Jul 19, 2022

Biden meets Bin Salman.

Biden meets Bin Salman.

Plus, a question about "moderates" and "centrists."

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Mohammed Bin Salman and President Biden meet. Plus, a question about "centrists" and "moderates."

Image: Saudi Press Agency
Image: Saudi Press Agency 

Quick hits.

  1. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that would provide federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriage, with Democrats saying the legislation is needed after the recent Supreme Court ruling ending abortion rights. (The vote)
  2. Dr. Anthony Fauci said he plans to retire by the end of President Biden's term. He did not give a specific date. (The retirement)
  3. The U.S. average price per gallon of gasoline fell below $4.50, down from a high of $5.02 on June 14. (The prices)
  4. More than 1,000 people have died in Spain and Portugal amid a heat wave, and the United Kingdom recorded its highest-ever temperature today at 104.4 degrees Fahrenheit. (The heat)
  5. Staffers at eight U.S. House offices have filed for the right to unionize. (The push)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

President Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia. We previewed the trip at the end of June, but now that Biden is back on U.S. soil, we figured we’d review what went down.

Reminder: President Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia to help broker new relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, to push the Crown Prince to ramp up oil production, and to take steps toward ending the war in Yemen. Biden's visit was particularly controversial because Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS, was found responsible by U.S. intelligence for the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

More generally, Saudi Arabia, while instituting some modern reforms under MBS, has long struggled with human rights issues. On the campaign trail, Biden had promised to make MBS a "pariah."

During the visit, Biden greeted MBS with a fist bump (rather than handshake). Saudi government officials immediately posted photos of the president greeting MBS on social media, attempting to use the visit as an opportunity to rehabilitate MBS's image on the global stage. Biden told reporters that he confronted MBS about the murder of Khashoggi privately and that MBS denied culpability.

Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, denied this account. Al-Jubeir says he did not hear Biden tell MBS he was responsible for the killing, but the two did have a brief exchange about human rights. He also denied MBS's involvement, and tried to turn the criticism around on American reporters.

“Did George Bush direct people to torture at Abu Ghraib?” al-Jubeir asked reporters, a reference to prisoner abuse during the Iraq War, according to The New York Times. “No, he did not.” He also said the CIA's report was "just an assessment" and that past assessments, like Iraq having nuclear weapons, "were wrong."

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancé, tweeted what she believed Khashoggi would have said about the meeting:

From the White House's perspective, the meeting had several tangible benefits they were quick to point to after Biden concluded his trip. While Biden did not get any public promises on oil production, he did hint at further action at the next OPEC meeting in early August. That would be good news for the administration, as gas prices are already steadily falling and such relief could help Biden politically and bring down the cost of shipping, airfare and more.

"Based on our discussions today, I expect we'll see further steps in the coming weeks," Biden said after Friday meetings with Saudi leadership.

The White House also released a list of accords that it negotiated, including opening Saudi airspace to Israeli commercial flights for the first time, extending a 15-week ceasefire in the eight-year war in Yemen, and the construction of a 5G telecommunications network. It also announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Tiran Island, which sits in the strategic area between the Red Sea and the gulf of Aqaba (Israel's only access to the gulf). The islands will be taken back over by Saudi Arabia as part of a deal to allow Israel freedom to navigate the area. The American troop withdrawal is the first step toward normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Biden also announced new Saudi investments in renewables like solar and nuclear energy in an effort for them to meet their climate change goals, though those are long-term efforts currently overshadowed by a push to produce more oil and drive down gas prices.

More broadly, the administration hopes the trip will assure allies that the U.S. will not stand back as Russia and China fill a vacuum in the Middle East, and wants to maintain strong ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Gulf states in an effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and increasing its power in the region. Biden repeatedly promised to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon on the trip, reemphasizing his belief diplomacy was the best way to achieve that.

Below, we're going to examine some reactions to the trip from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is mostly critical of the visit, arguing that Biden got very little in exchange for elevating MBS.
  • Some say Biden is selling out for oil after hampering U.S. domestic production.
  • Others argue Biden made the right decision to go, even if it feels wrong.

