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At the White House
Biden’s Saudi trip spotlights age-old tension between human rights agenda and political reality
President Biden will make his first official trip to the Middle East on Wednesday in what will be another test of his ability to balance the administration’s stated focus on human rights and advancing strategic interests.
The visit to Saudi Arabia — which comes as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to disrupt global energy security — has drawn ire from lawmakers and top foreign policy aides on its purpose and utility.
Critics have slammed Biden’s visit to the oil-rich kingdom, given their record of human rights abuses under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, including the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (The crown prince has denied ordering Khashoggi’s killing.)
But it’s Biden’s sit-down with MBS during a bilateral meeting that underscores the tension between his values-based approach to foreign policy and the governing realities of the current world.
“This visit to Saudi Arabia is clearly a significant setback to the desire to place human rights at the center of American foreign policy,” Christopher J. Bolan, foreign policy adviser on Middle East and South Asia affairs for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney, said.
However, “forging an effectively bilateral relationship with the Kingdom and its leadership is something that serves American interests,” Bolan added, and “President Biden’s meeting with him is a reluctant recognition of that unpleasant reality.”
On the agenda: Biden will kick off his three-day trip to the Middle East with a stop in Israel, where he’ll meet with Prime Minister Yair Lapid to discuss Israeli national security. He’ll also visit the West Bank and meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Biden will then travel to Saudi Arabia for the Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Jiddah. He will hold bilateral talks with King Salman and his leadership team, including MBS, White House spokesman John Kirby confirmed on Thursday. They are expected to discuss the cease-fire in Yemen, counterterrorism, climate change and energy security, Kirby said.
According to Bolan, Saudi Arabia has a lot to gain from a meeting with Biden.
“For MBS personally, this visit cements his position as de facto ruler of the country. It also demonstrates his ability to pursue independent Saudi foreign and domestic policies despite intense public pressure and scrutiny from the U.S. Congress and President Biden.”
According to Biden, the U.S. has much to gain from a meeting with Saudi leadership as well. “A region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation — rather than coming apart through conflict — is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on U.S. military forces and their families,” Biden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Saturday.
Not the first, and likely not the last
Biden isn't the first U.S. president to re-engage authoritarian governments in an attempt to balance competing issues.
“Almost every president tries to balance values and interests,” Dennis Ross, who has worked on Middle East policy under five presidents, told The Early. “Sometimes on a short-term basis, they will see that they choose one over the other.”
Most recently, Biden faced open criticism when he invited Brazil to last month’s Summit of the Americas and held a one-on-one meeting with Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s far-right leader. Bolsonaro made baseless claims of electoral fraud, threatened to contest the results of the country’s upcoming presidential elections and cast doubt on Biden’s presidential win.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations embraced former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, despite his presidency being marred by corruption, including his recent extradition for allegedly receiving millions in bribes as part of a drug-trafficking scheme.
And President Jimmy Carter’s Middle East foreign policy was heavily influenced by the U.S.’s dependence on oil, Bolan added.
“There will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region,” Obama said of American diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa during a 2011 address to the State Department.
Campaign promises vs. political reality
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers and voters are skeptical of thawing a relationship with the region, despite concern over high gas prices, which Republicans have sought to blame Biden for ahead of the November elections.
“While I recognize the geopolitical imperatives of visiting Saudi Arabia, I am deeply concerned a meeting with MBS at this moment risks sending the absolutely wrong message if we don’t center the conversation around human rights,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote in a statement to The Early. “We cannot let him believe he can rule with impunity simply because we’re addicted to foreign oil. This isn’t just about Saudi Arabia, this is about the credibility of our global human rights agenda.”
Robert W. Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during George W. Bush’s administration and a longtime friend of Khashoggi, said there were several times when he expressed “complete and utter disgust” with Khashoggi’s killing. But noted that “an ambassador and a president have broader responsibilities, some of which sometimes conflict.”
“Not all partnerships are pleasant partnerships,” Jordan continued.
Human rights advocates are still not convinced. “In the case of Biden I fear that he is essentially saying ‘Let’s forget about Jamal Khashoggi; let’s forget about the repression of all domestic activists in Saudi Arabia; let’s forget about the bombing of Yemeni civilians for a slightly cheaper tank of gas,’” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told our colleague Missy Ryan.
But Ross doesn’t believe that Biden is sacrificing his long-term commitment to human rights by traveling to Saudi Arabia.
“The reality is, if you put this relationship on a more solid footing, it’s also going to mean the Saudis will be more generally responsive to American concerns,” Ross said. If the trip “produces that, then it will be a successful trip.”
On the Hill
The final legislative sprint — filled with hurdles
Congress is back and ready (or not) for the last legislative sprint — even if it feels like a marathon — before the midterm elections. The Senate returns today and will be in session for four weeks; the House is back tomorrow and will depart again in only three weeks.
Democrats have lofty goals for the mid-summer session before they turn their focus and time to the midterm elections.
But in another reminder of the barely-there Democratic majority, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has tested positive for covid, sidelining him from votes for at least a week.
“Consistent with the CDC guidance, Leader Schumer will quarantine this week and work remotely. Anyone who knows Leader Schumer knows that even if he’s not physically in the Capitol, through virtual meetings and his trademark flip phone he will continue with his robust schedule and remain in near constant contact with his colleagues," Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said in a statement.
