American foreign policy often highlights the gap between the values-based story that the United States tells about itself and the reality of how a superpower pursues its interests. The size of that gap will be impossible to straddle when President Joe Biden travels to Saudi Arabia to repair his relationship with the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Biden is by no means the first American president who has struggled to reconcile a declared commitment to human rights with a more utilitarian definition of American interests. George W. Bush enlisted Saudi Arabia as an ally in the War on Terror even though 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, the wellspring of the Wahhabism that helped create the conditions for the attacks. Barack Obama offered tentative support for a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen to avoid a rupture in the relationship, a decision that many Obama officials (myself included) regretted as the war devolved into a humanitarian catastrophe. Donald Trump, unburdened by the pretense of supporting human rights, embraced the kingdom so thoroughly that it was hard to tell where Riyadh’s policies ended and Washington’s began.
Having served in the White House, I understand the factors that likely informed Biden’s decision. Because gas prices are punishing American consumers, any chance of increasing oil production may seem worth pursuing, particularly amid a midterm election campaign stacked against Democrats. As the war in Ukraine grinds on, the U.S. wants to guard against the Saudi government falling into the autocratic arms of Russia and China. And with Arab Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain embracing the Abraham Accords, the U.S. has both a domestic political and a geopolitical interest in adding momentum to the process of normalization between Israel and Arab autocrats.
For these reasons, promises to make the kingdom a “pariah” while “putting human rights at the center of American foreign policy” have been set aside. One might even mount arguments that this short-term compromise could serve long-term democratic objectives—whether salvaging a Democratic administration at home, supporting a fight for democracy in Ukraine, or defending the creaky liberal international order. In this way, one can rationalize a visit to the Saudi royal court as an embrace of realism that does not compromise American ideals.
However, these rationalizations perpetuate a debilitating and cynical status quo. As George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Visiting MBS is wrong. And while we contort ourselves to embrace the Saudi leadership in the name of shared interests, recent history should show us that those interests are not aligned. Most profoundly, the dual existential threats of our time—the collapse of democracy and the onset of climate change—require a more radical reassessment of the trade-offs that America makes and why we make them, not a reset with a fossil-fuel-rich dictator.
It has become a truism to assert that realpolitik necessitates a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, despite the moral outrage that many people expressed over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who worked for an American newspaper. But this accepted presumption of “shared interests” is worth testing. In fact, a review of Saudi policy since MBS’s ascent in 2015 reveals how out of step the kingdom’s policies have been with stated U.S. interests such as nuclear nonproliferation, political stability, and the survival of democratic civil society across the Middle East and North Africa.
Let’s start with nuclear weapons. Saudi leadership encouraged President Trump to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had verifiably rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and placed it under international monitoring through a deal negotiated by many of President Biden’s closest advisers (I was part of that effort). Negotiations to reenter the deal have stalled, in part because of U.S. efforts to win over the Gulf states and Israel by pursuing a “longer and stronger” deal and a refusal to remove sanctions imposed by Trump after he pulled out of the JCPOA. (These sanctions have utterly failed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program or its malign activities in the region.) Paradoxically, a Saudi-led regional consensus on escalating confrontation with Iran has now led to an outcome in which Iran has acquired enough of a stockpile for a nuclear weapon while maintaining its regional aggression.
Beyond that, a series of Saudi policies stemming from MBS’s fixations—Iran and political Islam—have been consistently contrary to stated American priorities. A 43-month blockade of Qatar fueled tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council while achieving nothing. A bizarre effort to exert leverage on Lebanese politics by holding its prime minister hostage exacerbated Lebanon’s political dysfunction. Support for the Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar weakened a government backed by the United States and the United Nations. A preference for military rule over democratic change has shut the door on Egyptian civil society and made the Gulf a primary port of call for Sudanese military leaders threatening a democratic transition.
Then there is Yemen. Since the Saudi-led invasion of that country, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, including thousands in the kind of indiscriminate air strikes that draw swift Western condemnation when they occur in Ukraine. (Consider, for a moment, how that undermines our criticism of Russia’s war outside Europe.) Millions of Yemenis live on the precipice of malnourishment and famine. The objective of dislodging the Houthis has failed. The obvious moral and strategic catastrophe of the war was evident enough that Congress passed a resolution in 2019 requiring the U.S. to end any participation in it. Trump, despite his rhetoric about “ending endless wars,” vetoed the resolution.
I have no doubt that Biden wants to put a stop to the suffering in Yemen and that U.S. diplomats are working in earnest to pursue this objective. The recent extension of a tenuous cease-fire is a welcome development. Yet the Biden administration has not exerted greater leverage on the Saudis to end the war through the approach embedded in that 2019 congressional resolution: withdrawing all support for the war and halting arms sales to the kingdom.
