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Biden’s dodge on Khashoggi drives home his Saudi Arabia flip-flop

Vice President Biden with then-Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2011. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
7 min

Say what you will about former president Donald Trump: When he was flip-flopping on Saudi Arabia, at least he acknowledged the utterly transactional nature of it.

President Biden is now about to complete his own thoroughly convenient evolution on the Saudis. It has been a long time coming, but it’s plenty striking as well. And both Biden and the White House continue to struggle mightily to account for it.

Biden is set to meet this week with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi leaders during an overseas trip. The meeting is part of an apparent effort to seek help from the oil-rich nation, and others, to lower the previously record-high gas prices that have hampered the American economy and dogged Biden’s political fortunes.

But the meeting also comes less than three years after Biden pledged to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” for the gruesome assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden will meet with Mohammed despite U.S. intelligence having said Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.

Needless to say, this not a treatment generally reserved for pariahs.

It’s a remarkable turnabout for Biden. At a late-2019 Democratic presidential debate, he not only promised to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah,” but he also added that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

Biden did little to follow up on that promise after assuming the presidency, although he did release intelligence related to the sordid affair. As early as a March 2021 interview with ABC News, he signaled the coming retreat from his campaign promise.

“We held accountable all the people in that organization, but not the crown prince,” Biden said. “Because we have never — that I’m aware of, when we have an alliance with a country — gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him.”

Biden, it seems, has now recognized the value in the present government of Saudi Arabia — the economic and geopolitical value, if not the social. When it was reported last month that he would meet with the Saudis, he and the White House suggested that the meeting would be more about Middle East peace than oil.

“I’m not going to change my view on human rights,” he assured. “But it’s my job as president to try to bring about peace, if I can. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

Biden at one point insisted, “I’m not going to meet with MBS” — the initials often used as shorthand for Mohammed. But the White House later confirmed that Biden would encounter the crown prince in a bilateral meeting with Saudi King Salman and other leaders.

After a steady stream of criticism over engaging with and even seeking help from a country he had said he would treat as a pariah, Biden wrote a Washington Post op-ed this week explaining his trip. The op-ed made no mention of Mohammed and only briefly mentioned an effort “to help stabilize oil markets.” It mentioned Khashoggi and emphasized that the United States “will not tolerate extraterritorial threats and harassment against dissidents and activists by any government.”

On the eve of his visit, though, Biden and the White House won’t say how much they plan to press the Khashoggi issue specifically.

Asked at a news conference Thursday in Jerusalem whether he would raise Khashoggi with the Saudis, Biden didn’t directly answer the question.

“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear, and I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” he said. “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to promote U.S. interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert our influence in the Middle East.”

Biden added: “My position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it — in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else — then they haven’t been around for a while.”

But the question isn’t whether Biden will bring up human rights, which he has long emphasized; it’s about whether he will broach one of the most flagrant examples of a human-rights violation involving an American resident and a journalist in recent history. Biden’s comments could be read to suggest that the Saudis know where he stands and that it’s not necessarily worth pressing the issue. But he knows as well as anybody the significance of a face-to-face confrontation — at least, if the issue is important enough for that.

Biden’s noncommittal answer also comes after Khashoggi’s widow, Hanan Elatr, had told Spectrum News this week that the White House had “assured” her that Biden would raise her husband’s name directly with the Saudis.

A White House spokesperson explained Thursday morning, “We’re not in the habit of previewing private discussions we have with other leaders before they happen,” and then referred to Biden’s past actions on the Saudis and related issues.

That’s a long way from 2019. The president who said he would treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah now won’t even commit to broaching the issue that he suggested should upend a decades-long alliance.

It’s merely the latest example of a high-ranking U.S. politician promising to get tough on the Saudis and later backing off that posture.

If there’s one recent president who talked the toughest on Saudi Arabia before coming to power, it was Trump. He had spent decades holding up the Saudis as the embodiment of the United States cozying up to ne’er-do-well allies of convenience rather than standing on its principles. But he quickly reversed course early in his presidency, turning solicitous of the Saudis in the name of forging deals.

Then, upon Khashoggi’s assassination in 2018, he offered a string of bizarre comments lending credence to Saudi denials (despite U.S. intelligence findings) and essentially acknowledging the real reason for not holding the kingdom fully to account: that what was on the table in terms of the alliance and weapons deals was simply more important to him. Now, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has secured $2 billion in investment from the Saudis for his private-equity firm.

Which, points for honesty. At least Trump was effectively willing to concede that he valued those things more than human rights — that the balancing act tilted in that direction, despite the gruesome killing of someone who resided in his own country.

President Barack Obama, too, had to strike this balance. He generally held a harder line on the Saudis than other recent presidents. He called them “so-called” allies and alienated them by trying to work with Iran. But even he found himself forced to compromise somewhat, especially late in his presidency with a trip to shore up relations and his veto of a bill that would have allowed the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudis.

Then there was John F. Kerry, who unsuccessfully sought the presidency as a Democrat in 2004. While doing so, he, too, tried to make getting tough on the Saudis a wedge issue against George W. Bush.

And in a sign of how little the fundamentals of our relationship have changed, the crux of the matter was a deal with the Saudis to lower oil prices.

“If we are serious about energy independence, then we can finally be serious about confronting the role of Saudi Arabia in financing and providing ideological support of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” Kerry said.

Kerry added: “To put it simply: We will not do business as usual with Saudi Arabia.”

But the Saudis weren’t worried. As one high-ranking Saudi diplomat told The Post’s Glenn Kessler in response to Kerry’s threats, “That ends as soon as the new president gets his first security briefing.”

Nearly two decades later, despite even more high-minded promises to truly cease relying on the Saudis, it appears that’s going nowhere. Yes, geopolitical realities make that difficult. But those are realities with which a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee like Biden would have been well familiar in 2019.