Schumer's absence won't derail their legislative ambitions for this work period (see below) but it's another reminder of how fragile and how important every member of the Senate majority is.
Build Back Better is back
A slimmed-down version of Democrats' once-massive reconciliation package is back, as negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) have made significant progress in the past week.
As our colleague Tony Romm scooped this weekend, the scaled-back reconciliation package includes:
- Lower drug costs for seniors, improved financial health of Medicare and closure of a tax loophole that benefits the wealthy. They even have advanced talks around addressing the challenges posed by a faster-warming planet, raising the prospect that they can secure a limited initiative to penalize methane emissions.
Some on K Street are also optimistic that the bill could pass.
“We probably have a two-in-three chance of getting reconciliation through to the president before mid-August,” said Rich Gold, who leads Holland & Knight’s public policy and regulation group.
But Republicans will do everything in their power to make sure it goes nowhere. They're publicly and privately pressuring the two senators whose support is critical for Democrats' success: Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Republicans will highlight the two Democrats' concerns, including inflation, Biden's low poll numbers and higher taxes.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, previewed the argument on “Fox News Sunday.”
"To my friend Joe Manchin from West Virginia, whose vote is going to be necessary for this," Barrasso said, "I would remind him that Joe Biden's popularity in that state it is as low as it is in Wyoming. Only 17 percent. Joe shouldn't walk the plank for Joe Biden."
USICA stand off
Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Biden administration will try to wrap up House and Senate conference negotiations on the microchip and technology bill, known as USICA, the United States Innovation and Competition Act.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he'd work against an agreement on the bipartisan measure if Democrats move forward with reconciliation. (Read above).
The administration and Democrats say it's a national security threat if the bill isn't passed. Schumer has scheduled an all-senator national security briefing for Wednesday to press the issue and put pressure on McConnell.
Senate Democrats are in a rush to move nominations ahead of the midterm elections in case Democrats lose control of the Senate.
They'll vote this week on a series of nominations, including Steve Dettelbach to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The White House was forced to withdraw Biden's first pick for the long-vacant position, David Chipman, who failed to secure the support of two Democratic senators and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine.)
Schumer isn't the only senator out for health reasons. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), 82, who had surgery on his hip after a fall over the recess, but he is expected to be available for any critical votes.
“Senator Leahy’s recovery and physical therapy are proceeding well and he expects to be available for votes this week if necessary," David Carle, a Leahy spokesman, told The Early.
What Bannon could say at the next Jan 6. hearing
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is set to hold another hearing on Tuesday. It's expected to focus on Trump's Dec. 19, 2020, tweet — a “siren call” as Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) told NBC's “Meet the Press” on Sunday — urging his supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6 and other messages from Trump and his allies, as our colleagues Amy Wang and Olivier Knox report.
Steve Bannon's lawyer, meanwhile, told the committee on Saturday that he'll willing to testify — although the offer “could turn out to be a ploy,” as our colleagues Isaac Arnsdorf, Jacqueline Alemany, Rosalind Helderman and Josh Dawsey report.
- “Bannon could still assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as other witnesses such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark have done. Bannon might also insist on conditions, such as testifying on live TV, that the committee might not want to accept.”
- If he does testify, Bannon could help clarify why he tried to help get Enrique Tarrio, the head of the Proud Boys, out of jail days before Jan. 6, as well as the circumstances surrounding Trump's last-minute pardon of Bannon before leaving office.
Democrats' next moves on abortion
First in the Early: Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Biden on Friday urging him “to prioritize equity” as his administration responds to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. He wants Biden to address the disproportionate impact the “decision will have on racial minorities and economically disadvantaged families, as well as immigrant and tribal communities.”
- Among Padilla's suggestions: The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, should “develop policies and protocols to ensure that pregnant women and girls in immigration detention or in Office of Refugee and Resettlement custody are not denied access to reproductive healthcare — including abortion — because they are detained in states where access to abortion is now restricted.”
The letter comes as the House plans to take up at least two bills aimed at protecting women seeking abortions and medical providers performing them. One of them, from Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), is an updated version of her bill that passed the House earlier this year codifying Roe v. Wade. The other, by Reps. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Tex.), Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), would protect women traveling across state lines to seek an abortion.
Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) has been in touch with Harris about her bill, the My Body, My Data Act, which would protect ovulation and period app users health data, Jacobs told The Early. Biden in the abortion-related executive order he signed on Friday directed his administration to explore privacy protections for app users.
Early reeeads 🐣
- Biden says he's weighing calls to declare a public health emergency on abortion. By The Post’s Matt Viser.
- Why the Jan. 6 committee rushed Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony. By the New York Times’s Robert Draper.
- Military contractor said U.S. intelligence officials backed its attempt to buy blacklisted Israeli spyware firm. By the New York Times’s Mark Mazzetti and Ronen Bergman.
- Buttigieg says officials like Kavanaugh ‘should expect’ public protest. By The Post's María Luisa Paúl.
- House GOP marches into deeper blue terrain as Dem prospects fade. By Politico's Ally Mutnick and Sarah Ferris.