President Biden ended an arduous four-day visit to the Middle East over the weekend without a major success to appease his liberal base, which has criticized him for pandering to oil-rich autocrats and walking back a campaign pledge to make a pariah of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Mr. Biden did succeed in promoting stronger security coordination between Arab powers and Israel — a once unthinkable but increasingly viable pursuit amid mutual Arab and Israeli concern over threats emanating from Iran.
He also used the visit to project assurances that the U.S. will remain regionally engaged on a variety of fronts, including climate change and infrastructure investment.
His meeting with the crown prince was highly criticized. U.S. intelligence officials say the monarch orchestrated the 2018 killing of Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi.
After a closed-door meeting with Saudi leaders Friday, Mr. Biden appeared to acknowledge his failure to achieve a major goal of the trip: to persuade Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production for the global market.
The administration hoped that more Saudi oil would help bring down international prices and alleviate high gasoline costs in the United States.
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“I’m doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America, which I expect to happen,” Mr. Biden told reporters. “The Saudis share that urgency and, based on our discussions today, I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks.”
Both parties criticize
The lack of a commitment from the Saudis seemed to amplify frustration toward the president on both the left and the right in Washington. Media coverage of his trip to the Middle East was dominated by reminders of Khashoggi’s death.
With Mr. Biden having pledged on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in response to the journalist’s killing, critics fiercely condemned his meeting with the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Khashoggi’s widow said the blood of Crown Prince Mohammad’s next victim is on Mr. Biden’s hands for paying respect to the Saudi leader.
Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan ripped Mr. Biden‘s “shameful” fist bump with the crown prince as the two leaders greeted each other in Jeddah.
SEE ALSO: Bernie Sanders rips Biden for Saudi Arabia trip
Mr. Ryan said the greeting “projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to the crown prince the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking.”
The criticism continued after the president’s return to Washington late Saturday.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said no deal the president could have hoped for on oil would be worth meeting with Saudi leaders.
“You’ve got a family that is worth $100 billion which crushes democracy, which treats women as third-class citizens, which murders and imprisons its opponents,” Mr. Sanders said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “If this country believes in anything, we believe in human rights, we believe in democracy. And I just don’t believe that we should be maintaining a warm relationship with a dictatorship like that.”
Key Republicans on foreign policy also vented frustration.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Biden failed in his “one primary mission in the Middle East: securing greater oil supply from our partners to lower prices at home.”
“Instead of prioritizing that goal, however, President Biden focused on the optics of his meeting with the Saudi crown prince — settling on a fist bump over a handshake, as if it would make a diplomatic or epidemiological difference,” Mr. Inhofe said. “Now, he returns home empty-handed, to no one’s surprise.”
Security against Iran
Mr. Biden defended his Saudi Arabia visit. He insisted that his overall trip had larger implications for the U.S. and the world at a moment of stalled nuclear talks with an increasingly belligerent Iran and rising global instability stemming from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Administration officials said an overall goal of the trip was to promote stronger security coordination between Arab powers, including the Saudis and Israel, after months of trying to persuade Iran to reenter the Obama-era nuclear deal.
With the failure over the past year of the Biden administration’s push for an Iranian-U.S. diplomatic detente, the president has been forced to focus on facilitating regional military preparedness against Tehran.
Foreign policy analysts say Mr. Biden made notable progress on the effort during his trip.
Although he made no firm commitments to abandon the stalled nuclear talks with Iran, the president vowed during a stop in Israel and during his visit to Saudi Arabia that the U.S. would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
“The United States … is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome,” said a joint declaration that Mr. Biden inked with Israeli leaders.
“The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” the declaration said.
Mr. Biden underscored “the need to further deter Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” among a broader set of defense commitments in a joint communique after his meeting with Saudi leaders.
Gregg Roman, the director of the pro-Israel think tank the Middle East Forum, said both commitments marked a positive shift in Mr. Biden’s posture toward Iran by signaling that the “military option is back on the table” regarding Tehran.
“I think Biden got a lot of wins on this trip,” Mr. Roman said. “And he did so by adopting pragmatism rather than idealism.”
Others noted Mr. Biden’s remarks before the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional security organization, on the final day of his visit to Saudi Arabia.
“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” the president said. “We will seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”
Mr. Biden laid out a U.S. framework for engagement, including a continued commitment to regional security amid increasing global insecurity.
“This was extraordinary,” said James Jeffrey, chairman of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program and a former special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
“What he said specifically is [that] if you put this in the context of the overall global situation, that the global order is being challenged by Russia, China and he added Iran. That’s important,” Mr. Jeffrey said.
“This is the strongest statement we’ve gotten from the administration by far in challenging Iran,” he added.
The administration also inched forward relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia by getting the Saudis to allow him to fly directly into the kingdom from Israel.
Saudi Arabia has refused to grant permission to Israeli airlines to use its airspace, except for a brief period in 2020 after other Arab powers signed the Trump-era Abraham Accords normalizing relations with Israel.
Although the Saudis have thus far refused to join in the Abraham Accords or recognize Israel as a country since its 1948 founding, the administration hailed the opening of airspace for Mr. Biden‘s flight as a breakthrough.
David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said Mr. Biden‘s visit to Saudi Arabia marked an important shift in approach to a historically complex relationship.
He praised the president’s steps for improving ties despite the crown prince’s problematic record on human rights and said the campaign promise to shun the kingdom was unrealistic.
“I think the president needs to do what’s in the best interest of the United States,” Mr. Schanzer said. “I think this trip was a well-orchestrated effort to deal with the set of realities of our times rather than trying to create some sort of ideal that really doesn’t exist now and was never likely to exist in the future.”