President Joe Biden has justified the U.S.’s massive aid packages to Ukraine and its isolation campaign against Russia on the grounds that the U.S. “stands up to bullies.” But his trip attempting to reset relations with Saudi Arabia this week underscores how the U.S. is, in fact, perfectly happy to work with bullies — when it serves American strategic interests.
Biden’s reversal helps clarify what actually drives his foreign policy: American geopolitical interests.
On the presidential campaign trail, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” because of its grisly execution of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018. After he took office, Biden signaled an aloof attitude toward the oil-rich Persian Gulf state, banning the sale of offensive weapons to the country, sanctioning some of the Saudi security apparatus tied to the assassination of Khashoggi, and declining to meet with the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS.
Now it appears that this rift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship may already be coming to an end. Biden is visiting Saudi Arabia on Friday and meeting MBS — the man the CIA claims ordered the Khashoggi murder. The administration has emphasized that Biden wants to discuss regional security issues, from warming Israeli-Saudi ties to Iran’s nuclear status to Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, currently paused under a truce. “I think we’ve made a mistake of walking away from our influence in the Middle East,” Biden said at a news conference in Israel on Thursday. In a highly unusual move, Biden wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post over the weekend pre-emptively justifying his trip, a clear attempt to swat away accusations of flip-flopping by claiming his original plan was to “reorient but not rupture” relations with Riyadh all along.
Not only was Biden’s op-ed unconvincing — his promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” sounded a lot more rupture than reorient — but it also downplayed a major reason for the trip that the administration has mostly avoided talking about: oil. It’s not the only reason Biden is resetting its relationship with Saudi Arabia, but it’s a big one, and it’s certainly contributing to the timing of the trip. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global response to it has destabilized the world's oil supply, and consumers around the world are feeling the pain; Biden surely knows his plunging approval ratings are tied to the spike in the price of gas across America. White House officials reportedly believe that a deal in which Saudi Arabia agrees to produce more oil and help lower prices could come in the months after this meeting. (Some experts, however, are skeptical of the idea that the U.S. will be able to persuade Saudi Arabia to pump more oil.)
Biden’s reversal helps clarify what actually drives his foreign policy: American geopolitical interests. 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.
Khashoggi’s execution, while horrific, was just a drop in the bucket of Saudi Arabia's mistreatment of its own citizens and neighbors.
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. 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.
I always believed Biden's pivot on Saudi Arabia was inevitable the moment energy woes or a security crisis in the region emerged. The very premise of the U.S.’s close strategic ties with countries in the Gulf for decades has been access to energy supplies, the lifeblood of the modern economy. (When the White House tried arranging a call with Saudi Arabia in the weeks after Russia’s invasion, MBS reportedly rebuffed him.)
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.