Commentary | Center for American Security

Biden administration’s problem with Saudi Arabia

Samuel Buchan,  October 20, 2022

President Joe Biden threatened “consequences,” including virtually severing the US-Saudi bilateral relationship over the kingdom’s recent cuts to oil production.

It is an extreme position, to be sure, but not a surprising outcome given that he spent his campaign and much of his first two years – including his short visit there over the summer – ostracizing the kingdom.

There is certainly the still-outstanding concern about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and accountability still needs to take place. That, however, does not explain the Biden administration’s consistent isolation of the kingdom.

After all, if that were a real concern, he would apply his standard consistently – why not ostracize Maduro, Xi, the Iranian regime, and others who routinely kill and brutally oppress not only their own citizens but even our own?

This moment, however, exemplifies what is so wrong and illogical about the Biden administration’s approach. He is fine accepting our adversaries for who they are – even as they threaten American citizens – while he makes every effort to undermine allies who are not exactly on the same page with every part of his agenda.

The Biden administration and its allies in Congress are now deliberating a range of diplomatically and economically catastrophic tools to respond to the kingdom’s role in reducing OPEC’s production quotas.

Unsurprisingly, these tools include reactionary punitive measures, known as the NOPEC bill, enabling the US to sue OPEC on anti-trust grounds, risking further escalation of a global energy crisis to monumental proportions and already evoking a strong response from the kingdom.

These tools notably also include ending US-Saudi defense cooperation – perhaps the most maximalist option and one that would symbolize the end of bilateral relations.

How approaching policy with Saudi Arabia changes Biden's Image

SAUDI ARABIA is a perfect example of what the Biden team gets wrong. To be sure, Saudi Arabia is a problematic ally in many respects, but is a necessary ally to counter Iran. It continues to pursue cooperation with our allies in the region toward this end.

Moreover, the domestic changes underway – from greater freedoms for women, openness to tourism, and marginalization of the nation’s radical Wahhabi clergy – signal that it is on a different course from where it was historically.

In short, the country has undergone a profound transformation, largely in America’s direction. Saudi Arabia is certainly not America, but nor should we expect it to be.

It is, however, a key ally that helps us advance our priorities in the region and even around the world, particularly as a key partner in fighting terrorism, countering the Iranian regime, and cooperating with our allies in the region. 

And there are deep problems still, including Saudi Arabia’s ties to China and Russia. But a wiser administration would work to help wean the kingdom from its ties with our adversaries and bring it into our orbit.

The kingdom’s main sin, in the eyes of the Biden administration, is that it – for good, historically grounded reasons – opposes the Biden team’s negotiations with Iran. An interesting thought experiment is whether the Biden administration would overlook the controversy over Khashoggi if Saudi Arabia would wholeheartedly endorse their approach to Iran.

Today, Biden slams his fists on the table because of the outrage of going against his agenda. Saudi Arabia’s threats to cut oil production, which, as an aside, America would not need if Biden unleashed American energy production, is a convenient occasion to spill out his wrath on the kingdom.

The Trump administration, by contrast, took every nation for who they are but had specific demands on them, first and foremost, to treat Americans fairly. 

When it came to our allies in Europe, all of them needed to pay 2% of their GDP toward collective security as NATO members. When it came to our allies in the Middle East, it was incumbent to bring about a new approach to peace and stand up to our common adversary, Iran.

Our allies sometimes do the wrong things or pursue seemingly necessary things in very wrong ways. But American leadership depends first on understanding who is an ally and who is an adversary and, from that point, determining a course for how to address these real issues.

The Biden administration does not appear to operate with any consideration of allies and adversaries. Its priority is a narrow and exclusive adherence to its policy agenda – even, incidentally, when that agenda is wrong and dangerous to the American people.

This Biden First approach explains why Saudi Arabia and Israel, which now face escalating threats from Iran-backed Hamas, are expendable as the Biden administration seeks its nuclear deal. It is also why confronting China is a worthwhile sacrifice in the name of achieving the Biden administration’s green energy priorities.

And it is why overlooking Venezuela’s threats to Americans is palatable for the sake of flooding domestic markets with foreign oil.

As it turns out, Biden First actually means America Last. The American people and America’s alliances are all expendable in advancing his agenda.

Read this Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post here

Jacob Olidort is a historian of the Middle East who served as an adviser in the office of vice president Mike Pence. He currently serves as the director of the Center for American Security and as director of the center’s Middle East Peace Project at the America First Policy Institute.

Sam Buchan previously served as the director of international economic policy at the White House National Economic Council and as the senior adviser to secretaries Rick Perry and Dan Brouillette. He currently serves as the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the America First Policy Institute.

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