News analysis: Biden tangled over impending visit to Saudi Arabia

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and President Isaac Herzog, left, as they participate in an arrival ceremony after Biden arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, July 13. 2022, in Tel Aviv.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday, just after aides said he would be “minimizing contact” with leaders due to COVID concerns. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Biden has frequently boasted about his own penchant for telling the truth, reminding the public of his promise to “tell them straight.”

But in the run-up to a politically awkward meeting later this week with the Saudi crown prince believed to be responsible for the gruesome murder of a journalist, Biden and his top advisers have been wading through euphemisms, elusions and even excuses to avoid politically uncomfortable truths.

While President Trump was famous for saying “the quiet part out loud,” Biden’s apprehensive unwillingness to state the obvious, in this case about his visit to Saudi Arabia, has only drawn more attention to the awkward inconsistencies. that you have tried to hide.

“I want to see how they are presenting this visit: will there be a photo of the meeting, will there be a joint press conference or a joint statement afterward? Will they sit down and eat?” said Marti Flacks, a former national security council member and State Department official.

He noted that administration officials insisted that Biden travel to Saudi Arabia to attend regional meetings. But the Saudis said they looked forward to their bilateral, or one-on-one, meetings with Biden.

“This optics really matters,” Flacks said, “in terms of the cards the United States is playing.”

Biden’s coverage and reticence are not unique to his foreign policy. He has taken a public vow of silence on negotiations over his internal agenda since they erupted late last year. He has largely avoided addressing immigration issues, resisting aides who encouraged him to make a speech on the subject, according to two administration officials with knowledge of internal conversations.

And he seems stuck on other decisions, whether it’s easing Trump’s tariffs on China or forgiving federal student loan debt.

And then there is the trip to Saudi Arabia.

When the White House announced the trip, which began Wednesday with a stop in Israel, no meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was explicitly mentioned. Administration officials only grudgingly acknowledged that such a meeting was “likely” after being hit by a barrage of questions from the media.

Pressed last month on whether the president stands by his comments during the 2020 campaign that the Saudis were a “rogue” regime and an international “pariah,” Biden’s press secretary took pains to avoid responding directly. Instead, he would just say that the president published the intelligence report that concludes that Mohammed was responsible for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, implying that the president agreed with the assessment.

“He said something he shouldn’t have said when he was running and that’s making things very uncomfortable for him now,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global underwriting firm in New York. “The Saudis have problems and Khashoggi is just one of them. But they are an important ally and they have actually made a lot of positive progress under MBS.”

For weeks, the president and his advisers have insisted that the visit to Saudi Arabia is not about oil, despite the global energy crisis resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine. Rising inflation and high gas prices in the country are a clear domestic political liability for Democrats who are already facing dire mid-term election prospects.

But in an opinion piece published last week, Biden did not even list America’s energy needs as a reason for his visit to the oil-rich kingdom. He cited the importance of normalizing ties between Arab nations and Israel, ending the war in Yemen, dealing with Iran, addressing climate change and developing “counter-terrorism” strategies.

Biden also made no reference to Khashoggi’s murder, only acknowledging “that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia.” He added: “My views on human rights are clear and longstanding, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip.”

One thing the White House is clearly trying to avoid is photos of Biden hugging Mohammed.

On Wednesday, just before Air Force One landed in Jerusalem, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters the president would “minimize contact” with foreign leaders on the trip because of rising COVID concerns, seemingly lowering expectations of a potential handshake with the crown prince.

That claim might have been somewhat credible given the growing number of cases of the new BA.5 variant, if only Biden had not engaged in handshakes, pats on the back and hugs with Israeli leaders within minutes of landing. in Tel-Aviv.

“I wish they’d be a little clearer on that,” Bremmer said. “This all feels defensive and unnecessary. And at a time when the US is struggling with such deeply eroding political institutions and the legitimacy of our own value system and issues, we just need to be less in the practice of preaching to others.” countries over the world that we need cooperation from.

The Saudis, after being coddled by President Trump, have not made it easy for Biden, whose only talks to date with leaders in Riyadh have been with King Salman. The youngest crown prince, who controls the Saudi government and is the country’s de facto leader, has avoided any contact with Biden, apparently still angry over criticism of Biden during the campaign.

Biden’s top Middle East envoy, Brett McGurk, met privately with Mohammed for several hours earlier this year in Saudi Arabia as part of a diplomatic effort to defuse tensions, stabilize a critical bilateral relationship and clear the way for that the crown prince and Biden get engaged.

The possibility of Biden traveling to Saudi Arabia took on a new urgency following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The attack prompted European countries to try to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Those actions and disruptions in global energy markets have led to the price of oil soaring.

The Saudis are the largest oil producer in OPEC+, a conglomerate of 23 countries that produces around 40% of the world’s crude. The kingdom has the greatest capacity to increase production to calm markets and reduce the cost of gasoline.

“In fact, it would help Biden nationally, given the political downside of meeting with MBS, explaining it, and just saying, ‘It’s about oil and lowering gas prices,'” an administration official, anonymous to speak, said. candidly about internal White. House conversations. “But he doesn’t mean that, maybe because the Saudis don’t guarantee they’re going to help.”

When the trip was announced last month, Biden told reporters that it had been in the works before the war in Ukraine. That comment, the official said, took some of the White House national security staff by surprise. Biden, the official added, had resisted numerous pleas from aides urging him to meet with Mohammed, relenting only after the war began and gasoline prices began to rise.

Gregory Gause, a Saudi Arabia expert at Texas A&M University, said Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia would likely not take place if it weren’t for the war. “If there hadn’t been a crisis in Ukraine, oil prices might not have gone up as much as they did,” he said. “The president probably would have gone to the Middle East anyway, but I’m not sure he would have added Saudi Arabia to the itinerary.”

Biden’s decision to meet with the Saudis on their soil, Gause continued, is no small feat for the royal family, even if the White House has tried to hide the point.

“This is the crown prince using this particular time, when oil prices are high, and the leverage that Saudi Arabia has to personally rehabilitate himself in a Democratic administration,” he said. “That’s really important to the Saudis. In exchange, the United States goes back to having a more normal relationship with Saudi Arabia, where the president of the United States can call the leadership of Saudi Arabia and say, ‘Hey, you guys have to help us with oil issues.

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.