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Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Make of this what you will:

- Osama Bin Laden's huge, estranged family have a ten-million-dollar stake in the Fremont Group.
- The Fremont Group was formerly called "Bechtel Investments" and was owned by Betchel. It currently "enjoys a close relationship with Bechtel."
- Betchel was awarded the first major contract to rebuild Iraq without any outside bids being received.
- Betchel has about a billion ties to the administration.

The writer wants to make a point about Osama bin Laden, and I think it's a tenuous connection at best. Bin Laden's family is huge (he has 53 siblings) and has reasonably convincingly disowned him, for his opposition to the House of Saud if nothing else. Here's a great rundown of his family and its place in the mideast. Basically, the bin Ladins love the Saudis, and they own the biggest construction business in the region. So the article mostly fails on the terms it sets out for itself--to discredit the Betchel contract by pointing out the hypocracy of doing something that we were trying to prove Saddam was doing--because if we had made the claim, it would be invalid since having the same name doesn't mean they profit the same, and anyway we weren't likely to have made it because we didn't want to piss off the Sauds.

And there's the real problem: our continuing entanglement with Saudi Arabia. There are many things worrying about Betchel, but at least they're ostensibly providing humanitarian relief. The Sauds are just evil, and worse, our highly buddy-buddy partnership with them is a big source of our Islamist woes and possibly the major practical obstacle to democracy in the mideast. Sure, we've pulled our troops out of Saudia Arabia, but as Tim Cavanaugh points out in an excellent Reason article, it hardly makes a difference beyond empty symbolism.

It's interesting to me that the left seems far more concerned with stuff like Betchel, which while bad is ultimately only about a corporation friendly with the Vice President getting money instead of one not friendly with the Vice President getting money since I don't think anyone's honestly suggesting that we started the war so we could pay Betchel to clean up our mess, instead of the massive human rights violations going on under the auspices of a US-backed regime. Which is not to say that the left ignores it, but it seems clear that Betchel's getting a lot more attention. Is it because we feel we can do more about Betchel than about Saudi Arabia? (Certainly true, as the Saud situation is a very tricky one.) Is it because we're just concerned about corruption in our political offices? Is it because we want to score points against Bush? Or do we just hate the administration and this blindness is leading us to pursue less-relevant issues?

I do think our involvement with Saudi Arabia is one of the great evils of U.S. foreign policy (Betchel should be more shamed by that connection than they should be by the Rumsfeld one) and I would like to see a concerted campaign to get us out. But it is one that must be waged with much delicacy at first, given both the cross-spectrum support at the federal level for the House of Saud that's not likely to be eroded anytime soon, and the fact that the fall of the monarchy would likely result in a Iran-esque hardline Islamist government, which is not likely to be a lot better on the human rights front than the royal family, and this need for delicacy leads me to kind of hope the left doesn't pick up on it, given its recent record on delicacy. It would ideally build, in opposition to the major PR push by the Saudis, a moral force against the monarchy that would either allow government officials to pressure it to correct its human rights issues, hopefully by using the lessons we gain from nation-building in Iraq, or for the US to gain some capital by distancing itself from the government should it fall to a popular revolution, to the degree that it would be able to engage with the new Islamist rulers. If we are concerned with the mideast--and we should be--this is just as important as Israel, I think.