Indeed, the war in Yemen is something of a microcosm for the strange asymmetry in the U.S.-Saudi relationship under successive administrations, including the Obama administration: Saudi Arabia could not carry out its military operations absent U.S. support, and yet the U.S. appeals to Saudi leadership to take our concerns into account more than the other way around. If a war is misguided and immoral, why participate in it at all?
One issue on which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia do appear to be moving toward consensus is the Abraham Accords. The U.S. has long sought the normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. That effort is essential to assuring Israel’s rightful place in the community of nations, and it could help promote peaceful collaboration and economic development in the Middle East. Close Saudi partners such as the UAE and Bahrain would likely not have joined the accords without MBS’s blessing. Clearly, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to see Iran as a mutual antagonist. That will be the backdrop to Biden’s efforts to continue to pull existing Saudi support for the accords out into the open.
Yet the triumphalism around the Abraham Accords must be accompanied by an honest assessment of the agreement’s shortcomings. First, the Palestinians have been left out of the deal. By any measure, the expressed U.S. goal of a two-state solution has been both set back and set aside, leaving unanswered the question of whether there is any pathway to Palestinian self-determination, or whether the U.S. even cares. What, then, was the point of decades of U.S. diplomacy in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian resolution? And what, now, is the future for the Palestinians?
The second issue unaddressed by the accords is democracy itself. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is an extreme manifestation of a much broader crackdown on dissent within the kingdom, and increased threats to journalists and activists across the Middle East and beyond. Who will speak for them, even as we have ample evidence that new spyware tools have been brought to bear against them in recent years? When the Biden visit is inevitably presented as advancing normalization between Israel and Gulf monarchs, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable reality that the accords have become a get-out-of-jail-free card for the brutal subjugation of democratic dissent. How does that fit within a global struggle between democracy and autocracy?
Autocracy depends upon cynicism and apathy: cynicism, which suggests that there’s no real difference between types of government, and apathy, which suggests that nothing can change. MBS’s determination to secure a visit from a U.S. president who once called him a pariah is rooted in a keen understanding of that reality.
By all means, the United States should engage Saudi Arabia, just as we engage all sorts of governments around the world. We don’t get to pick who runs other countries, and when we try to, it usually doesn’t turn out well. But we do get to choose the level, terms, and venues for that engagement—which, in this case, clearly reflect MBS’s preferences.
Since the Khashoggi murder, Saudi Arabia has been under a cloud. To overcome that isolation, the kingdom has poured enormous amounts of money into reputation-laundering events, including a Justin Bieber concert and a new golf league. A Biden-MBS handshake in Riyadh is worth far more. Global businesses, entertainers, athletes, and political figures won’t have to feel ambivalent about associating themselves with the Saudi leadership. The influence loop between lucrative Gulf business opportunities and American punditry about the vital contributions of the Saudis and Emiratis to the global order can return to their pre-Khashoggi pace. The rehabilitation of MBS will be complete.
The American dividend in this transaction is less valuable. Saudi pledges to increase oil production are unlikely to make a substantial or lasting difference to American consumers struggling to keep up with inflation. MBS is unlikely to throw his considerable power and wealth behind an effort to help the Biden administration deal with its many challenges; this is, after all, a man who likely green-lighted a $2 billion investment in Jared Kushner’s investment acumen. Many Russian oligarchs will weather sanctions in the Emirates. Gulf fence-sitting on Russia, demonstrated by abstentions on key votes at the United Nations, is far more likely than robust support for Ukraine; the Gulf states are, after all, autocracies.
Meanwhile, American rhetoric about democracy will be tagged by the cynics as hypocrisy focused on America’s geopolitical adversaries, and its commitment to combat climate change as subordinate to our search for cheaper fossil fuels. However, blaming this grim set of circumstances on Joe Biden is too easy. MBS is in many ways a product of the American-led order of the past several decades. Our prioritization of profit over other values. Our insatiable addiction to fossil fuels, and that industry’s obstruction of congressional action to break it. Our definition of national security as tied to the familiarity of autocracy over the uncertainty of democratic change. Until our politics reflects a more profound change in our priorities and our mindset, a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia will feel sadly inevitable, no matter who holds the office.
At the time, the response to Khashoggi’s murder seemed like a sea change. But in retrospect, MBS’s violation of the existing order appears to have been getting caught more than it was the underlying crime, and Trump’s violation was saying the quiet part out loud. Until the United States truly makes democracy and climate change our overriding priorities, the U.S.-Saudi relationship may indeed be rooted in “shared interests.” That’s what has to change.