In The Wall Street Journal, Karen Elliott House said the visit was "worse than an embarrassment."

“The president’s 24 hours in Jeddah were dominated by photos of his fist bump with the de facto leader of a kingdom Mr. Biden had labeled a pariah. Things went downhill from there," House said. "Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud contradicted Mr. Biden’s claims of enhancing Saudi-Israel relations, and reiterated that any increased oil production won’t be a Saudi decision but one by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus, which includes Russia. That’s a not-so-subtle way of saying Saudi will maintain its warming relations with Vladimir Putin regardless of what the U.S. thinks. In short, the president walked away with no progress—not only on oil, but on peace in Yemen, confronting Iran and everything else.

“That failure was compounded by the risible way the White House handled the visit. The White House staffer who thought a banal buddy-to-buddy fist bump was preferable to a customary formal handshake should be fired," House said. “It’s easy to blame the press for emphasizing these embarrassments, and Mr. Biden did. But without any substance to report, it’s hardly surprising that reporters focused on the spectacle of Mr. Biden squirming uncomfortably in the bed he had made with his earlier bravado about punishing Crown Prince Mohammed. And the president couldn’t have expected them to be fooled by White House efforts to tout as breakthroughs incremental changes in Saudi-Israeli overflight arrangements or a long-agreed transfer of two tiny islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia with Israel’s blessings.”

In The Federalist, Tristan Justice said Biden was there to "beg" the Saudis for oil after shutting down U.S. production.

“From his first day in office, Biden has followed through on his signature campaign pledge to ‘end fossil fuels.’ Within six months of his inauguration, Biden shut down the Keystone XL Pipeline, killed plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and canceled oil and gas projects nationwide with an illegal suspension of new leases on federal lands,” Justice wrote. “Even though the administration has resumed the oil and gas program under the Department of the Interior, the suspension lasted 18 months. Its return featured an 80 percent drop in available acreage and a 50 percent spike in royalty fees, all while White House officials promised to resist new leases... As the administration placed blame for rapidly rising oil prices on the Russia-Ukraine war in May, the Interior Department canceled even more drilling projects from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The persistent animosity toward U.S. oil and gas producers has been enough to chill Wall Street investment in the capital- and labor-intensive industry,” Justice added. “The suppression of output due to this lack of capital now has Biden begging overseas nations to save the global economy from the entirely self-inflicted crisis of an energy-induced recession. Unsustainably high energy prices are fueling a new era of inflation that’s rising at a 40-year high and growing worse, according to new numbers out from the Department of Labor on Wednesday... A visit with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia has become an option of last resort for a president desperate to bring down energy prices ahead of the fall midterms. The November elections are already expected to favor Republicans in a cycle that’s historically hostile to the party in the White House, especially in an environment where the president has a 39 percent approval rating.”

In NBC News, Daniel DePetris said Biden's visit was the right thing to do, even if it feels wrong.

“Despite Biden’s ‘pariah’ comment, it was highly unlikely the president was ever going to treat Saudi Arabia like a Middle East version of North Korea,” DePetris wrote. “This is a country, after all, that is the world’s largest crude oil exporter and the powerhouse of the OPEC petroleum cartel, which controls nearly 40 percent of the globe’s oil supply. Energy isn’t the only asset that makes it financially important, however. Saudi Arabia already has a $833 billion gross domestic product and is seeking to transition its economy into a new commercial center in the region. The kingdom has the potential to be a burgeoning market for U.S. companies on the prowl for new investments.

