Opinion Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia erodes our moral authority

(Washington Post illustration; photos by Kyodo News/Getty Images and iStockphoto)
(Washington Post illustration; photos by Kyodo News/Getty Images and iStockphoto)

Fred Ryan is publisher of The Post.

Inexperienced politicians often learn the hard way about the difference between campaigning and governing, making bold statements on the trail that later require embarrassing reversals. But when it comes to international realpolitik, no recent candidate could have been better informed than Joe Biden. After decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and eight years as vice president, Biden campaigned in 2020 partly on his foreign-policy experience.

When, seeking votes, Biden vowed to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” for his role in murdering Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the world had every reason to think he meant it.

So why is President Biden now going to Jiddah on bended knee to shake the “pariah’s” bloodstained hand? Once again, he is seeking votes.

Read this piece in Arabic.

The president has justified his trip as a necessary move to promote stability in the Middle East and to deter Russian and Chinese aggression. But the president should know meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is known, will give the Saudi leader exactly what three years of Saudi PR campaigns, lobbying expenses, and even a new golf league have not: a return to respectability. This undeserved absolution will, in turn, only undermine the foreign-policy goals Biden hopes to achieve.

First, Biden’s meeting will signal that American values are negotiable. Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abruptly shut down the trial of 26 Saudis suspected in Jamal’s murder — just before he was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia to plead for economic investment that would boost his own 2023 reelection bid. Now, it is the U.S. president who is turning a blind eye to Jamal’s murder in an effort to lower gasoline prices in advance of this fall’s midterms.

Biden needs the Saudis to increase their oil production to help keep global energy prices in check. The trip sends the message that the United States is willing to look the other way when its commercial interests are at stake. We have learned, through decades of hard lessons, that terrorists recruit by exploiting hatred of the United States among people brutalized by their own despotic leaders. That narrative succeeds best when Americans talk a good game about human rights until there’s something else we need more — such as cheap oil.

Joe Biden: Why I'm going to Saudi Arabia

About-faces such as the one Biden is making erode our moral authority and breed anti-American resentment. They communicate to democracy activists and reform-minded governments worldwide that Washington is an unreliable partner. And that sows confusion and sabotages our diplomacy — the opposite of what Biden says his trip is trying to achieve.

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No meaningful obstacle prevented the Saudis from boosting oil output as soon as Russian troops rolled into Ukraine. In response to U.S. pleas for increased production, MBS instead snubbed key Biden administration officials and refused to participate in a phone call with the president.

Neither meetings with Biden’s deputies nor a phone call would give MBS what he most wanted: a photo of the president shaking his hand. So, MBS held out until Biden grew desperate enough to give in. We can be sure other “allies,” whose support we need, are taking note.

Biden’s meeting also sends a dangerous message about the value the United States attaches to a free press. A grip-and-grin photograph with MBS signals to autocrats everywhere that you can quite literally get away with murdering a journalist as long as you possess a natural resource the United States wants badly enough.

This danger is hardly hypothetical. When Jamal, who lived in Virginia, was killed, the world was stunned that MBS would butcher a journalist so closely connected to the United States. Today, Vladimir Kara-Murza, another Post contributor and a permanent U.S. resident, languishes in a Russian jail. And Austin Tice, a U.S. citizen who has freelanced for The Post and other outlets, remains in captivity in Syria after nearly a decade. When the image of Biden pressing flesh with Jamal’s murderer flashes around the world, what will it say to Vladimir Putin and to the Syrians, who hold the lives of these journalists in their hands?

Some have tried to argue in advance of Biden’s trip that enough time has passed since Jamal’s murder to allow the U.S.-Saudi relationship to simply move on. But it’s not too late for Biden to wring some good out of this ill-conceived blunder. We cannot forget that, even though Jamal was killed more than three years ago, right now, every day, the Saudi people are subjected to grotesque repression. Political prisoners, dissidents, independent journalists and others are jailed and tortured at MBS’s direction. Women are second-class citizens, and LGBTQ and minority rights do not exist.

Biden’s team has already said that the president will “raise the issue of human rights” with his Saudi counterparts. With that box checked, conversations are sure to turn swiftly to the real agenda items for the meeting — like oil flow — with nothing real to show for it. Biden should insist on more. Before meeting with MBS, Biden should send over a list of political prisoners to be released as a precondition for the encounter. And, as Ronald Reagan did when visiting the Soviet Union, Biden should insist on meeting face-to-face with Saudi dissidents while in the country. If he is going to bring global attention to burnish a murderer’s image, the least he can do is turn a spotlight on men and women risking everything for the freedom and dignity of their people.

In a country where total censorship, public floggings, beheadings, “disappearances” and hundreds of political prisoners are the norm, releasing a few activists will make a small dent in addressing the kingdom’s barbarity. But it’s a start. It is a way to show that Biden’s self-abasement is meant to secure greater human rights, not just cheaper gas at American pumps. And it’s something MBS can do now, immediately upon Biden’s request, as a minimum show of good faith.

If Mohammed bin Salman delivers anything less, Biden should refuse the staged handshake the crown prince so desperately craves. Otherwise, MBS’s cherished photo will belong in an album of American shame.