Let’s give the Biden administration the benefit of the doubt. Having deprioritized the Middle East for 16 months, the weeds grew.
Let’s give the Biden administration the benefit of the doubt. Having deprioritized the Middle East for 16 months, the weeds grew
If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds. And any good gardener knows you have to clear the weeds out right away. Diplomacy is kind of like that.
Those are the words of former US Secretary of State George Shultz, for whom we both worked. Shultz’s view of US diplomacy involved both striving for dramatic breakthroughs and focusing on the routine, protean, incremental, and sustained efforts required to make them possible.
Let’s give the Biden administration the benefit of the doubt. Having deprioritized the Middle East for 16 months, the weeds grew. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only highlighted the key role Gulf oil producers would play, but it also reflected the risks of allowing Russia and China to gain influence with traditional partners the United States had either taken for granted or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, ostracized. So, in an effort to tend the garden and eliminate the weeds, the diplomatic gardeners launched the president on a jam-packed, whirlwind foray into the region to plant US flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.
Forget immediate deliverables. Plants take time to grow, and they need plenty of watering. But from our perspective, although the trip’s headlines may look comforting—”Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israeli flights,” “The Middle East Air Defense alliance takes shape”—the trends appear less so. From hydrocarbons to Iran to Israel-Palestine to checking Chinese and Russian influence to human rights, the administration faces long odds of success in a region marred by seemingly insurmountable challenges and which still has real doubts about US resolve and staying power.
Given US President Joe Biden’s fraught relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it’s highly unlikely that Biden would have visited Saudi Arabia had Russia not invaded Ukraine, disrupting global oil supplies and causing gas prices in the United States to soar. The administration didn’t want to make oil the fulcrum of the visit lest it appear that the president was trading hydrocarbons for giving the crown prince a pass on his and his country’s atrocious human rights record. It’s just as well because any increase in Saudi oil production is expected to be modest.
Riyadh is likely to husband its spare capacity in light of an oil market that may only get tighter by year’s end. And on lowering gas prices, which for the time being are declining because of China’s slowing economy, it’s unclear what kind of impact a modest Saudi increase would have. So, when it comes to expecting any dramatic Saudi effort to ramp up production as a nod to Biden, color us very, very skeptical.
Oil may have been the catalyst for Biden’s Middle East visit, but the administration’s desire to cast it in terms of great-power competition and the need to counter Russia’s and China’s growing influence in the region wasn’t far behind.
Almost four years after the Washington Post columnist was lured by the Saudi government on orders from Mohammed bin Salman into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was killed and dismembered, there is still no accounting or accountability for the crown prince’s personal role. In short, Mohammed bin Salman got away with murder, and his leadership has now been legitimized by a US president who genuinely does believe in asserting US values.
But it’s not just Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing of Khashoggi. The Saudi regime brooks no opposition and engages in a widespread campaign to criminalize any dissent and detain, imprison, and torture anyone who speaks out against the regime. According to Freedom House, the government has also pursued a campaign of transnational repression to harass and intimidate dissidents in at least 14 countries.
As far as we know, none of these issues was raised in Biden’s meetings, nor was there any expectation or pressure put on the Saudis to change. Indeed, Jubeir went to great lengths in a recent interview to downplay Biden’s holding the crown prince responsible for the Khashoggi killing and pushed back against criticism of the Saudi government’s human rights record, declaring, “What you may call a dissident, we may call a terrorist.”
The contrast between the Biden administration’s defense of human rights, democracy, and freedom against Russian aggression in Ukraine on the one hand and then meeting with Arab authoritarian leaders on the other without any serious discussion of the need for political reform and respect for basic rights was all too clear. We judge that the Biden administration not only failed on this issue but also left the region with the president’s status and credibility diminished.
In fairness to the Biden administration, making significant progress on the Iranian nuclear issue would have been a heavy lift under any circumstances. Simply put, the answer to the Iranian nuclear issue isn’t in Jerusalem or Jeddah but in Tehran—and right now Iran isn’t interested in cutting a deal that Washington can accept. Thus, the emphasis of the trip was on shaping an environment that might pressure Tehran to make a decision and to shore up alliances if it doesn’t.
This article first appeared on Foreign Policy