Kerry's Saudi Gambit

John Kerry skipped over 30 years of his political career in his acceptance speech Thursday night. He also skipped over Iran, and Syria, Israel and the Palestinians.  He skipped over Iraq, except to briefly complain that we (and presumably he) were misled by George Bush, and that we need to get more help from our 'allies.' But Kerry devoted a few full—throated minutes to taking on Saudi Arabia, the new epicenter of evil for the candidate, and the Michael Moore wing of the Democratic Party. For this theme, he received a thunderous response from the delegates.

This is not accidental. Saudi Arabia makes a very juicy target. The Saudis have spread their oil wealth around in very destructive fashion —— some princes and charities have directly supported al Qaeda, Hamas, and other terrorist groups, and the Wahhabists have been given the financing to promote their extremist brand of Islam in madrassas and mosques around the world.  This has guaranteed that future generations of Jihadist warriors will be ready to kill for Allah. Michael Moore's latest propaganda piece, Fahrenheit 9/11, points to Saudi Arabia as the real villain in 9/11, and suggests that the  Saudis have bought the Bush family and control the current administration.  Moore's obnoxious voice over says that George Bush wakes up every morning asking what he can do today for Saudi Arabia.

Kerry is, as with all things, a bit more oblique in his criticism. Kerry in his speech tried to tie the environmental cause to his Saudi bashing. Why not allow American ingenuity to find alternatives to Saudi oil, he asked? Ingenuity always helps, of course. But so might the ANWR oil fields, which Kerry wants to protect for the Caribou, and nuclear power, which Kerry has always opposed, and West Virginia's coal mining industry, which Kerry and the environmentalists have restricted.  ANWR, nuclear power, and West Virginia coal are likely to create a lot more substitution for Saudi oil than windmills in the next few years.

But beyond the required thirty second stroking of the environmentalists in the audience, Kerry was giving notice that this campaign has a major target. In the very close election of 1960, Kerry's hero, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, burnished his anti—Communist credentials by moving to the right of Vice President Nixon on the issue of defending two islands off the coast of China that were then controlled by Taiwan, and threatened by China: Quemoy and Matsu. This was a sign of the Democrats' muscularity. Today, bashing Saudi Arabia does the trick.  Kerry, taking advantage of the ground laid by Michael Moore, whose movie has now been seen by 12 million people, jumped in to prove his toughness with Saudi Arabia, and thereby burnish his credentials in the war on terror.

The Kerry campaign will largely avoid the question of how they would deal with Iraq if elected, since they obviously have no answer.  The Iraq subject is also embarrassing for the Senator because of his flip flop on the vote to provide $87 billion in financial support for our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for rebuilding efforts in both countries.  The Democrats have also shortsightedly belittled our allies who have sent their soldiers to Iraq and suffered casualties, Britain, Australia, Poland, and Italy among them. Presumably, if France had signed on, Kerry seems to suggest, the post war effort would have gone swimmingly.

Catering to the French or the United Nations will not be a popular theme for Kerry. Most Americans are not Francophiles or fans of the UN at the moment. But they hate the Saudis more. Public opinion polls show that over 75% of Americans have unfavorable views of the Saudis. This is the case despite a very expensive (and clearly failed) public relations effort by the Saudis since 9/11.

So the Kerry campaign against Saudi Arabia is politically astute. In a sense, it has set a trap for the President. If Bush appears to defend Saudi Arabia, that will not win him any allies or swing voters.  But joining in the Saudi bashing will be seen as coming late to the party and at best insincere, not to mention un—Presidential.  An argument can be made that President Bush has in fact distanced this Administration from Saudi influence more decisively than any administration before him.  The Saudis did not support the attack on Iraq, and are unhappy with new tighter visa restrictions for travel to the US, and with US pressure to cut off Saudi funding of known terror groups, including those masquerading as charities. But laying out the facts on this will not compete successfully with the innuendo and charges from Michael Moore and the Democrats. In the meantime, the un—rebutted claims about Bush helping spring the Bin Laden family out of the country after 9/11, and living large off of the Saudis' largesse, continue to spread like a cancer through the body politic.

