Jun 29, 2022

Biden and Saudi Arabia.

Biden and Saudi Arabia.

Biden promised to make the crown prince a pariah. Now he's headed to Saudi Arabia.

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: 11 minutes.

Biden says he is going to Saudi Arabia. Plus, a question about the future of eastern Europe.

The Saudi crown prince (right) shakes hands with Vladimir Putin. Image: The Kremlin
The Saudi crown prince (right) shakes hands with Vladimir Putin. Image: The Kremlin

Quick hits.

  1. Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testified that Donald Trump knew his supporters were armed on Jan. 6 and did nothing to stop them from attacking the Capitol. Her claims are being challenged by White House attorneys and former staff. (The testimony)
  2. A judge struck down a law allowing noncitizens to vote in local New York City elections. (The ruling)
  3. Turkey lifted its objection to Sweden and Finland joining NATO. (The alliance)
  4. Ghislaine Maxwell, a confidante of Jeffrey Epstein, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sex trafficking-related charges yesterday. Maxwell plans to appeal. (The sentence)
  5. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled a judge had no authority to issue indictments in the Flint Water Scandal, voiding charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder, his health director and seven others. (The charges)

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.

Biden and Saudi Arabia. President Biden says he will travel to the Middle East next month, from July 13-16. He will be visiting Saudi Arabia to meet with Arab leaders, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and will also be traveling to Israel and Palestine. Geopolitical onlookers expect Biden to press the crown prince to increase oil production in a bid to bring down gas prices, though video footage from the G7 summit yesterday captured French President Emmanuel Macron informing Biden the Saudis were already at capacity.

Others have suggested the visit is about a larger plan to expand the Abraham Accords, Trump's signature foreign policy achievement that normalized relationships between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, by bringing Saudi Arabia into the fold.

The trip has raised a debate about Biden's foreign policy and the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is longstanding and complicated. Over the last few decades, the relationship has been strained by oil embargos, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks (19 of the hijackers were Saudis) and most recently the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post reporter. The CIA assessed that bin Salman was directly involved in that killing, which led Biden to harshly criticize him on the campaign trail.

"And I would make it very clear. We were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are," Biden said on the campaign trail. "There's very little social redeeming value of the - in the present government in Saudi Arabia."

Early on in his presidency, Biden seemed committed to that goal. He sent his top Middle East advisor to Saudi Arabia to inform bin Salman that the U.S. would be ending its support for offensive operations in Yemen. Bin Salman responded by agreeing that the killing of Khashoggi never should have happened, but insisting that the reforms he was trying to push in Saudi Arabia — including moderating the country — would take time. He also seemed intent on repairing the damage done to Saudi-U.S. relations.

Now, Biden is planning to visit Saudi Arabia in a bid for more oil production and in hopes of thawing the relationship. That change has started some debate about what should happen next. In a letter to Biden, 13 different human rights groups warned that efforts to repair relations with Saudi Arabia without centering on human rights “are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises, but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Below, we'll be taking a look at some opinions from the left, right, and Saudi Arabia on this issue. Then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right is split on the visit, with some criticizing Biden’s hypocrisy and others seeing it as an opportunity.
  • Some argue Biden is going back on his word, showing weakness.
  • Others say there is a chance to advance U.S. interests in the region.

In National Review, Jim Geraghty criticized Biden's "surrender" to Saudi Arabia.

"Less than three years after he pledged to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state for killing and dismembering Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, President Biden will travel to the kingdom and shake the hand of the man who ordered Khashoggi’s assassination," Geraghty wrote. "It is an embarrassing end to a story of hubris and shortsightedness, reflecting the American appetite for simple solutions to complicated problems. Governing is a lot harder than campaigning, as Biden has been forced to learn over and over again as his presidency continues. It was never particularly realistic for Biden or any other presidential candidate to pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah. Even at the height of the recent boom of U.S. oil production, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were too dependent upon each other and had too many mutual geopolitical interests.

