Big Words and Big Oil Don’t Mix

Nicholas Confessore is an editor of the Washington Monthly.

President Bush delivered a major address a few weeks ago about the American duty to promote liberty in the Middle East and to create conditions in which new democracies could flourish.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” Bush said, “because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

The speech was provocative, not least because of what it said about our long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia. Bush not only included Saudi Arabia as one of those countries that needed more reform, but in doing so he was also implicitly criticizing his own father for being too friendly with the repressive Saudi regime in exchange for military basing rights and a secure supply of cheap crude.


Conservatives and liberals alike hoped that Bush might now be taking the more enlightened view that U.S. power had purposes beyond merely guaranteeing stability -- and that his speech might signal a new, well-warranted toughness toward the Saudis’ ruling oligarchy. But Bush’s recent nomination of James Oberwetter as ambassador to Saudi Arabia suggests that those hopes may have been misplaced.

Oberwetter is a long-serving executive at Dallas-based Hunt Consolidated Inc., an energy conglomerate that owns Hunt Oil Co. In many respects, he is a natural choice for his new job. The Saudi potentates usually don’t care what the American ambassador has on his resume, so long as the person has close ties to the president. And Oberwetter, who is active in Texas GOP circles, is not only friends with Bush but was a press secretary to his father when he was a member of Congress. Given Bush’s closeness with Texas energy interests and his top aides’ distrust of the State Department, it’s no surprise that he’d rather have an oil executive in Riyadh than a career Foreign Service officer.

Finally, Oberwetter also happens to be a lobbyist, which is in keeping with the Republican Party’s general shift toward entrusting federal policymaking to lobbyists for business interests with which the party is closely allied. If you’re going to ask energy lobbyists to craft federal natural resources policy -- as the Bush administration’s energy task force did -- why not let them handle foreign policy too?

All these qualities make Oberwetter a conventional choice -- unless you took seriously Bush’s speech. American ambassador-nominees are scrutinized by the host nation as a proxy for what kind of relationship the U.S. wishes to have with them. Oberwetter’s nomination tells the Saudis that it’s preservation of the status quo.

Oberwetter did, of course, make all the right noises during his confirmation hearing last week, remarking on the importance of “moving forward for more public participation in [Saudi] processes” -- that is, elections -- and discussing “opportunities for freedom of religion.” But he has no national security expertise, which is unfortunate given that the Saudis’ penchant for funding anti-American terrorists is among the issues on the next ambassador’s agenda. Nor does Oberwetter have any history as a vigorous advocate of democratic change in the Middle East.

He has spent nearly three decades in a business that prizes the stability provided by the likes of the Saudis. Indeed, in his capacity as a government affairs official -- the guy charged with navigating his firm through the treacherous waters of Middle East politics -- Oberwetter’s mission has in a sense been to avoid ruffling feathers.

A single personnel move does not a foreign policy make. But if Oberwetter’s impending arrival in Riyadh is of any significance, it’s the wrong kind. Bush might have chosen, say, a former Republican member of Congress with demonstrated passion for democracy-building, like Bob Dole, who bucked many in his party by supporting Bill Clinton’s war in Kosovo. Or one of the many pro-democracy neoconservatives on whose advice Bush took a tough public stance in favor of Middle East reform.

Instead, he picked an oil lobbyist. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, President Bush’s actions speak louder than his words.