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President Joe Biden has faced an early test case of his intention to put values back into American foreign policy. On February 26, his administration released the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of responsibility for the horrendous killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report revealed high confidence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, “approved” Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment. But Biden decided to avoid sanctioning MBS.
Many in the Democratic Party and in the human rights community have decried the president’s decision as hypocritical, especially because Biden had promised during the election campaign to treat Saudi Arabia “as the pariah they are.” The president put American strategic interests ahead of its values, many of his ardent supporters believe, in effect allowing the convicted assassin to walk free.
The defenders of Biden’s decision argue that the national interest requires the president to retain the ability to engage with Saudi leaders, just as he does with Chinese and Russian leaders who are responsible for equally heinous human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia’s role as the swing producer of oil, an important Arab member of the anti-Iran coalition, and a major customer for U.S. arms sales in their view dictates “recalibrating” rather than “rupturing” the relationship. Moreover, an administration whose first foreign policy priority is to counter a rising China must avoid driving Saudi Arabia into Beijing’s arms.
The passionate convictions of one side and the strategic imperatives of the other threaten to obscure the real dilemma that the Khashoggi case presents for a new administration. Diplomacy is an art that demands nuance, but both sides have presented the Saudi case in black-and-white, zero-sum terms. If the Biden administration hopes to succeed in rebalancing values and interests in its foreign policy, it is going to have to do a better job of defining and defending a middle way that combines the two.
What would that middle way look like? The administration has already adopted the most important elements of one, but it has done a poor job of explaining them, and therefore they are little understood. For example, the United States has downgraded MBS from an honored visitor, as he was during Trump’s term, to a leader who is no longer welcome in the United States, let alone in Biden’s White House. Biden’s critics sought precisely this outcome in demanding that MBS be directly sanctioned—but sanctioning the crown prince wasn’t necessary to achieve that purpose. Instead, the United States sanctioned MBS’s personal protective detail, the Rapid Intervention Force, because its members carried out Khashoggi’s killing. MBS has reason to fear assassination and will not travel without his bodyguards. The de facto ruler has in effect been subjected to a de facto travel ban.
Even more humiliating is the downgrading of the channel MBS will be allowed to use to communicate with the Biden administration. Critics give no credit to Biden for this action because they prefer to see MBS completely ostracized. But in Trump’s day, the crown prince had a frequently used, direct channel to the White House through Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law. Now his only channel is through General Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defense. Instead of acknowledging MBS as the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Biden is publicly signaling that he recognizes the crown prince only in his lesser role as defense minister. In fact, in protocol terms, Vice President Kamala Harris should be the crown prince’s counterpart. But to grant him that status would enable him to have a channel into the White House, which Biden has made clear is a nonstarter by designating an interlocutor who resides across the Potomac.
None of Saudi Arabia's princes will miss the point that the White House is in fact treating their crown prince like a pariah.
MBS remains popular among his people for the reforms he has introduced, but some within the princely ruling class are angry and resentful over the arbitrary and punitive way that he has treated them. None of the princes will miss the point that the White House is in fact treating their crown prince like a pariah, just as Biden promised to do. But by doing so in a manner that avoids cutting off all contact with the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Biden can reduce MBS’s ability to rally royal support as the martyr treated unfairly by a United States that practices double standards.
However, to maintain this nuanced approach requires the administration’s spokespeople to maintain discipline in the face of the onslaught of criticism from those who demand an overt sanctioning of MBS. Unfortunately, members of Biden’s team have justified their approach by arguing that, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “the crown prince is likely to be in a position of leadership for years, decades to come.” That message—suggesting that Biden has no choice but to deal with him—devalues the signal the president sent by blocking the crown prince’s access to the White House. Acknowledging that MBS will remain the ruler for a long time to come could undermine those in the royal family who might have argued that he needs to be replaced because the kingdom cannot afford to have as its heir apparent someone who cannot communicate directly with the president of its ultimate protector. And it encourages MBS to believe that he can continue business as usual, because eventually Biden will come around to dealing with him, just as American business leaders have already done.
Mixed messages also threaten to undermine what should be the higher purpose of the Biden administration’s effort to balance values and interests in its approach to Saudi Arabia: to persuade whoever rules in Riyadh to pursue a more enlightened approach toward the Saudi people and a more responsible one in the region. MBS is continuing to engage in human rights abuses, cracking down on dissent by harassing and arresting his critics at home as well as abroad. The Biden administration has pledged to protect Saudi dissidents abroad by applying Magnitsky Act sanctions to those who would intimidate them. But the administration should make clear that the way Saudi Arabia treats its citizens at home will also affect U.S. policy. Anticipating such pressure, MBS recently released Loujain al-Hathloul, the women’s rights activist who had been imprisoned and tortured. Biden acknowledged that her release was a good start—but he should now press the Saudi government to release all prisoners of conscience and allow for greater freedom of expression inside the country, and he should clearly call out any new acts of repression.
The most egregious Saudi human rights abuses are occurring next door in Yemen, where MBS’s conduct of the war has helped precipitate the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Biden has called for an end to the war, suspended U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign, and appointed a special envoy to spur a negotiated solution. Yemen is not a strategic priority of the United States, but ending the conflict there will do more to advance human rights than any sanctioning of MBS. Yet that goal will not be easy to achieve. The Houthis, Saudi Arabia’s adversary in Yemen, already control 80 percent of the population. They and their Iranian backers have little incentive to negotiate an end to a war that they feel they are winning—one that’s costing Saudi Arabia a fortune in treasure and reputation and straining its relations with the United States.
The only way to end the war in short order is for MBS to decide unilaterally to cease the Saudi bombing campaign and lift the blockade of Yemen’s ports. That is the course of action Austin should urge MBS to take through his channel. Austin should make clear that the United States will help Saudi Arabia defend itself by enhancing Saudi antimissile defenses should the Houthis continue their drone and missile attacks on Saudi territory after the unilateral declaration of a cease-fire. But he should reiterate that there will be no more U.S. military or political support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. Biden's treatment of MBS as a de facto pariah could give the crown prince incentive to make this unilateral declaration by enabling him to end his costly adventure while appealing to the president's good graces. Overtly sanctioning him is likely only to encourage him to dig in his heels and insist instead on a never-ending political negotiation.
Biden has committed to shifting U.S. focus and resources away from the Middle East and toward Asia, where countering China’s rising influence will be the strategic priority. But in order to make this turn, Washington will need a responsible Saudi Arabia that works with other U.S. allies and partners to staunch the region’s sources of instability and conflict. Such is the strategic imperative in U.S.-Saudi relations.
But the Biden administration can also put U.S. values into the relationship in a way that has never really been attempted before. To do so, Biden should insist that MBS continue the reforms he has introduced to modernize Saudi society and grant women equal rights—but without the accompanying repression and aggressive behavior abroad that have become his hallmark.
Whether MBS can play this role of a reliable and enlightened partner to the United States is doubtful, based on past behavior. But as long as he remains crown prince, an approach that allows for his rehabilitation should he end the Yemen war and internal repression is bound to better advance U.S. values and interests—and redeem Jamal Khashoggi’s legacy—than one designed to keep him in the doghouse, regardless of whether he behaves differently.
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