Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas might become America’s 42nd president, Prince Bandar contributed $20 million to the University of Arkansas. His latest project is to bring Islamic treasures dating back to the 10th century from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to Washington’s National Gallery of Art for a travelling exhibition.
For obvious reasons, Prince Bandar is the pet target of pro-Israel lobbies in the US. Not a week passes without some covert effort by them to discredit him, but ridding Washington of this prince is probably the only objective the Jewish lobby has not yet been able to achieve in America.