“It holds significance for the U.S. on the security front, as well. Due in part to attacks in the kingdom, the Saudis are treating terrorism as a serious problem (although their efforts to crack down on fundraising for extremist causes leaves much to be desired). And Saudi Arabia increasingly cooperates with Israel, a key U.S. partner in the Middle East, slowly but surely normalizing the relationship,” DePetris said. “Not to mention that about 70,000 Americans live or work in Saudi Arabia at any given time. Against this backdrop, the current geopolitical moment also requires cooperation... Unfortunately for Biden, the Saudis won’t stabilize the oil market out of the goodness of their hearts.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is mostly critical of the visit, with a focus on human rights.
  • Many argue that Biden has abandoned those oppressed or killed by Saudi Arabia's actions.
  • Some say Biden had little choice but to try to rekindle relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Washington Post's publisher Fred Ryan harshly criticized Biden for the visit.

“When, seeking votes, Biden vowed to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a ‘pariah’ for his role in murdering Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the world had every reason to think he meant it,” Ryan wrote. “So why is President Biden now going to Jiddah on bended knee to shake the ‘pariah’s’ bloodstained hand? Once again, he is seeking votes. The president has justified his trip as a necessary move to promote stability in the Middle East and to deter Russian and Chinese aggression. But the president should know meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is known, will give the Saudi leader exactly what three years of Saudi PR campaigns, lobbying expenses, and even a new golf league have not: a return to respectability.

“This undeserved absolution will, in turn, only undermine the foreign-policy goals Biden hopes to achieve. First, Biden’s meeting will signal that American values are negotiable,” Ryan said. “The trip sends the message that the United States is willing to look the other way when its commercial interests are at stake... Biden’s meeting also sends a dangerous message about the value the United States attaches to a free press. A grip-and-grin photograph with MBS signals to autocrats everywhere that you can quite literally get away with murdering a journalist as long as you possess a natural resource the United States wants badly enough... even though Jamal was killed more than three years ago, right now, every day, the Saudi people are subjected to grotesque repression. Political prisoners, dissidents, independent journalists and others are jailed and tortured at MBS’s direction. Women are second-class citizens, and LGBTQ and minority rights do not exist.”

The New York Times editorial board wrote about what Biden got right.

“Joe Biden campaigned and won as the antithesis to Donald Trump. To deliver on that promise in foreign policy, in his first year as president, he tried to offer ‘something for everyone,’ as Anne-Marie Slaughter has argued: tough talk on China for the realists; a recommitment to NATO, to the Paris Agreement on climate, and to the World Health Organization for the liberal internationalists; an end to the forever wars; and, for the idealists, a willingness to speak up for human rights,” the board wrote. “The last item on this long list, his attempt to return to a values-based foreign policy after the often incoherent and destructive “America First” presidency of Mr. Trump, has proved to be the toughest for Mr. Biden to get right.

“On Friday, Mr. Biden met with the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose kingdom Mr. Biden, as a candidate, suggested should be a ‘pariah’ over the horrific murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018,” it added. “Mr. Biden’s administration last year released an intelligence report that laid the killing at the feet of the crown prince. Now, Mr. Biden, with this visit, is trying to reset relations with the kingdom to shore up the alliance against Russia and, more important, to pump more oil... America’s greatest strength in the world has always been its combination of high ideals and a readiness to engage with almost anyone when it served to advance peace and American national interests. This doesn’t mean the kind of amoral pandering to dictators practiced by Mr. Trump. Rather, it means building on areas of agreement, however small, that can be used to move toward a more peaceful, free and open world.”

In MSNBC, Zeeshan Aleem said if Biden cared about bullies, he wouldn't warm up to Saudi Arabia.

“Biden’s reversal helps clarify what actually drives his foreign policy: American geopolitical interests,” Aleem wrote. “While he has deployed rhetoric of standing up to tyrants in his approach to Russia-Ukraine and his decision to bar Cuba and Venezuela from the Summit of the Americas, that bravado becomes a whimper when it comes to Saudi Arabia, a country that’s ruthlessly authoritarian and a regional bully. Setting aside the recent truce, Saudi Arabia has been waging a merciless war against Yemen and helping generate the largest humanitarian crisis in the world for years. The country has legally codified the brutal oppression of women, and severely punishes political dissent and exploits migrant workers in a manner that some human rights observers say resembles slavery. Khashoggi’s execution, while horrific, was just a drop in the bucket of Saudi Arabia's mistreatment of its own citizens and neighbors.