"For starters, even as recently as May 2021, Saudi Arabia was the fourth-largest source of U.S. crude-oil imports, providing an average of 395,000 barrels per day of the 8.5 million barrels per day in gross U.S. crude-oil imports, behind Canada, Mexico, and Russia," he added. "Biden’s pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state would mean ending all these interactions — economic, military, diplomatic, cultural, social, geopolitical. None of this is meant to hand-wave away the significant and serious U.S. concerns about the execution and barbaric dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, or Saudi Arabia’s horrific human-rights record, atrocious antisemitism, and Saudi citizens supporting terrorism and extremist causes. But many decades of intense economic and security ties, along with close diplomatic relations and shared security interests relating to Iran and Islamist terrorism, means that the U.S.–Saudi relationship can’t be turned on and off like a light switch."

In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead said this is an opportunity for Biden.

"On issue after issue, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy stood in clear opposition to Saudi goals. Reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, a move that would inevitably boost Tehran’s regional power by ending its economic isolation, was the centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s regional agenda. The Americans demanded an end to Saudi participation in the war against Iranian proxies in Yemen, threatened to reduce arms sales to Saudi and its allies, and trumpeted American intentions to wreck the fossil-fuel industry, which is the foundation of Saudi wealth," Mead wrote. "But even as the Biden administration boasted of its principled stance against Saudi wrongdoing... team Biden has gradually learned that almost all the key foreign-policy ideas it brought to the White House don’t work.

"Iran wasn’t eager to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Russia wasn’t willing to be sidelined," he said. "The failure of his Iran policy ironically offers Mr. Biden a chance to reset the Saudi relationship. While the administration waited and prayed, Iran steadily accelerated its progress toward a nuclear breakout and refused to re-enter the nuclear deal on terms that even a strongly motivated American president can accept. That leaves Mr. Biden no choice; he must tighten security ties with Israel and the Gulf states against a relentlessly hostile Iran. The Saudis want stronger defense ties as much as the Biden administration needs them. That common security interest can be the basis for a renewed partnership. And by arguing that increased Saudi oil production will help isolate Iran and cut its revenue, Mr. Biden may just be able to persuade MBS to pump some more crude."


What the left is saying.

  • The left is also split on this issue, with some criticizing the visit and others hopeful it advances stability in the Middle East.
  • Some criticize Biden for abandoning human rights interests.
  • Others say Biden is making a necessary calculation.

In MSNBC, Trita Parsi criticized the "terrible deal" Biden was headed toward.

"All the latest headlines about President Joe Biden’s July trip to Saudi Arabia focus on a deal to push down gas prices. In reality, he is making a much more sinister and dangerous calculation than most realize: He is reportedly planning to offer the dictators in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — where all but two of the 9/11 terrorists came from — a defense pact that commits American lives to defend their regimes. What could go right?" Parsi asked. “Rumors have been circulating in Washington for months that Biden is seeking to expand Trump’s signature foreign policy initiative — the Abraham Accords — which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE; Biden wants to bring Saudi Arabia into a similar kind of arrangement with Israel.

"Details are beginning to leak of how he will try to get Saudi Arabia to take critical steps toward recognizing Israel. And the most alarming one is that the United States is offering a major security pact to the autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE," Parsi said. "Committing American lives to defend these Arab dictatorships is far more scandalous than an embarrassing presidential handshake with the Saudi crown prince. Biden will in one swoop break his promises of bringing troops home from the Middle East, making Saudi Arabia pay a price and ending the war in Yemen."

In The Atlantic, Andrew Exum said, "I regret to inform you that Joe Biden is right to go to Saudi Arabia."

"The growing ties between Israel and the Gulf States have created a strong counterweight to malign Iranian influence in the region," Exum said. "Should Israel enjoy closer political, military, and even commercial relations with the Gulf, future American presidents could assume more risk regarding the U.S. commitment to the region. Democrats have a lot to criticize from the Trump years, yet the Abraham Accords shouldn’t be one of those things. But I fear the normalization process won’t go any further without Saudi Arabia on board... In addition, most Democrats now recognize that President Trump stole what should have been progressive applause lines with his inartful yet relentless focus on connecting U.S. foreign policy back to the everyday concerns of Americans—and especially the American working class.

"On everything from jobs to gas prices, Trump happily found bogeymen abroad, and horrified foreign-policy elites by describing what had been long-standing relationships in starkly transactional terms," Exum wrote. "This might sound old-fashioned, but even if you beat up foreign leaders in speeches or tweets intended for domestic consumption, you can still endeavor to negotiate with them on friendlier terms in private. Why, I ask my progressive friends, can we not do that in Saudi Arabia? Why can we have an ambassador to China, or to Russia even, but not Saudi Arabia? Why can the president sit down with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—a man who fervently and loudly asserts that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump—yet not MBS?"


