Report Card: What Biden Got out of His Trip to the Middle East

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Image by apriltan18 from Pixabay

No one expected President Joe Biden to bring home a major foreign policy success from his four-day visit to the Middle East.

With the dumpster-load of diplomatic crises left behind by his America First predecessor, Biden waded into the volatile region with the modest objective of resetting damaged relations with allies and adversaries alike. He also hoped to secure a pledge from the Mideast oil-producing powerhouses to increase output to ease global energy shortages and soaring gas prices. 

First among the relationships in need of a different approach was the U.S. posture toward Saudi Arabia, White House advisers decided in weighing concerns for the kingdom’s human rights record against other crises in the region. Israel’s fourth government collapse in three years has left the country in caretaker status and facing another divisive election. Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted global energy and supply chains. In the absence of U.S. influence in the region, Saudi Arabia is seen at risk of drifting into the orbit of China, Russia or Iran, the latter suspected of accelerating development of nuclear weapons. 

Biden vowed as a presidential candidate to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state” after the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. U.S. intelligence reports implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a charge the crown prince known as MSB denies.

Biden left the region late Saturday without a unilateral commitment from the Saudi leadership to pump more oil. The Saudi crown prince and other Gulf oil state leaders said the appeal for a boost in output would be considered at the Aug. 3 meeting of the OPEC+ alliance, which includes Russia, whose unprovoked war in Ukraine triggered Western sanctions on the Kremlin that have contributed to energy and food shortages.  

Biden did bring home some noteworthy achievements from his whirlwind trip: 

  • Saudi backing of a U.N.-brokered truce in the eight-year-old Yemen civil war that Saudi arms and surrogates had turned into a proxy war with Iran-backed Houthi militants.
  • An opening of Saudi airspace, including for Israeli aircraft, in what is seen as a first step toward reducing tensions and integrating the Jewish state with its Muslim neighbors.
  • A joint U.S.-Israeli vow to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, achieved by Biden’s agreeing to use force against Tehran as a last resort if necessary while buying time for a diplomatic resolution to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal Donald Trump destroyed by pulling the United States out of the agreement backed by other world powers.
  • Commitment by the United States to provide $1 billion in food security aid for the Middle East and North Africa, and a promise by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to invest $3 billion in the U.S.-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, Bloomberg reported.
  • A U.S.-brokered agreement among Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to withdraw troops from the strategic Red Sea island of Tiran that Egypt ceded to Saudi Arabia in 2017 and the kingdom wants to develop into a tourist destination to diversity its oil-dominated economy.

These incremental advances toward restoring U.S. credibility in the region were widely ignored by American mainstream news organizations and politically slanted media across the spectrum. Instead, analysis of Biden’s talks with Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis and Gulf Arab leaders zeroed in on The Fist Bump Heard ’Round the World. Broadcast images of Biden’s nanosecond return of MSB’s greeting at the start of their talks Friday dominated coverage of the president’s first official visit to the Middle East.

“Biden’s fist bump with Prince Mohammed in front of the royal palace in Jeddah will serve as the defining image of the trip,” Reuters news agency wrote, noting that White House officials dithered for months before deciding it might be more important to keep strategic ties with a key regional power than to agonize over “how it would look” for Biden to meet with a leader he had labeled a pariah.

Biden told journalists after his meeting with MSB that he confronted him about the Khashoggi killing, in which the crown prince continued to deny involvement. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir expanded on MSB’s response by noting he called it “a painful episode for Saudi Arabia and that it was a terrible mistake.”

The crown prince also pointed to “mistakes” by the United States and Israel, the foreign minister added, including U.S. occupation forces torturing Muslim captives at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, the 20-year U.S. attempt to reshape Afghanistan with its claimed superior values and the shooting death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh that the U.S. State Department said was likely caused by a bullet fired by an Israeli soldier.

In an opinion piece by the New York Times on Friday, the paper’s editorial board detailed what it called incremental accomplishments that suggest a change in foreign policy strategy in the Biden administration to calibrate the “democracy versus autocracy” lens through which relationships are viewed.

“This binary way of looking at the world doesn’t always serve American national interests or the interests of people around the world who are fighting for their democratic rights to live freely and in peace. Nowhere is this more clear than in Mr. Biden’s trip this week to the Middle East.”

“America’s greatest strength in the world has always been its combination of high ideals and a readiness to engage with almost anyone when it served to advance peace and American national interests. This doesn’t mean the kind of amoral pandering to dictators practiced by Mr. Trump. Rather, it means building on areas of agreement, however small, that can be used to move toward a more peaceful, free and open world.

“American presidents held regular summit meetings with Soviet leaders throughout the Cold War, achieving major arms-control agreements while remaining critical of Soviet human-rights violations. Richard Nixon’s visit to a totalitarian China in 1972 transformed America’s relationship with China and, eventually, China’s with the rest of the world.”

Whether OPEC+ will deliver relief for the West’s energy woes in a couple of weeks, whether MSB will maintain his support for the Yemen truce, whether Iran will respond to the Israeli-U.S. vow to deny it nuclear weapons with the will to negotiate or defiant ramping up of production are all open questions. 

The search for resolution of the Middle East’s long-simmering disputes couldn’t start without U.S. contact with the region’s pariahs as well as its partners. Biden’s fist bump with his Saudi host on Friday wasn’t a White House “reward” for the leader of a kingdom with a lifelong record of human rights abuses, it was an acknowledgement that little can be achieved in a protracted standoff. Diplomacy traditionally begins with a handshake.

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Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.

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