“Biden is able to find this tolerable because the narrative that U.S. foreign policy is based on a consistent application of moral principles is a lie,” Aleem said. “Resetting ties with Saudi Arabia makes sense for the Biden administration because the country is a vital security and energy partner for the U.S. It's really that simple. And it's a reminder that the main reason the U.S. is aiding Ukraine with such great intensity isn’t due to an unwavering commitment to fighting bullies, but because Russia is an adversary whose resource depletion and geopolitical decline serves U.S. interests... The Biden administration can defend itself by arguing that all countries must be practical in their pursuit of their interests, and that sometimes that means doing business with unsavory nations. Fair enough. But then it should drop the act of disguising its self-interest in the language of high principle when it comes to its diplomacy elsewhere in the world.”

My take.

Energy really is power.

I don't think there is any relationship that illustrates this more starkly than the one between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Whether it's the kingdom's ties to the 9/11 attacks, the repressive world it has created for many of its citizens, or its backing of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time in Yemen, Saudi Arabia seems to be made of teflon when it comes to its U.S. ties.

The cynical part of me has no qualms stating that plainly. Is Saudi Arabia "worse" than China or Russia, through the Western lens? Maybe not. Maybe so. But the biggest difference in our posture has nothing to do with slaves in Xinjiang or the war in Ukraine — it has to do with our own national interests. That is not to say this is the wrong way to conduct foreign policy (should anything be more important than our own national interests?), it's just an admission that it is our foreign policy.

Still, while I've criticized Biden's performance domestically a lot, and I was deeply saddened watching the ineptitude of the Afghanistan withdrawal, I think he is the best of our last few presidents when it comes to foreign policy. As Anne-Marie Slaughter put it, there has been a little something for everyone: Donald Trump's "America First" posture on production in certain sectors, commitments to our most staunch allies, withdrawals from wars overseas and — at least — a mouthpiece for human rights issues. It's a mixed bag, in a good way. Even though he isn't always projecting strength, I frankly prefer a president who goes to diplomacy first and leans into his own citizens’ interests.

Of course when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the results are all that matters. If this standoff with the Saudis, the war in Russia, and competition with China have taught us anything, it’s that our top priority on the global stage needs to be energy independence. For now, though, our options are limited.

When MBS came to power he was supposed to usher in a new modern era, and even I wrote glowingly about the possibilities. The regime he has led, however, hasn't come close to living up to the hype. But so far Biden has one critical and tangible win: A cease-fire in Yemen. The war there between Yemen's internationally recognized government (backed by Saudi Arabia) and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels has displaced more than four million people, induced famine, caused cholera outbreaks, and helped lead to the deaths of some 370,000 people according to a UN estimate (directly through war or from a lack of food, water, or health services).

That we are 15 weeks into a ceasefire is an encouraging sign, and the Biden administration seems (rightly) laser-focused on helping facilitate a more lasting solution, alongside the United Nations. This is an unambiguously good thing.

If something comes of the oil talks, that would be a major feat for the president, and could further relieve prices that are already on a month-long plunge. The withdrawal of troops from the strategically important Tiran Island was the first concrete step in the Kingdom normalizing relations with Israel, which is a great thing for stability in the region, for Israel and for Saudi Arabia. But it's a baby step. Again: Time will tell on how this goes.

As a reporter, of course, there is no part of me that is comfortable watching Biden with a man we are almost certain (but not quite) directed the killing of a well-known writer critical of his regime. Khashoggi was a complicated person, whose writing and closeness to Saudi political groups made him a bit different than how we imagine reporters here. He was a tremendously insightful writer and a fierce, honest critic, and his murder is a travesty. In a crude way, one could argue even his singular life is not worth walking away from the table — a decision that could impact millions. But one could also argue that his death is part of a pattern of abuses that should exclude Saudi Arabia from the U.S. sphere of influence. There is no easy answer there, but Biden seems determined to get what he can out of the Kingdom.

