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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, May 27, 2006

conflicts of interest

I recently finished reading a book (an achievement for me, since I start many more books than I finish): House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties by American investigative journalist Craig Unger. I was inspired to read this book after finishing John Perkins's Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and wanting to learn more about skulduggery at the highest levels of power.

Unger has delivered the goods with his book, a meticulously documented investigation of the links between what he provocatively calls the house of Bush--that is, the Bush family and some of its close business and political associates--and the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. These links extend far into the past, well before the time when the elder Bush became president in 1989, and, according to Unger, came about due to the Bushes' involvement in the oil industry.

By the end of the book Unger makes a strong case that the administration of George W. Bush has been compromised in its ability to deal effectively with Islamic terrorism aimed at the U.S. because of the strong ties of friendship and business connections between him and the house of Saud. Unger's most striking illustration of this is the fact that on 13 September 2001, two days after the 9/11 terrorist attack, when all civil aviation was still grounded, certain private flights were permitted for the purpose of evacuating 140 high-level Saudis from the U.S., including members of the bin Laden family. The clearance for such flights could only have come from the highest levels of government--the White House--and were presumably authorized at the request of the Saudi government. Unger's point is that shortly after nearly 3,000 Americans had been killed in a terrorist attack, a number of people who should have been of great interest to the FBI for questioning were permitted to leave the country as a favor to a foreign regime--the very country from which a majority of the terrorists came.

Shocking stuff. It's the first time I'd heard of this, although apparently it had already been in the news in the U.S. My thought upon finishing the book was this: that George Bush and many of his associates have managed to place themselves in a gigantic conflict of interest. As president of the United States his duty is to the citizens of his country, protecting and promoting their welfare, pure and simple. As a private individual he is concerned about his assets and business dealings. Unger shows how Bush, his father, and associates such as James Baker and Frank Carlucci are connected to the Carlyle Group, a holding company formed in 1987 by David Rubinstein, a former domestic policy adviser to Jimmy Carter. The Carlyle Group became, through retaining key powerful figures leaving senior government posts, a major defense contractor. The Carlyle Group over the years has had large business dealings with the Saudis, worth at least about $1.3 billion according to Unger's reckoning.

From the point of view of the U.S. administration, there have been strong reasons to foster close relations with the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, even though they owe their position to their ties to the Islamic extremists known as Wahhabis. After the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, the U.S. wanted to ensure a steady supply from the world's largest producer. Better to have the Saudis as friends than as enemies. One way of cementing friendship is doing business together; then everybody wins: big earnings to the deal-makers, lucrative work for U.S. contractors, infrastructure development and armaments for the Saudis, and oil at a reasonable price for U.S. citizens. What's not to like?

Everything's great until those seemingly aligned interests diverge. Your "president" hat no longer fits with your "breadwinner" hat. A bunch of Saudis commit mass murder on your soil, and you find yourself with a dilemma. What's the right thing to do?

It's so hard to tell, when your own bank account, and those of your family and friends, are involved. It's hard to tell, and it also looks bad. Very bad. It becomes difficult, impossible, to appear impartial. You have a conflict of interest.

I think of Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces; he narrates the story of King Minos of Crete:

Great Minos, king of Crete in the period of its commercial supremacy, hired the celebrated artist-craftsman Daedalus to invent and construct for him a labyrinth, in which to hide something of which the palace was at once ashamed and afraid. For there was a monster on the premises--which had been born to Pasiphaë, the queen. It had been nothing worse, really, than what Minos' own mother had allowed to happen: Minos' mother was Europa, and it is well known that she was carried by a bull to Crete. The bull had been the god Zeus, and the honored son of that sacred union was Minos himself.

Society has blamed the queen greatly; but the king was not unconscious of his own share of guilt. The bull in question had been sent by the god Poseidon, long ago. Minos had asserted that the throne was his, by divine right, and had prayed the god to send up a bull out of the sea, as a sign. and he had sealed the prayer with a vow to sacrifice the animal immediately, as an offering and symbol of service. The bull had appeared, and Minos took the throne; but when he beheld the majesty of the beast that had been sent, and thought what an advantage it would be to possess such a specimen, he determined to risk a merchant's substitution.

He had converted a public event to personal gain, whereas the whole sense of his investiture as king had been that he was no longer a mere private person. The return of the bull should have symbolized his absolutely selfless submission to the functions of his role. The retaining of itrepresentedd, on the other hand, an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement. And so the king "by the grace of God" became the dangerous tyrant Holdfast--out for himself.

There it is: the tyrant Holdfast. Another thought, this one from Jung's Aion:

Since real moral problems all begin where the penal code leaves off, their solution can seldom or never depend on precedent, much less on precepts and commandments. The real moral problems spring from conflicts of duty.

I sense that people who crave worldly power often are unaware that if they achieve this, extraordinary demands will put on them: not just demands of effort, but demands on their conscience and ethics. As a leader or power figure, your personal growth--or failure thereat--is enacted in a vast arena, in public view.

John Perkins's book goes a step beyond this, describing powerful figures who are actually acting more or less in bad faith. In this case, it is not so much a conflict of interest as the actions of wolves in sheep's clothing. When subversion of democratic institutions happens at the highest levels, we truly have a problem. A deep, deep problem.

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