One of the interesting aspects of this campaign so far, has been the utter failure of campaign finance reform to either limit the money by big spenders in the campaigns, or make the campaigns more affordable. Campaigns will never be more affordable so long as the media/special interest/political consultant troika benefits from greater spending. But the biggest failure of the legislation is the contempt with which erstwhile and former supporters of campaign finance reform from years back (think Harold Ickes) are now using the 'exceptions' allowed by McCain Feingold to drive a huge money truck though the loopholes. The new 527 groups are not allowed to coordinate their campaigns with those of the candidates or the parties. But it is apparent they are doing so anyway.

Senator Kerry just received his $75 million check for the general election campaign from the federal government. He can no longer use funds from his own campaign and has turned over the remaining monies in his war chest to the DNC.  Since Bush will have one less month to spend his $75 general election campaign money, due to the later date for the Republican convention, he will likely have more dollars to spend per week in September and October than Kerry.  In August, Bush can continue to spend his own campaign's money. The Kerry campaign has responded by deciding to go dark with its advertising in August, and save its federal money for September and October. But not to worry, Democrats:, America Coming Together, and the Media Fund have announced that they will take up the slack to insure that there is an anti—Bush response to the ad spending in August by the Bush campaign before the GOP convention. Remember the rules state that the support groups (the 527s) can not coordinate with the nominee's or the Party's campaign effort.  But just as these groups have spent tens of millions advertising in the same battleground states as the Kerry campaign since March, they will now trash Bush in some new ads and match or exceed the President's spending in August.

And then there is the coordination with Michael Moore. Moore, says he is not supporting a candidate (he has been accused of violating the new campaign finance laws by the advertising for his movie), and only wants Bush gone. But his movie themes are the themes of the anti—war left, and these are now the core beliefs of the Democratic Party.  This angry force was the dominant group in attendance at the Convention, whatever soft—serve pablum about military strength might have been served up for the national TV audience. The delegates held their hands (and noses) when orators talked about increasing the size of, or the spending for the armed forces, but went berserk for any attacks on Bush, Cheney or John Ashcroft. These people, after all, are the real enemies for most Democrats, not al Qaeda, or terrorists, or the Saudis.  The Democrats ran the White House for 8 years from 1993 to 2001, and al Qaeda flourished during this period.  The Clinton counter to a series of terrorist attacks against American interests and Americans abroad was a one—shot cruise missile strike at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, and another at an empty camp in Afghanistan.

The Moore movie is a $100 million—plus gift to the Democrats. It has planted the seeds for future ads, and campaign themes. The most significant theme is the vilification of the Saudis and their link to Bush. This card will be played by the Kerry campaign to try to stop the steady leak of pro—Israel voters to the Bush side.  It will be used to demonstrate a clear—eyed toughness that puts America first in the eyes of voters looking for somebody strong to protect the country.

There is no reason to go easy on the Saudis, whatever effort they occasionally make to constrain oil prices.  But rest assured that you will not hear John Kerry asking for national sacrifice —— say a dollar—a—gallon gasoline tax to help close the national deficit, and limit oil consumption. The Kerry campaign has provided scant evidence so far that it is a serious campaign with new ideas.  There is little evidence that Kerry actually considered any issue in depth during his many years in the Senate, nor has he formulated any coherent strategies for the challenges that lie ahead.

You don't have to believe Michael Moore's lies to want the country to be more energy—independent, and to distance itself more from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But what is really at play here is a campaign tactic and not a grand strategy for energy independence. By bashing the Saudis, Kerry can show his bona fides in the war on terror. By making the Saudis the villains, Kerry can build on Michael Moore's smirking treatment of the supposedly nefarious connections of the Bush family and the Carlyle Group to the Saudi Royal family. And it allows Kerry to change the subject. He can argue that Iraq was a distraction in the war on terror, and that we are missing the real enemy. And and the other 527 support groups can hammer the point home in their ads that the real enemy, Saudi Arabia, has too much influence with the Administration.  Kerry won't say this directly, of course. Kerry has no ability to say anything directly. But it is a message that will be transmitted in any number of ways from now until Election Day. It will not be easy for the Bush team to counter this. And that is precisely why it is coming to a 30 second spot near you.