Hopefully he gets some results. But for now, we’re just operating on signals.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You don't have to agree — just reply to this email and write in. If you're a paid subscriber, you can leave a comment.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I’m a teacher and am noticing that my students identify center positions or news sources that get rated “center” as neutral and unbiased (or only slightly biased left or right). Do you think the center has its own leanings on political issues that distinguish it clearly from the left and right and that isn’t simply a neutral reporting on the facts? Is it just moderate views on all issues or something more nuanced? If so, would you ever consider publishing left, right, and center summaries before your take?

— Marcella, Woodridge, Illinois

Tangle: This is a great question. First, I do think there is a difference between "center" and "moderate." A moderate, to me, is someone who has clearly identifiable partisan views but (if they are a Democrat) rejects even some mainstream Democrats to their left or (if they are a Republican) rejects some mainstream Republicans to their right. Mitt Romney is a moderate, but he is very clearly a Republican and a conservative.

I think I've written this before in Tangle, but I view "centrism" as an ideology of its own — and not a particularly good one. I generally believe there are good ideas and solutions across the political spectrum, but I also think those solutions aren't always whatever is right in the middle of a debate between two sides. The old joke goes like this: "Democrats want to build a bridge across a river, Republicans say it costs too much, the centrist says let's build it halfway." That's a good illustration of why centrism isn't always a good answer.

That being said, in Tangle, I do try to include "centrist" and "moderate" takes in every newsletter. Generally speaking, we include three opinions from each side. I usually try to make those opinions center-right/left, mainstream-right/left, and far-right/left. If you look at today's newsletter, for instance, you'll find two fairly centrist or moderate views (one from Daniel DePetris on the right and one from The New York Times editorial board on the left), two fairly mainstream right/left perspectives (from Fred Ryan on the left and Karen Elliott House on the right), and two fairly strong partisan perspectives (MSNBC's Zeeshan Aleem strongly criticizing U.S. hypocrisy and The Federalist's Tristan Justice excoriating Biden).

I try to include roughly that range of opinions in every newsletter. So even though the "center" isn't labeled clearly, I certainly try to include perspectives close to the center. At the same time, I want to represent progressive and MAGA voices in each newsletter, too, and I want most of my readers to see something that could roughly represent their stance.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

Just two years after a police reform movement swept the nation, Democrats in swing states are now trying to spotlight law enforcement and boost their own credibility in fighting crime. Party strategists fear a perception among voters that Democrats don't recognize the problem of violent crime and don't respect police. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams is running ads narrated by a deputy sheriff saying Gov. Brian Kemp makes Georgians less safe. In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan accused his opponent of attacking law enforcement while standing alongside a sheriff. In Florida, Rep. Val Demings is leaning heavily on her experience as police chief in Orlando. Axios has the story on how Democrats are changing their tone on policing.


  • $4.49. The average price of a gallon of gasoline.
  • $4.65. The average price of a gallon of gasoline a week ago.
  • $3.17. The average price of a gallon of gasoline a year ago.
  • 3,000. The estimated number of political prisoners currently incarcerated in Saudi Arabia.
  • 62 million. The number of tourists who visited Saudi Arabia in 2020.
  • 40,000. The estimated number of Americans living in Saudi Arabia.

Have a nice day.

A 25-year-old pizza delivery driver is being hailed as a hero after saving five children from a burning house in Indiana. Nicholas Bostic was driving by the house when he noticed flames inside and ran in the back door of the house. His shouting woke five kids, aged 1 to 18, who were sleeping upstairs before he helped them outside. When the kids told him the 6-year-old was still inside, Bostic ran back in, made it to the upstairs bathroom, and had to jump out a second-floor window with the girl in his arms as the house became totally engulfed in flames. Indiana Police released a body cam video of Bostic tumbling into the street with the girl in his arms. He suffered severe smoke inhalation, burns and a cut, but is recovering in the hospital — and all six children are okay. People Magazine has the amazing story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.