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What Biden wanted in the Middle East — and what he actually got

Biden failed to put human rights at the center of Middle East policy.

US President Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia
President Joe Biden is welcomed by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15.
Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

The viral photo of President Joe Biden’s fist-bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (MBS) didn’t just capture a remarkable turnaround for a president who’d vowed to make a “pariah” out of MBS.

It also captured the stakes of the trip.

There are huge gaps between what Biden set out as his goals for his trip last week to the Middle East and what he actually accomplished. He showed up to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory, and Saudi Arabia with an agenda focused on countering the influence of China, Russia, and Iran in the Middle East. He said he wanted to strengthen strategic partnerships to make “a consequential region of the world” more stable. And while addressing high oil prices, in part stemming from the Ukraine war, wasn’t central to the stated goals, it was an ever-present subtext of this trip.

Even on those metrics, the costs of the Middle East trip to American credibility were high, and not worth the paltry benefits to regional stability or US partnerships. If you step back to evaluate the trip on other metrics — particularly whether it promoted US values in the middle of what Biden has called a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism — it was even worse.

The Biden administration says it’s advancing a more connected region by redoubling relationships with nine Arab countries and showing support for an interim government in Israel fractured by its fifth set of elections in three years.

What were the costs to America’s reputation, beyond the fist-bump? There was a handshake with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who presides over a vicious police state where thousands of prisoners are unjustly jailed. It’s worth recalling that initially Biden also sought to distance himself from Sisi, without any direct contact in the first months of his administration until Sisi’s help was needed in May 2021 to help deescalate the Israel-Hamas conflict.

There was the family photo with Arab leaders, including the new ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed bin Zayed. MBZ also presides over a country of human rights violations, and the UAE arrested Jamal Khashoggi’s lawyer, Asim Ghafoor, during this trip. Yet MBZ received an invitation to the White House, and all of these leaders have their own souvenir postcard.

Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah
Biden’s family photo.
Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
US President Biden Visits Israel on Middle East Tour
Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister, center, and US President Joe Biden fist-bump during an arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 13.
Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fist-bumping Israeli leaders without accountability for the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli soldiers is just as bad as spudding with MBS. Biden on the trip said he’d “insist on a full and transparent accounting,” but it’s not clear why that insistence didn’t come prior to arriving in Israel as a way to build trust and confidence with a Palestine Liberation Organization that President Donald Trump had kneecapped. Then there was Biden at the lectern, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who chastised the United States for not being tough enough on Iran and led Biden to say that he would use force against Iran, rhetoric that makes a war more likely (in spite of the administration’s best diplomats working to revive a nuclear deal).

“This incredible inflated helium balloon of rhetoric about a struggle between democracy and autocracy, which was mobilized around Ukraine, I think, has been very much deflated,” said Rashid Khalidi, a historian at Columbia University. “Putin is an autocrat, but so is Sisi. The invasion of Ukraine and the occupation of Ukrainian territory is a violation of international law, but so is everything Israel is doing in the occupied territories.”

The images of this visit will endure much longer than the minor tangible policy accomplishments that were announced, and aren’t that remarkable.

The US’s gains from this trip are small-stakes

Biden, who says he went to the Middle East to address “the needs of the free world,” has explained the strengthening of relationships with Arab states and Israel as a success.

But it’s worth taking a look at what concrete victories that closeness produced.

Saudi airspace will be opened to Israeli planes — an incremental step toward normalizing relations between the two countries, yes, but more of a victory for jetliner rights than human rights. A new peacekeeping arrangement was announced for the Red Sea Islands between Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the islands have been a regional geopolitical touchpoint, but the deal is hardly a major win beyond the region. There was talk of bringing Iraq closer to its neighbors, with a new electricity initiative to connect Iraq with the Middle East. Infrastructure projects totaling about $100 million were announced for Palestinians, including 4G networks for the occupied West Bank. The latter two, while worthwhile, are minor compared to other US development and foreign aid streams of funding — and minuscule compared to annual military aid to Israel.

A moderate success was Saudi Arabia’s ongoing commitment to maintaining a ceasefire in Yemen, a worthy goal considering the destruction wrought there, in part with the support of American weaponry, though hardly an issue that demanded a presidential visit.

As for oil, we haven’t seen any grand announcements. Ahead of the trip, a US official told reporters there wouldn’t be any big energy news, and instead pointed to an announcement a month prior from OPEC that the group of oil-producing nations would increase production.

It has left observers wondering exactly why Biden made the journey. “Foreign policy is often a series of making a series of bad choices. And so you try to make the least bad one. To me, this wasn’t the least bad one,” Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said of the trip. “Biden was always gonna need the Saudis. The problem was you foolishly put yourself in his position, and now you’re being forced to go, and with not a lot in return.”

“Deal with the Saudis,” Cook added, “but don’t necessarily go. It only makes the president look weaker.”

For Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1990 to 1992, the “quixotic” trip didn’t produce any great results. “What does it do for the middle class that is supposed to be the focus of the administration’s foreign policy,” Freeman told me. “Is there a coherent policy here? I don’t see one.”

