The New Republic magazine is coming under attack for co-sponsoring a recent forum with Saudi Arabia and allegedly agreeing to the kingdom’s demand that it withdraw its invitation to a leading critic of Riyadh.
Author Stephen Schwartz told the Forward that he was removed from the panel at the behest of Saudi Arabia, which co-sponsored the October 2 panel discussion on the kingdom’s political future and has advertised in the magazine.
“I was deeply shocked,” said Schwartz, a convert to Islam and author of “The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’Ud from Tradition to Terror” (Doubleday), in which he accuses the Saudi government of being the principal backer of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and funding the spread of the puritanical form of Islam known as Wahhabism.
“My book says that this evil alliance of the cult of Wahhabism and the House of Saud has had a devastating effect on Islam,” said Schwartz, a former Washington bureau chief for the Forward and currently director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “I’m the person that has caused them the most trouble. It is because of who I am.”
Moderated by The New Republic’s foreign editor, Lawrence Kaplan, the panel discussion included four scholars representing a range of views, including Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a critic of the Saudi regime, and Chas Freeman, a former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia and defender of the kingdom. Though the Saudi government’s co-sponsorship is not mentioned on the magazine’s online publicity section for its events, several participants told the Forward that it was mentioned at the recent panel.
“The fact is The New Republic, as most of its readers understand, can’t stand the Saudis, and I think the problem comes when money demonstrably affects arguments, and in this case I don’t think anyone suspects it would,” said Kaplan, himself a critic of the Saudi regime. “This was a case of the magazine co-sponsoring the debate with some one who was on the other side of the debate and I see nothing inherently unethical about that, as long as [the magazine] hews to the editorial line.”
Kaplan confirmed that he suggested to the magazine’s business operations that two experts be included in the panel — Clawson and Schwartz — and that an invitation was extended to Schwartz. Kaplan and The New Republic’s editor, Peter Beinart, who helped arrange the panel, said they were unaware whether the Saudi government had rescinded Schwartz’s invitation.
“What they [the business side] told me was that for reasons of space they could not take both but I felt we still had a balanced panel because I was a panelist myself and so was Patrick [Clawson],” Kaplan said.
The New Republic’s president and publisher, Stephanie Sandberg, did confirm that the Saudi government was granted some oversight in the formation of the panel. “What we want to do is have a panel which is acceptable to both sides,” Sandberg said. She said that such understandings were a “typical” part of promotional arrangements in which sponsors commit to a minimum advertising campaign in exchange for the opportunity to present their views. In this instance, the Saudis took out 12 advertisement pages, allotting them three panel discussions, Sandberg said.
“You want a panel where all points of view are represented,” Sandberg said. “But if someone is going to be offended, you don’t want that.”
For the last two years, The New Republic, which is known for its hawkish foreign policy stances and liberal and centrist positions on domestic issues, has held monthly public policy discussions in conjunction with business sponsors such as United Parcel Service, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the American Gas Association.
Clawson, however, said that providing such a platform to a foreign government — and then not clearly indicating that government’s sponsorship — is disingenuous at best. Though he agreed to participate in the event, Clawson argued that the publication had put itself on shaky ethical grounds.
“It’s inappropriate for a magazine to seek sponsors from interested parties for forums, unless there are rigid procedures put in place to ensure the complete independence of the magazine and what it is doing,” Clawson said in an interview with the Forward. “It’s particularly inappropriate to seek financing from foreign governments for these purposes.”
Beinart, however, said that the bottom-line question is whether outside sponsorship has influenced the editorial stands of the magazine. “The New Republic’s positions on Saudi Arabia are crystal clear and will remain so,” Beinart said. “Anyone who thinks we will become an apologist for the Saudi government is just dreaming.”
Schwartz countered that such arguments miss the point. “If the Saudis had input on this, the Saudis would no more want me on a panel like that than they would want the decapitated princess of 30 years ago to come back to life,” said Schwartz, referring to a Saudi royal who was beheaded by the regime, allegedly for having an embarrassing high-profile affair. “I’m the person who causes them the most trouble.”