The Problem With Going to Saudi Arabia

On June 14, the White House announced that President Biden will go to Saudi Arabia and that he will "hold bilateral meetings with the Saudi hosts." Pressing the White House on its ambiguity, a reporter asked if that means Biden will be meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The official circled around the question before confirming that Biden would "see the Crown Prince."

When asked if Biden would bring up the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Kashoggi – whose murder US intelligence has concluded was approved by Mohammed bin Salman – the official avoided the question.

The trip explodes Biden’s promise to make Saudi Arabia "the pariah that they are." It goes beyond undermining the promise to make Saudi Arabia pay for the murder of Kashoggi and undermines the credibility of the Biden administration’s signature foreign policy goal of the victory of democracy over autocracy.

Biden has cast the contemporary global scene as an epic battle between democracy and autocracy. He has called it "a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies." Our "children or grandchildren,” he has said, “are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake."

Autocracy won this battle. There are few examples in the world of autocracy more clear than Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia had only to hold out a few months and ignore a few calls for democracy to come courting its favors. Biden had tried to call Mohammed bin Salman before. But the Crown Prince "declined" the US request for him to speak to Biden. Now Autocracy has forced Democracy to come in person. It turns out you can compromise with autocrats if what they offer is more important than democracy.

And that is the second problem with the trip to Saudi Arabia. It clearly highlights to Latin America that Biden’s noble invocation of his signature policy not to meet with nations that do not respect democracy was just another cover for the pursuit of American hegemony in the hemisphere. The trip proves, once again, that the criterion for inclusion in the Summit of the Americas was not democracy but obedience. Biden could not attend a summit with the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but he can attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus three, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt: nations that clearly do not respect democracy and human rights.

Both the meeting with Mohammed bin Salman particularly and attendance at the summit of the GCC+3 generally expose the Biden administration’s dishonesty at the Summit of the America’s and further undermines it stated goal of re-establishing US leadership in the region.

The compromise with autocracy, the attempt to "recalibrate" but not "rupture" relations with Saudi Arabia could be defended as the realistic "triumph of realpolitik over moral outrage." But even realpolitik can reveal your values when a variety of pragmatic solutions are available. As Trita Parsi has argued, "Such an assertion erroneously presumes that realpolitik necessitates Biden prostrating himself in front of MBS to push down oil prices. It does not."

Biden had several other pragmatic solutions available to him. He chose compromise with Saudi Arabia. He could bring oil prices down by encouraging and fostering diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia instead of hindering it. That would have the added advantage of contributing to ending a horrific war. And it would be consistent with his selective assertion that he can meet with a brutal and undemocratic autocrat because "as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can, peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do."

He could end sanctions on Iranian oil by simply returning to the JCPOA Iranian nuclear deal as he had promised. That would have the added advantage of restarting all of the advantages of a nuclear deal that his administration acknowledges it "was a disastrous mistake" to "pull out of."

He could end sanctions on Venezuelan oil. That would have the added advantage of mending credibility and beginning to restore harmonious relations in Latin America.

Instead, Biden made the choice to meet with Saudi Arabia and undermine America’s pretense of being always on the side of democracy in Latin America and the world.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.