Biden backtracks on Saudi-US relations
US President Joe Biden’s ‘reset’ of Washington’s approach to the Middle East increasingly looks like a continuation of the policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, with an added measure of piety and escape on what really drives the decision-making process of the administration.
But an unwitting admission could have come last week when a White House reporter asked Biden why he changed his mind about meeting Saudi Arabia’s once-blacklisted de facto leader, the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, known as MBS. “The Saudi commitments are not about energy,” Biden replied, despite not being specifically asked about energy policy.
The shifting plans for his visit to Saudi Arabia, which the White House denied took place as recently as last month, and the hazy explanation sum up the muddled nature of US policy towards the Middle East. Biden’s trip, now scheduled for July, will likely be dominated by international security concerns, as the White House seemed to suggest, but US policy toward the region remains a reactive scramble.
When Biden took office in January 2021, he declared his intention to reorient US relations with Saudi Arabia with a greater emphasis on human rights in his administration’s foreign policy. But that now appears to have been bluster. In any case, little thought seems to have been devoted to how to put the idea into practice.
Privately, some Biden advisers opposed the change from the start, arguing instead for a rapprochement with Riyadh — a view that eventually spilled over into the public. And no one in government probed human rights groups and members of Congress, who seemed willing to sacrifice material interests in exchange for a course correction in relations with Saudi Arabia. . Now, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupting global energy markets and driving up gas prices in the United States, Biden looks set to legitimize the crown prince, after extracting a hike from the oil production to lower prices at the pump, but few other concessions on regional security or human rights and accountability.
The same story arc describes the Biden team’s approach to nearly every major political issue in the Middle East, from Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, to the latest chapter in the Syrian war and the bellicose posture of American regional partners, including Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. And while Washington flounders, its partners in the region refuse to toe the American line on the response to the war in Ukraine, whether on arms deliveries, in the case of Israel, or, until recently, on increasing oil production in the case of Ukraine. Gulf Arab monarchies.
At the lower echelons of the political apparatus in Washington, serious professionals have done an admirable job of trying to manage difficult relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and other regional governments. They even scored some impressive victories, like the just-announced energy deal linking Egyptian gas supplies to Lebanon via Syria, which Washington brokered, and the skillful diplomacy that preserved humanitarian access to Yemen. .
But at a strategic level, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy is adrift and increasingly appears to be the product of malpractice. By not quickly resuming negotiations to revive the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, the Biden administration now risks being at least partially responsible for the ultimate failure of the deal that Trump scuttled, should he be permanently abandoned. And by failing to overturn the Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Morocco’s normalization with Israel, Biden endorsed the reversal of decades of bipartisan consensus on opposition to annexation of territories by force – a fundamental principle which also applies to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Crimea.
On these and many other issues of Middle East policy, the Biden administration is unwilling to do the domestic political work to counter toxic, bad faith arguments and pressure from its opponents in Washington on the issues surrounding Iran, Israel and the United States. questionable security partnerships with authoritarian monarchies in the Middle East.
Democracy is in crisis all over the world. As a presidential candidate, Biden correctly diagnosed the historic challenge this presents, calling on democrats and democracies around the world to make common cause against authoritarian rot and international corruption, lest the world lose its last. democratic bridgeheads.
But Biden has failed to match his rhetoric as a presidential candidate with meaningful action in office. It is one thing for the President of the United States to affirm his opposition to violations of the rights of Washington’s regional partners, as well as other behaviors that endanger American interests in the Middle East. But Biden chose not to engage in any political fight, whether for rights or interests.
He would not be the first American president to compromise on short notice with authoritarian governments in the Middle East whose political goals diverge sharply from those of Washington. But Biden seems willing to be the first to do so when democracy in the United States itself is at stake. He could well squander a historic chance to harmonize American interests and values, abroad and at home.
under the radar
ISIS detainees remain in limbo. Earlier this month, a United Nations delegation visited Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria and drew attention to the plight of Islamic State fighters who continue to languish in the Syrian camps administered by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Their plight is a blight on the US-led campaign to counter the Islamic State, which was mothballed as soon as the group was defeated militarily. At present, 56,000 people still live in Al-Hol camp, half of whom are under the age of 12, according to the United Nations. The camp population consists almost entirely of ISIS operatives and their relatives whose home countries will not take them back.
Although it has its own problems to contend with, Iraq has led the way in repatriating former combatants, taking over 2,500 camp residents, although 28,000 Iraqis remain in Al Hol. Much wealthier countries, including the United States and member states of the European Union, have refused to repatriate their citizens held in the camp. “Holding people in restricted and deplorable conditions ultimately creates greater protection and security risks than bringing them back in a controlled manner,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN secretary-general’s special representative. for Iraq, in a press release after his visit.
The truce in Yemen still holds. The ceasefire in Yemen has been extended for another two months, surprising many, including diplomats who helped broker the deal. If the ceasefire continues to hold for the duration, the conflict will have experienced a four-month pause since the fighting began. Minor violations have been reported, along with deaths from landmines as civilians return to areas previously deserted following the conflict. But the current pause in hostilities, the longest since the war began in 2015, has opened up avenues for humanitarian assistance as well as the ability to deal with emerging risks, like the FSO Safter. The dilapidated tanker has been anchored off the coast of Yemen since 2015, but war and now a lack of funds have stalled efforts to remove more than a million barrels of oil still inside its holds. The UN has now launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise $80 million with the aim of preventing an environmental disaster should oil leak into surrounding waters.
Thanassis Cambanis is Senior Fellow and Director of the International Politics Program at the Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His books include Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions, and four edited volumes on Middle East politics and security. He is currently writing a book on the global impact of the war in Iraq. His Twitter account is @tcambanis.