Biden failed to put human rights at the center of foreign policy

A senior Biden administration official, on the last day of Biden’s Middle East trip, described human rights at the center of America’s goals — “I’d go so far, literally, to say right at the forefront of our foreign policy,” they said.

But human rights is not even at the forefront of the administration’s press releases, fact sheets, and meeting summaries.

The official touted a “Biden doctrine” for the region. In the document, values rank lowest — fifth — after bullet points about partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, and integration. So partnerships (with unsavory leaders) and deterrence (through our security assistance) are the priorities here.

In each and every meeting recap, human rights did not come first. A joint statement on Biden’s meeting with Egypt’s Sisi put human rights second to last, after a series of bullet points about security and economic interests, and near the bottom of the joint statement put out with the king of Jordan. Human rights was not mentioned in the statement put out with the United Arab Emirates and Iraq. And according to readouts of Biden’s meetings with the leaders of Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, human rights did not come up. The joint statement put out by the US and Gulf Cooperation Council countries — including Saudi Arabia and UAE — was primarily about security, and there was no mention of human rights.

It’s a missed opportunity because Saudi Arabia is not alone in its human rights violations. The presidential bully pulpit is an important way to draw attention to the reality faced by Arab citizens, immigrants, and refugees.

Biden assured journalists present that he had raised Khashoggi’s killing with MBS, “at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now.” (Saudi officials, after the visit, disputed this, while Biden reiterated he had.) MBS reportedly brought up the “mistakes” the US has made, with state-sponsored torture of Iraqi prisoners of Abu Ghraib and complicity in the death of Abu Akleh — an embarrassing deflection from someone Biden called a “pariah.”

The White House may think it succeeded in raising these issues — a senior administration official told reporters in that same briefing that the president needed to be willing to be present and “sit and raise human rights concerns with foreign leaders around the world.”

But Arab media’s coverage of the event frames it more as a capitulation. “Diplomatically, it is an embarrassment,” said Nancy Okail, an Egyptian human rights advocate and executive director of the Center for International Policy. “Because the way it’s being spun in the Middle East media is that he came to us, he knelt down.”

Critics say there are concrete things Biden could have done to advance human rights in the region, even if he was meeting with leaders.

He could have, for instance, preconditioned his visit on a prisoner release or have met with Saudi activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, who was jailed and tortured, and remains banned from leaving Saudi Arabia. He could have broadened his public comments to include MBS’s unprecedented clampdown on rights or arranged a roundtable with Arab journalists.

US President Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia
President Joe Biden meets Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15.
Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Months before traveling to Israel, he could have drawn attention to the government’s decision to label six leading Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist groups. Nine European governments last week condemned the designation and said that the Israeli government has not provided evidence to prove their terrorist connection. The State Department draws upon these groups’ research for its annual human rights reports, “Yet the Biden administration would not say anything,” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli attorney who represents the Palestinian group Al-Haq, which Israel called a terrorist group. “And that is very, very disturbing.”

Biden hardly mentioned human rights while in Israel and the occupied territory. He talked about the two-state solution, without so much as mentioning the situation in Gaza. Biden spent more than two days doing a series of visits, meetings, and press conferences on the Israeli side, but just a few hours in the occupied Palestinian territory, and no prospects for a relaunch of Israel-Palestine talks.

The expensive costs of the US’s new cold war

This Biden trip is a preview of US foreign policy in an era of great power competition with China and new fault lines of a world divided by Russian aggression. There are trade-offs. “You sanction Russian oil, and you give power to Middle Eastern autocrats,” Khalidi told me. “The only reason he’s sidling up to these human rights abusers is because of the knock-on effects of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, and the energy impact of that invasion.”

Or, as Freeman put it, “The message to the people in the region is we only care about you in the context of our great power rivalry.”

Despite the emphasis on Russia, there was little movement on solidifying a Middle East coalition in support of Ukraine. The United Arab Emirates is a major hub for Russian businesspeople and dirty money, and that seems unlikely to change. Egypt is a hot spot for Russian tourists. Saudi Arabia and Israel are still fence-sitters in the Ukraine conflict, hesitant to definitively take a side. While Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE voted to condemn Russia’s invasion in the UN resolution, none has joined the US-led sanctions against Moscow.

Yet all of these regional powers are making demands of the US to take a harder line on Iran and enable them militarily. (Wait, wouldn’t realpolitik be crafting a deal with Iran, and getting more oil production online in the process?)

In the way that Washington has rationalized the need for Biden to travel to Saudi Arabia, Tejasvi Nagaraja, a professor at Cornell University, sees echoes of a term put forward by the late sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s, “crackpot realism.”

“You have a certain response from people, who if Mills was here today he might call crackpot realists,” Nagaraja told me. That is, experts in the “foreign policy establishment and think tanks and media, who say, ‘This is not the time for values or idealism, this is the time for hard-nosed interests.’” Tough decisions are made under the guise of realism, the foreign policy school of thinking that prioritizes national interests above all else, and ends up justifying precarious, risky choices — like Biden fist-bumping an autocrat.

In the end, the US comes across as a fragile empire. Fragile because of its own democratic backsliding and Biden’s domestic political struggles. And fragile because Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel appear to be handled with extreme caution by Washington despite the US being the superpower.

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