President Joe Biden made a big show of only fist-bumping de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman on Friday, then bragged about how he’d made the killing of Jamal Khashoggi their first topic of conversation. But he also implicitly admitted that, for all his vows to the contrary, he’d gone ahead and begged MBS to pump more oil, by saying he expected gas prices to ease soon.
Good on the prez for making at least one concession to reality, even if he put himself in a needlessly tough spot, in at least two ways.
First, of course, is Biden’s war on US oil and natural-gas production, which has restricted domestic energy production so that prices were soaring even before the Ukraine invasion.
Second is his tough talk on the Khashoggi killing, vowing before taking office to make MBS a “pariah,” then as prez pointedly making public the CIA assessment that MBS ordered the atrocity. Given how much US intel gets dead-wrong in the Mideast, that was pure political posturing at the expense of America’s national interests.
The combination forced Biden to eat crow by visiting Riyadh and so legitimizing the “pariah,” no matter how much our president wants to pretend otherwise.
Like it or not, Washington and Riyadh need each other, obliging leaders on both sides to swallow a lot. The nations are natural allies against the Iranian regime, for starters, and against revolutionary Islamic extremism generally.
Plus, the world needs Saudi oil — even more so as Western nations refuse to fully exploit their own carbon resources.
The Saudis, and other US allies including Israel, are also upset at Biden’s efforts to revive the Obama nuclear deal with Iran, which everyone in the region sees as a win for Tehran. It doesn’t help that US policy in the Obama years let both Russia and China make major Mideast inroads — leaving all our allies there obliged to play nice with Moscow and/or Beijing.
That was another reason for Biden’s Middle East tour: to shore up a whole host of alliances, not just with Riyadh.
Yes, the Saudi regime has been a human-rights disaster, and it long fueled the rise of radical Islam. But MBS has broken with the radicals and even fostered markedly greater women’s rights — albeit at the cost of cracking down on all other threats to his absolute power, even within the royal family.
In foreign affairs, even presidents have to take what they can get; Biden seems to finally be learning that, even if his various gaffes on the trip (talk of “honoring” the Holocaust; comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Northern Ireland’s troubles) show he’s still the same old Joe.