What Saudi Arabia is saying...

  • Some have expressed concern Biden might abandon victims of the Saudi regime.
  • Others are welcoming Biden and hopeful the U.S.-Saudi relationship continues to flourish.

In The Washington Post, Abdullah Alaoudh, the director of research for the gulf region at Democracy for the Arab World Now and general secretary of the National Assembly Party, said Biden must not betray defenders of democracy in Saudi Arabia.

"Rewarding the murderous crown prince with continued U.S. military support, as the administration did in October, and now offering him a photo op represents a stunning about-face — a personal betrayal of MBS’s many victims and a license for dictators everywhere to blackmail the United States," Alaoudh wrote. "My father, Salman, a reformist scholar of Islamic law, has been imprisoned by the Saudi state since 2017 and faces a possible death sentence. His crime? An innocuous call for peace on Twitter as a Saudi-led bloc imposed a blockade on Qatar. A year after he was jailed, the Saudi government brought 37 charges against him, accusing him of inciting the public against the regime. My father has had no opportunity to defend himself in trial, and the prison conditions he is forced to endure — including solitary confinement and denial of medical treatment — violate international human rights standards.

"Given Biden’s repeated denunciations of the regime, and his administration’s promise to center U.S. foreign policy around human rights, seeking a 'reset' of relations with MBS is hypocrisy incarnate," he said. "An administration official recently aimed to deflect criticism by pointing to the fact that Khashoggi was murdered during the Trump administration, and that Biden has already imposed sanctions on Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s murder. But as human rights defenders observed last week during the unveiling of 'Jamal Khashoggi Way' outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Biden has not held MBS directly accountable despite the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that he ordered Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment."

In the Saudi Gazette, Abdulateef Al-Mulhim welcomed Biden to Saudi Arabia.

"The visit will include a summit meeting which will bring together the Saudi King, the US President, the other five Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, the King of Jordan, the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of Iraq," Al-Mulhim wrote. "In other words, the visit is not about oil, but about regional and global challenges at a time when the world is facing one of the most difficult times — from high inflation, economic recession, regional instability, Russian-Ukrainian conflict, South China territorial dispute, increased numbers of refugees, food and energy security to climate change.

"Global challenges are best resolved when influential countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United States head in the same direction, putting all differences aside and working together for the common interest for both countries and the world at large," he wrote. "The United States like in the past can do more to influence the course of issues that disrupt peace and stability in the region. Like putting more pressure on Iran to end its threat to the region through supporting and sponsoring terrorist organizations and stop exporting its ideologies that created chaos in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. The Saudi-American strategic relationship was and still is deep and important. And there should be continuous trust and mutual understanding of each other’s interests and the way of governing without deepening or being hooked up or interfering in the internal affairs of the other."


My take.

It's a really tough pill to swallow.

For other presidents, like Barack Obama or Donald Trump (whose ascent to the White House happened seemingly overnight), such an evolution might be more understandable. But Biden spent eight years in the White House and decades in high-ranking Senate positions that directly involved navigating Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. I doubt there were any surprises when he got to the White House, which begs the question of why he campaigned the way he did if a diplomatic relationship was the inevitable outcome.

Surely, Biden knew the U.S. relied heavily on Saudi Arabia for oil. Surely, Biden knew Iran was unlikely to re-enter the nuclear deal with little fuss. Surely, Biden understood the horrors of what is happening in Yemen. Surely, Biden was well aware of the human rights abuses — those known to the public and those not — committed by the Saudi crown prince and his allies.

So why promise a U.S. foreign policy founded in human rights? Why pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah? Why do so little to actually hold bin Salman accountable for the murder of a journalist? Why pledge to end our involvement in the conflict in Yemen?

These aren't rhetorical questions. The truth is, the U.S. has never seemed capable of making more than one major oil-producing country a global pariah, and right now that country is Russia. The only major difference between now and when Biden entered office is that Russia started a major war and has since been isolated — which has exacerbated the already skyrocketing price of oil and other commodities. While the administration has denied this visit is simply about oil, it’s hard not to be cynical.

