Prof. ST Hsieh
Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum
June 15, 2022
It is easy for anyone as well as politicians to make provocative statements and claim “moral” high grounds, especially during election campaigns. Of course, talk is cheap, but actions do count. Now President Biden is facing push back for his featured meeting with Saudi Crown Prince, nicked named MBS, next month. Note, it is the President of the US, Joe Biden, will take the trip via Air Force One for the “official meeting” as Saudi characterized. While the White House is still whitewashing this important meeting for Biden by not including this meeting on the officially published agenda. It looks very strange that Biden’s staff are vigorously “defending” this meeting, as if it were fully justified.
Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the U.S. having relations with leaders who are accused of human rights abuses is “just the reality of a complicated world.” Or White House statement that “we do not want to rupture the relation with Saudi!”
It appears that “human rights” is no match for the need of more crude oil when US gasoline price is high. Put it another way, if US gasoline price is low and inflation is low, would President Biden even meet with MBS in his home country? Biden most likely would continue his personal attacks on MBS’s human right abuse and bar him from ever visit the White House again.
One can easily imagine when MBS received Biden, there would be exchange of pleasantries:
- MBS as host would ask Biden that how is his trip so far and it is MBS’s pleasure hosting President Biden, etc.
- Biden should have no complains and say that it is his pleasure too meeting with your royal highness MBS.
- What’s next? Biden should say: I look forward to hosting you in DC. Then MBS would timidly question: would I be arrested by the US, because you proclaimed that Saudi is a “pariah” state and “we do not have any social value!”
- MBS must clarify the protocol with Biden on visiting DC: because Biden administration had downgraded the status of MBS from Crown Prince (head of state) to Saudi Defense Minister. If so, based on protocol, MBS should not be in the White House at all.
- Biden’s meeting with MBS is a step forward, but the scar is obvious, and it is not a sure bet that Biden’s request for increasing crude oil production from OPEC would be honored.
- From George Washington to Honest Abe, why is it so difficult for modern day US politicians to make a confession: I was wrong? It is critical to realize that Biden’s change of course without accept any responsibility for his rhetoric or public “gaffe,” the US as a nation is losing credibility around the world!
The following reports are truncated for not boring readers with travails.
The big idea
Biden’s Saudi trip isn’t the outlier. His ‘pariah’ comment was.
President Biden served notice shortly after taking office that Candidate Biden’s rhetoric toward Saudi Arabia was too severe, and the two countries’ shared interests too important, for him to go ahead and fulfill a campaign promise to make that country an international “pariah.”
In a blow to relations, Biden released U.S. intelligence findings that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the 2018 murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a regime critic who wrote a column for The Washington Post. (The Saudi government rejects the charge.)
But in a taste of compromises to come, the administration did not impose sanctions on the official almost universally known as MBS even as it announced a “Khashoggi ban” — visa restrictions on scores of Saudis thought to have played a role in that killing or other attacks on dissidents around the world.
“The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the time.
A SLOW, STEADY THAW TOWARD SAUDI ARABIA
In his year and a half in office, Biden has regularly attempted this sort of balancing act in relations with the kingdom, even as he has taken a much harder line than President Trump.
Biden didn’t speak to Saudi King Salman until more than a month after inauguration — and the White House made clear it did not want MBS on the call and would not be dealing with him in any other capacity than his formal defense minister role.
But the Saudi ambassador and other top officials have been welcomed at the White House (just put “AlSaud” in the White House visitor log search bar). And senior U.S. officials, like senior Middle East adviser Brett McGurk and special energy affairs envoy Amos Hochstein, have visited Saudi Arabia.
And Biden took Yemen’s Houthi rebels — whom Saudi fought for years until a truce took hold a few months ago — off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, where Trump had placed the group on his way out the door.
When the White House announced Biden would visit Saudi Arabia next month, it left MBS off the official statement. Later, it confirmed but played down the meeting.
“Look, you know, the president is going to see over a dozen leaders on this trip,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who also declined to say whether Biden would bring up Khashoggi’s murder.
- “Human rights conversation is something that the President brings up with many leaders and plans to do so,” she said. But “we are not looking to rupture relationships.”
Last week, Jean-Pierre had defended Biden’s engagement with autocratic regimes. “If he determines that it’s in the interest of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so.”
CAMPAIGN RHETORIC, GOVERNING REALITY
Still, all of this is tough to square with the decidedly uncompromising position Biden took in the 2020 presidential campaign.
His most notable remarks came in a late-2019 Democratic debate, when he was asked whether he would punish senior Saudi leaders for Khashoggi’s murder. Yes, Biden said without hesitation, underlining that he would end military sales to Riyadh.
“I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” he continued. “There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
- That “pariah” has extensive access to the White House, new U.S. arms sales, and now a presidential visit — including a face-to-face with MBS, who wasn’t even welcome on the phone a year ago. This, over fierce opposition from Saudi human rights activists, who see the crown prince as the architect of repression at home.
But while the “pariah” comment — not the collaboration — now seems like the outlier, Jean-Pierre insisted Tuesday: “We’re not overlooking any conduct that happened before the president took office.”
White House moves forward with controversial Saudi meeting
Associated Press-Patrick Semansky/Getty Images
The White House is moving forward with a controversial meeting between President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a dramatic U-turn from the president’s campaign pledge to make the kingdom’s government a “pariah” on the world stage.
The White House itself left the meeting out of an official statement making it public on Tuesday, which also mentioned that Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia came at the invitation of Saudi King Salman.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Embassy in a statement offered more substantive details about plans for the meeting between Biden and the crown prince, saying the two would hold “official talks” about the bilateral relationship and a range of issues.
The White House has sent mixed messages about how high energy exports will figure in the conversation between Biden and Saudi leaders, at times suggesting the meeting would not be about assuaging global energy prices.
Some critics argue that the Biden administration is sidelining human rights and undermining U.S. security interests in attempting a reset with the Saudis.
“The capitulation of the Biden administration to reestablishing what are in fact very close and dangerous ties to Saudi Arabia is a disappointment, but it’s not really a surprise,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organization founded by Khashoggi.
John Kirby, who recently left the Pentagon to serve as the White House’s national security spokesman, defended plans for the meeting and insisted during an appearance on CNN that the trip was in the best interest of the American people.
While some Republicans have criticized Biden for the meeting, others hold no qualms against Biden for the decision. Three Republican lawmakers – Reps. Chris Stewart (Utah), Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.) and Lisa McClain (Mich.) — sat down with the crown prince in Riyadh in May.
“They feel that as allies and partners, we are not giving the Saudis the credit that they are due — and I gotta be honest, I agree with the Saudi position on that,” Reschenthaler told The Hill.