Democrats have become quite muted in their criticism of Saudi Arabia, particularly over the death of political activist and writer Jamal Khashoggi, as President Joe Biden prepares to visit Riyadh in July and beg for oil from the kingdom he once promised to excommunicate from the civilized world. Obama Administration veteran Susan Rice, a major force in the Biden White House, seems to have lost her previously fervent interest in “punishing” the Saudis.
Human rights activists are grumbling about the sudden silence from Biden and his party. When Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia was announced, Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard called it a “betrayal for Jamal Khashoggi, for Yemen, and a betrayal of what the Democratic party stood for over the last three years.”
“I have absolutely no doubt that Joe Biden will get nothing in terms of human rights protections and the visit will be seen as a full victory and endorsement of Saudi Arabia,” Callamard predicted.
These complaints are muted compared to the excoriation former President Donald Trump received for supporting the Saudi government after the murder of Khashoggi, who was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018, violently executed by a team of Saudi agents, and dismembered.
The Saudis have portrayed the killing as a rogue operation and prosecuted several alleged perpetrators. Many human rights groups dismissed those claims and accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto chief executive of Saudi Arabia, of ordering the murder.
Those groups believed the Saudi government deserved to be condemned and ostracized for the killing, atop their grievances against the Saudis for hitting civilian targets during their intervention against the Iran-backed Houthi insurgents of Yemen, as Callmard indicated.
Joe Biden promised to do exactly that during the 2020 presidential campaign, most famously during the Democratic primary debate in 2019. Asked if he would “punish” senior Saudi leaders for Khashoggi’s death, Biden replied:
Yes, and I said it at the time. Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.
And I would also, as pointed out, I would end subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children, and they’re murdering innocent people. And so they have to be held accountable.
One of the biggest players in the Biden administration is Susan Rice, who was national security adviser to President Barack Obama when Joe Biden was vice president. Rice was a big part of the Obama administration’s bizarre obsession with turning away from the Gulf Arab states and embracing ultra-hostile Iran as America’s key partner in the Middle East, and she was a very loud critic of the Saudi government and President Trump after the Khashoggi murder.
Rice went directly after MBS in an October 2018 op-ed for the New York Times, calling him out for “extreme recklessness and immorality” that made him “a dangerous and unreliable partner for the United States.”
Rice heckled Americans “from Silicon Valley to the editorial pages of our leading papers” for getting suckered by “the crown prince’s promises of reform and the deft marketing of his leadership,” but said his true character had been exposed by “numerous impulsive and vicious actions” – from the war in Yemen to Khashoggi’s killing, from the repression of dissidents to his brutal seizure of power and money from other royals.
“If we fail to punish him directly and target only those around him, the crown prince will be further emboldened to take extreme actions,” Rice urged, going right up to the line of regime change.
“The United States was wrong to hitch our wagon to Prince Mohammed, but we would be even more foolish to continue to do so,” she declared.
That was then, and this is now, with President Biden’s approval ratings tumbling into the abyss because of skyrocketing inflation and gas prices, and Democrats looking at a midterm election bloodbath.
The Obama-Biden administration supported the Saudi intervention in Yemen when it began, but in a 2019 interview with the Huffington Post, Susan Rice absolved both Obama and Biden of having to address their old policies or speak up on the death of Khashoggi – an event she airily dismissed as “over a year old” at the time. The Huffington Post was very unsatisfied this answer, presaging today’s left-wing grumbles about Biden attempting to repair his relationship with the Saudis.
The Obama brain trust’s pivot to Iran lies in shambles, wiped out by the hostility and intransigence of the aspiring nuclear power in Tehran. The Iranians certainly are not going to rescue the Democrats from the electoral consequences of Joe Biden’s malicious energy policies.
The Saudis won’t either, in part because they remember Biden and Rice’s insults, and because their own geopolitical agenda does not include surging oil production to bring prices down. French President Emmanuel Macron took the remarkable step on Monday of warning Biden not to waste his time in Riyadh in front of press cameras, very much aware that his “personal comments” to Biden would be heard around the globe.
Macron told Biden that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is at maximum oil production capacity now, and the Saudis could only increase their output by 150,000 barrels per day, “maybe a little bit more.”
The Emiratis quickly confirmed Macron’s statement was accurate and the world price of oil promptly went up, the exact opposite of what Biden was hoping for.
According to Politico this month, some Democrats are quietly fuming at Biden for dropping his tough campaign talk when nothing in Saudi Arabia has changed much. Some of them had ideas for little snubs Biden might deliver during his July trip to show the Saudis that his administration remains displeased, without antagonizing them too much – a pathetic walkback from a party that once vowed to isolate Saudi Arabia the way Russia was isolated after invading Ukraine.
Of course, Biden’s isolation of Russia has been bungled as badly as the rest of his presidency – Moscow is raking in more petrodollars than ever, while the U.S. president is reduced to mewling that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is responsible for the lousy Biden economy. In other words, Biden is saying he picked a financial brawl with an economy one-fifteenth the size of America’s and lost.
With an election just months away and the American people giving him record-low approval ratings, Biden is not about to start a fight with the world’s pivotal oil producer. Even the Iran-centric loons Biden inherited from the Obama administration will think twice about pushing Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners further into Russia’s – and China’s – orbit.
Biden needs to come back from Riyadh with some kind of win, and MBS can be counted on to negotiate a high price for it. Talk of making the Saudis into global outlaws for murdering Jamal Khashoggi will be long forgotten.