It’s a good thing Biden is the president and not a poker player. Two Middle East rivals each just called his bluff. The results were different. But what they revealed is the same. Biden’s pretended idealism folded fast to reveal a hand full of pragmatism.
Biden had promised to shun Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince both for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – whose murder US intelligence has concluded was approved by Mohammed bin Salman – and for Saudi Arabia’s appalling record on human rights and the destabilizing role they have played in the region. He promised that they would "pay the price," that he would "make them in fact the pariah that they are" and wrote off the royal family by saying that there was "very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia."
But all Saudi Arabia had to do was hold out and stay in the game. All it took
was for the US led sanctions on Russian oil to hurt the US economy and threaten
the Biden administration instead of hurting the Russian economy and threatening
the Putin administration for the Saudis to call Biden’s bluff.
When Biden led sanctions on Russian oil, the goal was to punish and threaten Putin’s government. But the US economy is being punished and Biden risks losing congress in the upcoming midterm elections. The New York Times says that Biden’s "push to ban Russian oil imports shortly after the invasion was followed by global price spikes, which have sapped consumer confidence and threatened the Democrats’ hold on Congress in the coming midterm elections." They add that "few in Mr. Biden’s administration imagined just how much domestic political and economic pain could come from the grinding war in Ukraine’s east: growing anger about $5 a gallon gasoline, deepening frustration over rising food costs and rents, and rising opposition to spending billions of dollars on a foreign conflict with no end in sight."
Meanwhile, Putin is still in power, and Russia’s economy is still riding on its oil flows. The Times reports that "China and India, the world’s most populous countries, have swooped in to buy roughly the same volume of Russian oil that would have gone to the West. Oil prices are so high that Russia is making even more money now from sales than it did before the war began four months ago. And its once-flailing currency has surged in value against the dollar."
That was the hand the Saudis needed to call Biden’s bluff. Biden’s values based foreign policy hand folded and exposed a hand full of pragmatic values. He announced that he would humbly go to Saudi Arabia to try to make up.
Saudi Arabia won, and Biden’s real foreign policy was revealed: values based when it is consistent with US advantage, pragmatically based when it no longer is.
When Saudi Arabia called Biden’s bluff – and won – they revealed Biden’s pragmatic foreign policy: not really based on human rights or democracy versus autocracy. When Biden’s Russian oil sanctions boomeranged and his hold on congress was at risk, Biden traveled apologetically to an autocracy with one of the worst human rights records. They revealed Biden’s pragmatism but not political realism. Asking Saudi Arabia to help lower oil prices by releasing more oil was not, as some have said, an effective demonstration of realism.
Realism allowed for other options that allowed Biden to keep his administration’s integrity. He could have opened the flow of oil onto the market by returning to the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal and ending sanctions on Iranian oil.
So, what stopped Biden from keeping his campaign promise to quickly “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy?” The roadblock to an agreement has been the impasse over Trump’s placing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations: Iran wants the IRGC removed from the list; the US has refused to remove them from the list.
So, Biden plays the US hand: drop the demand to de-list the IRGC, and there is a path back to the deal.
On June 19, Iran dropped the demand to de-list the IRGC. They called Biden’s bluff. But there was no path back to the deal. Washington did not respond to Iran’s offer nor to the hand Iran played. Instead, they continued their refusal to promise and end to sanctions and then raised the bet: on July 6, the Biden administration piled more sanctions on Iran.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, when Iran called Biden’s bluff, they lost. Rather than folding, the Biden administration raised the stakes. But calling Biden’s bluff again revealed the same hand: a hand full of pragmatism.
Calling the American bluff revealed that the roadblock was not the IRGC listing: that was a sleight of hand to keep the talks in a coma. It revealed the lack of values based foreign policy. The Biden administration has long admitted that the US “decision to pull out of the agreement was a disastrous mistake." They have admitted that the JCPOA nuclear agreement "was working to keep America safe" and that terminating the agreement "worsened the threat." And they had promised to return to it. So, the Biden administration negotiated dishonestly so as not to have to keep a promise to return to an agreement that the US broke in the first place. Iran lost when they called Biden’s bluff, but they revealed a hand full of pragmatism very different from Biden’s advertised foreign policy hand of diplomacy and values.
Saudi Arabia won; Iran lost. But they both called Biden’s bluff. And they both forced Biden to show his hand. The cards he held were a pragmatic flush.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.