AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
At the end of joint statements with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Joe Biden began to wander to the left side of the stage from which the two leaders had delivered their remarks and appeared to try to shake the hand of someone who was not there. The awkward moment functioned as not just another in a long line of gaffes illustrating the evident frailty of the President, but also appropriate symbolism for all that was left of Joe Biden’s Middle East policy. Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East, which concluded on Saturday, was not to launch a bold new vision, as Donald Trump did on his first trip to the region in 2017. Rather, it was an admission of failure, in which Joe Biden apologized to one leader after another in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States for deviating from Donald Trump’s policies, pledging to never stray again.
It has been a long road for the Biden foreign policy team – particularly when it comes to Iran. When the Biden administration took office, Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and support for terrorism around the world were dismissed out of hand, as were those of the Gulf States. The JCPOA, or “Iran Nuclear Deal” for short, was one of the achievements closest to the heart of the Obama administration, representing a chance to fulfill the idealistic dream of generations of liberal arts graduates who fantasized about replacing the “racist” Israelis and “backwards” Saudis with the “progressive” Iranians as America’s chief allies in the Middle East. After all, the Iranian regime is the only government in the region which pays for sex change operations for its citizens (although homosexuality is still punishable by death). But such nuances never bothered advocates of engagement within the Obama administration, nor did Iranian disinterest in normalized relations with America and reluctance to abandon its wider geopolitical campaign for regional domination. At most, Iran was always willing to see what America would pay it to slow the process of its nuclear program, especially if American neutrality in the Israeli-Iranian and Saudi-Iranian conflicts was on the table.
Democrats were blind to these nuances. So committed was John Kerry to the deal he helped negotiate that he leaked details of Israeli military operations to Iran, and Israel and Saudi Arabia were treated as villains for “sabotaging” a “deal” which involved selling them out. Even before Biden took office, his advisers floated the idea that “the comprehensive agreement is still hanging out there,” in the expectation Iran would be desperate to reenter. Instead, the Iranians showed so little interest that Biden National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was left raising the prospect of the U.S. unilaterally declaring the existence of an “Interim Deal” to “buy time.” When Russia invaded Ukraine, U.S. officials initially seemed as worried it would derail talks with Iran as they were about what might happen to Ukraine.
All of this should provide context for the extent to which Biden’s visit to Israel this past week represented a surrender. Prior to the press conference in which Biden tried to shake the hand of an invisible interlocutor, he signed a joint Israeli-American declaration in which he committed the United States to never allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. “The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat or combination of threats,” the declaration reads, going on to specify how “The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”
Here was a direct repudiation of the arguments of John Kerry and others that the JCPOA represented the best way to ensure Israel’s security. If Biden showed one element of petty resistance to the inevitable, it was in the wording hailing the Trump-led Abraham Accords. “Israel thanks the United States for its ongoing and extensive support for deepening and broadening the historic Abraham Accords,” the declaration reads. Note the wording: “Israel thanks the United States,” which notably does not say that the United States remains committed to the agreements. Even at a moment when he is forced to bow to the reality of its success, Joe Biden will not rhetorically associate himself with one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of his predecessor.
Denial is all that remained of Biden’s foreign policy in Israel. If he was forced to concede on substance, he would spitefully demonstrate his pride where he could.
That was not an option in Saudi Arabia. For Joe Biden’s visit to Riyadh, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the country and presumed successor to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was determined to ensure that Joe Biden did not just apologize for past wrongs, but that he be forced to eat his words publicly.
In perhaps the greatest power play of the Saudi leader’s political career, Biden met with the Crown Prince without the King present. That cannot be a coincidence. Back in February of 2021, State Department spokesman Ned Price had made clear that Biden would only meet with the King and not the Crown Prince due to accusations of human rights abuses against the latter, including alleged involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “Well, I think what Jen said, in fact, I know what she said is that the President would be engaging with his counterpart, and [that] his counterpart, is the King,” Price told reporters at the time. Thus in 2021 Biden only met with the King and not the Crown Prince in Washington. In 2022, he met with the Crown Prince, and not his “counterpart” the King, in Riyadh.
Biden’s sudden capitulation is a major diplomatic victory for the Saudi Crown Prince in his geopolitical battle of wills with Joe Biden, one made all the sweeter given how hard-fought the struggle has been. The Biden team entered office full of confidence that Saudi Arabia needed them more than they needed Saudi oil, that Iran was desperate to restore the nuclear deal that Donald Trump had torn up, and that Israel stood penitent for Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of Donald Trump. They moved to cancel weapon sales to the UAE, and threatened the same with Saudi Arabia unless it ceased its war against Iranian proxies in Yemen. Joe Biden refused to even speak to the Saudi Crown Prince on the phone. “On Saudi Arabia I would say we’ve made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Jan Psaki declared in February of 2021. An anonymous former Obama official added “The Saudis in Washington are in the worst position they’ve ever been.” These same officials ignored the warning from one senior Saudi analyst, who told Politico that “They [Biden] can’t get anything done if they don’t deal with [the Crown Prince].”
In the end, the Saudis were vindicated. By early 2022, it was Joe Biden who was desperately trying to reach bin Salman, and the Crown Prince who indicated he was too busy to talk, but might eventually take Biden’s phone call. Last week, it was Biden arriving in Riyadh as a repentant sinner seeking absolution from the Saudi Crown prince, not the Saudis making the pilgrimage to Washington for a primer on “universal liberal values.”
The contrast could not be greater to Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh in the first year of his presidency. During that trip, Trump was welcomed at the airport by the King, not merely the Crown Prince, a clear sign of whom the Saudis saw as Donald Trump’s counterpart, and then he addressed a summit of Arab leaders the Saudis had convened, before heading to Israel to launch the process which would eventually produce the Abraham Accords. By contrast, Biden’s visit contained no vision. He told Lapid and the Crown Prince nothing. Instead, they reprimanded Biden on his failings, and the President promised to do better.
Little can better convey the deterioration in America’s geopolitical position in the region than to contrast the two trips. Biden cannot be blamed for acknowledging failure. But if he fails to internalize the lesson, and replace his discredited foreign policy team, the humiliations of this trip will be for naught.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.