We'll find out when Biden visits the Kingdom what his real goals are — and perhaps even witness another evolution in U.S.-Saudi relations. The most likely objective, to me, seems to be a plan to draw Saudi Arabia closer and to stand between it and Russia, China and our other adversaries. Pumping more oil would certainly help Biden domestically, but many experts are skeptical that Saudi Arabia alone could meaningfully drag down prices.

Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi entrepreneur whose siblings are being held hostage in Saudi Arabia, has made the case that salvaging the relationship could be worth it, so long as the U.S. gets Saudi "compliance" on "American interests and values, beginning with raising oil production and committing to accountability for Khashoggi’s gruesome murder."

That's a hopeful and perhaps even naive take on what's possible from this visit. A ceasefire in Yemen has already been extended and OPEC is already planning to increase oil production. It's hard to criticize the Biden administration until we see what comes of the visit. But key to any perceptions of success will be whether Biden can re-center the human rights issues (perhaps by organizing a lasting end to the horrors in Yemen) or somehow defy expectations and push Saudi Arabia to pump even more oil. Either way, it's impossible to avoid the fact that Biden is breaking his word on how he'd handle Saudi Arabia.

For now, it remains unclear what the upside of that backtracking will be — but the cost seems clear. The U.S. is once again reinforcing the idea that it cares about ideals like human rights, peace, and democracy only when it’s convenient — but will too easily brush those things aside when it's not.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: In your opinion, what is the future of eastern Europe? How far does Russia have to go before the western countries actually step in to stop them? Since it has been 75 years since the people of this country have actually had to be personally involved in a war — will we be able to finally stick with something to the end?

— Bruce, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tangle: Honestly, I think it’s tough to characterize the state of eastern Europe right now. On the one hand, there is an open war in Ukraine, one that some military experts believe has the potential to spill across borders. On the other hand, Russia's actions in Ukraine have solidified NATO, and every day we get closer to a world where Finland, Sweden and Ukraine formally join the alliance. That doesn't just shore up the border with Russia, it also adds a lot of military capability to NATO; and given Russia's poor performance to date in Ukraine, it probably limits them from any further military expansion.

I'm not sure where the war in Ukraine is headed — the atrocities continue to pile up, and the momentum seems to be oscillating. However, it doesn’t seem possible that it develops to the point that the American military gets involved. It's clear to me that Ukraine can "win" the war in the sense that it can hold out control of its own capital and most of its country, but a prolonged war with thousands dead, an economy devastated, and large swathes of eastern Ukraine lost is hardly a "win" for anyone on the ground.

For now, though, I think Putin's worst nightmares are coming true. Russia's economy is clearly struggling, its offensive in Ukraine is — at best — sputtering, and Europe and the West are more aligned against Russia's interests than they've been in decades. I think that unity bodes well for American troops in that the more powerful NATO is, the more secure eastern Europe will be, and the less likely it is that American troops have to enter the fray.

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.

Democrats and Republicans are coming together in Congress on three major issues: Curbing foreign influence in U.S. elections, limiting members of Congress from stock trading, and greater regulation of Big Tech. These issues reflect both parties' renewed efforts to appeal more to working class voters, and bipartisan groups are hoping to push forward legislation addressing them before the midterms arrive. Axios has the story about these unlikely alliances and how they are playing out in Congress.


Numbers.

  • 35.9 million. The population of Saudi Arabia.
  • 73%. From 2015 to 2019, the total percentage of arms imports to Saudi Arabia that came from the U.S.
  • $64.1 billion. The total amount spent on arms sales from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2020.
  • $650 million. The value of the 280 air-to-air missiles the U.S. sold to Saudi Arabia in October, according to Reuters.
  • 223,000. The number of people who are estimated to have died in the Saudi-UAE-Yemen conflict.
  • 5 million. The number of people who are estimated to be on the brink of famine because of the conflict.

Have a nice day.

An eight-year-old boy in Germany who was missing for more than a week was finally found — in a sewer. Identified only as Joe, he lives in the northwest German city of Oldenburg, and went missing on June 17 from his front garden, setting off a major police search. Eight days later, a passerby heard him whimpering in the sewer just 200 meters from his house, and police quickly rushed to the scene to extract him. He suffered from hypothermia but no other major injuries, and is in the hospital and expected to make a full recovery. The police believe Joe climbed into an entrance to the sewer system while playing, and eventually lost his way. NBC News has the 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.

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