The Secret Story of the World's Most Intriguing Royal
Prince Bandar bin Sultan
By William Simpson
Regan. 480 pp. $32.50
When historians search for a paradigmatic figure who embodied America's old, pre-9/11 relationship with the Arab world, an obvious candidate will be Saudi Arabia's swaggering ambassador to Washington from 1983 to 2005, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He was the Gatsby of foreign affairs: entertaining Washington's elite at his mansion overlooking the Potomac; exchanging secret favors with a string of presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush; lobbying for Saudi weapons purchases so effectively that he trounced even AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group; operating as a deniable arm of the CIA in covert operations around the world.
I wish I could say that Bandar has found a biographer worthy of his mercurial career, but that is not the case with William Simpson's "unofficial" but authorized The Prince . This is a well-meaning but annoying book -- not so much a biography as a stitching together of Simpson's interviews with Bandar and his friends and acolytes. Simpson attended a British air force training college with Bandar decades ago, and his book suffers from the awestruck befuddlement Bandar must have engendered among his fellow students. We learn how the avid but undisciplined young prince wrecked sports cars and nearly destroyed several of his fellow cadets when he slid out of formation in the clouds one day over England (and was afterward "blithely unaware" of the near disaster).
But readers hoping for a judicious and probing account of Bandar's career -- and of what he did and didn't do during his ambassadorial years -- will be disappointed. When it comes to the trickiest issues -- such as Bandar's alleged role in financing the 1985 attempted assassination of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's senior Shiite cleric -- Simpson prints Bandar's version without much independent investigation of his own. His subject deserves a more serious and scholarly work.
Like many Washington journalists, I found Bandar a useful contact, if a dizzying one. I remember a 1984 party at his grand house in McLean, Va., where the prince watched happily as a servant in a tuxedo fed tennis balls into a ball machine while guests in stocking feet raced back and forth, whacking forehands. And I recall Bandar meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Post during the tense prelude to the 1991 Gulf War, smoking the biggest cigar most of us had ever seen -- dishing military secrets while we searched for a suitably large ashtray.
Bandar's brash style was so mesmerizing that it could lead observers to forget the fundamentals. He was so American, with his big cigars and his hard-partying ways, that he made Americans think that Saudi Arabia must be as modern and cosmopolitan as Bandar himself. In his embrace, presidents allowed themselves to forget that he represented a secretive, repressive Muslim kingdom that survived because it had made a pact with puritanical Wahhabi clerics who despised America. That was the problem with Bandar's glittering role here: As with the fictional Gatsby, the lavish parties and the intrigue disguised a darker reality. That hidden truth finally became apparent when al-Qaeda terrorists flew airplanes into buildings that symbolized America, and it turned out that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
What made Bandar so useful in the old days was that he really could walk between the two worlds. He appealed to Americans not just with his showy ways but also because, in Saudi terms, he was a parvenu. He was the illegitimate son of the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, and a concubine of African descent, and the rise of this handsome, dark-skinned man was as close as you could find in Saudi Arabia to the improbable rags-to-riches plotlines of Vanity Fair or David Copperfield . And he was bold: Disdaining the traditional reticence of Saudi diplomats, he made himself into a kind of Arab James Bond -- meeting with the president in the Oval Office, then dashing off on a secret mission to Syria or Lebanon to negotiate a ceasefire or deliver a presidential message . . . and then, when he returned, telling journalists the juicy details that added to the luster of his reputation.
Bandar accomplished what very few diplomats have in Washington over the past few decades: He became at once a master of the inside game and the outside game. He was a confidante of presidents, CIA directors and national security advisers, and he played them adeptly to ensure that Saudi interests were protected. But he could also go over the heads of these policymakers, to Congress and the American public, thanks to his wide contacts in the media. He understood how Israeli ambassadors had played the game, then bested them at it -- especially in his successful fights to win congressional approval of controversial sales of F15 fighters and AWACS radar planes to the kingdom in the 1980s.
In the years when Bandar's influence was at its peak, during Reagan's second term, the ambassador became a genuinely dangerous figure in his role as secret adviser to the first lady, Nancy Reagan. Bandar schemed to block the appointment of a prospective national security adviser he didn't like, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and to engineer the appointment of his preferred choice, Robert C. McFarlane -- and then, when McFarlane crossed him, to send him into social and political exile. Bandar's behavior in these years was something out of the court of the Borgias or the Romanovs.
The question raised by Bandar's extraordinary career is how one should judge the pre-9/11 world of Arab-American relations that he helped define. To be sure, it was infected with a deadly disease -- tolerance for the Muslim extremism that was interwoven with the House of Saud's rule -- but that doesn't mean that the old order's underlying premises were wrong. Bandar and his various co-conspirators in the White House sought to preserve the status quo in the Middle East, preferring stability to democracy. They did that through elaborate machinations and deceptions, but at the core of this Machiavellian world were the intertwined national interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States: America got oil, Saudi Arabia got protection.
The current President Bush is often accused of being too close to the Saudi prince -- to the point that the filmmaker Michael Moore claimed the prince was known within the White House as "Bandar Bush." But the truth is something quite different: Bush overturned Bandar's attachment to the status quo and replaced it with grandiose but ill-conceived ideas about the transformation of the Middle East -- ones that even the mercurial Bandar would have regarded as reckless. Now, as America struggles to put the pieces of the Middle East back together, it would be useful to have an Arab partner with Bandar's ambition and raw cunning. ·
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist and co-moderator of the PostGlobal conversation on washingtonpost.com. His new spy novel, "Body of Lies," will be published in April.