The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Saudi snub of Biden is a disaster. Democrats must respond.

President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Republicans are surely excited about the news that a group of oil-producing countries led by Saudi Arabia and Russia will slash oil production by 2 million barrels per day. In addition to threatening the global economy, it also could mean the specter of higher energy prices heading into the midterm elections, bolstering GOP attacks at a time when their potency has faded.

Democrats need to respond, not just for their own good but for the good of the country. This is an opportunity to clarify some murky complications in our politics about what the parties stand for — and show that our energy future and even the fate of the Western alliance backing Ukraine are deeply entangled in these midterms.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a vulnerable swing-district incumbent, is introducing a bill designed to increase pressure on OPEC and its allies to reverse the move. The bill would require the removal of U.S. troops and missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

This legislation is basically a vehicle for Democrats (and Republicans, if they so choose) to urge Biden to show that there will be consequences for harming U.S. interests. “At the end of the day, the power is in the president’s hands,” Malinowski told me. “He should begin withdrawing some of these assets.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

“No more pleading and cajoling,” he continued. “Just take an action. Make it clear … that the Saudis can’t take us for granted the way that they have been for so many years.”

Biden has invested a great deal in “cajoling” the Saudis, but it obviously failed; the widely criticized fist bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks even worse in retrospect. The questions now are how widely Democrats will demand consequences and whether Biden will respond.

The key nuance here is that Biden as commander in chief doesn’t need this bill to begin withdrawing military. But Malinowski says that if Democrats widely endorse the idea, it could send a strong signal to Biden and Saudi Arabia alike.

“We’re signaling to the president that he should play this card, and that there would be congressional support for doing so,” said Malinowski, who introduced the bill with Reps. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) and Susan Wild (D-Pa.).

There are other options for Democrats. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) is calling for reforms to antitrust legislation that would strip OPEC and its allies of immunity to U.S. lawsuits, an idea that has bipartisan support.

“Democrats and Republicans alike should recognize the need for a coordinated and forceful response from Congress,” Spanberger told me in a statement. Spanberger added that the oil producing countries have sided with Russia “over the United States,” meaning that higher energy prices could strain European countries and weaken the pro-Ukraine alliance.

All this has the potential to produce a clarifying moment, in three ways. First, consider the role of the Republican Party.

In an act of meaningful trolling, Malinowski notes that his bill to pull the U.S. military presence mirrors a measure congressional Republicans pushed in 2020 to help President Donald Trump increase pressure on Saudi Arabia to cut production.

At the time, the situation was reversed — Trump wanted production slashed to boost then-collapsing oil prices to help his reelection. And the pressure paid off in a large oil production cut.

Now, however, it seems unlikely that Republicans would join in pressuring Saudi Arabia to refrain from cutting production, since cuts now could boost energy prices, helping the GOP. That Malinowski’s bill is similar to the 2020 GOP bill is designed to highlight the absurdity of this.

Second, this whole affair highlights the interests Saudi Arabia and Russia might have in seeing a GOP-controlled Congress, as well as that outcome’s geopolitical fallout. Even just a GOP House could slow our transition to green energy and potentially defund U.S. aid to Ukraine at a moment when the Russian invasion is in serious trouble.

Asked whether he believes that the move to cut oil production is designed to help Republicans win Congress, Malinowski allowed that the crown prince and Russia “share an interest in changing American politics in their favor.”

“Whether it’s energy policy or support for human rights around the world or support for Ukraine, there’s a commonality of interests there,” Malinowski told me.

Finally, this could clarify the costs of our entanglement with the Saudis — and do so in a way that unites Democrats. Progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have long pushed for a rethinking of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. Now we’re seeing some very forceful noises along these lines from more centrist Democrats:

Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sanders, points out that such a rethinking could also bolster the Democratic Party’s efforts to align itself firmly on the side of democracy and against autocracy, a goal pretty much all Democrats share.

“If we’re serious about strengthening democracy against authoritarianism, this would be a good moment to seriously reassess the United States’ long-standing relationship with one of the worst authoritarian governments in the world,” Duss told me.

That is something Democrats of all kinds should be able to get behind.

Loading...