AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
As gas prices have rocketed to their highest level in years and are projected to shoot higher still as we approach the Christmas season, debate has turned to the culpability of Joe Biden in causing the surge in prices, which have risen over 50 percent from just a year ago. While the impacts of Biden’s domestic energy policies, and the contrast with his predecessor’s, have been much discussed, less noticed but perhaps equally significant has been the impact of Biden’s poor foreign policy choices—and in particular, the feud he has pursued with the one foreign leader who could bring oil prices down.
In the middle of a domestic energy crisis, Joe Biden has picked a fight with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, not over policy, geopolitics, or American interests, but over an event that happened in 2018—namely the killing of a Saudi critic of the regime. Three years later, Biden is refusing to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman out of spite. And in response, the Saudis, by their own admission, have been cutting off oil supplies, forcing Americans to pay more at the pump.
The Intercept, hardly a right-wing outlet, reported earlier this month that Joe Biden has been refusing to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince or members of his government since he took office out of anger over the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. They quote a Saudi official who told them that:
“Saudi has put a lot of work into getting a cohesive OPEC+ to work over the past 15 months since the crisis that dropped oil futures below zero so will not break ranks with the consensus or Russia on this. Also the Kingdom resents being blamed for what is essentially a structural problem not of its own making in the US which has hampered its own energy production. Finally, I hear that the price of Thanksgiving Turkeys has doubled in the US so why can oil prices also not inflate?”
The official added a winking emoji to the end of his note.
This is a far cry from Saudi-American relations during the Trump administration, when the President was awarded the Kingdom’s highest honor and secured hundreds of billions in contracts for American firms, implicit backing for his Abraham Accords (the most significant step toward peace in the Middle East in decades) and a pledge to keep the U.S. strong by maintaining a steady energy supply. How did things go so wrong?
The mainstream media praised Barack Obama for his charisma, but his relations with foreign leaders were often poor. He tended to see them either as tools to implement what he and his team of ivory-tower Americans believed their countries should be doing, or as obstacles to the extent they rejected such proposals on the basis that local conditions were different than 25-year-old Obama staffers believed.
By the end of Obama’s tenure, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen were alight in war, with ISIS on the verge of a takeover, while Iran, uninhibited by Obama’s apologies and encouraged by his gift of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, was on the march. Even Egypt, where Obama had given a much-discussed foreign policy address early in his term, had seen its relations with Washington fall to their lowest level in forty years, with Obama’s ambassador all but expelled. Obama had ignored the complexity of the region, and then abandoned it.
Donald Trump embraced a different approach, coined “principled realism.” Recognizing that not every country was like America, and that trying to force them to be was futile, the Trump administration tried to focus on areas of common interests rather than disagreements. With Egypt and Saudi Arabia, this meant recognizing the threat of Iran and Russia, the need to contain ISIS, and that human rights, while important, could not be the end all be all. Donald Trump met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, after all. He ultimately gave him nothing, but he was willing to try. Why? Because he believed it advanced America’s interests. This was the same mindset with which he approached his engagement with Saudi Arabia. America had clear and defined interests, and he was content to work with the Saudis to advance those, rather than try to radically reform Saudi society, which unlike his two immediate predecessors, he was wise enough to know he did not fully understand.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, has adopted an even more extreme policy toward the region in general and Saudi Arabia in particular than even Obama. Since taking office, he has refused to meet with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, a stunning contrast from Donald Trump, whose first international trip was to the Kingdom. One of Biden’s first acts as president was to withdraw support for the Saudi War against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, a war the U.S. pushed the Saudis to fight, and where the Saudi involvement has negated the need for American troops. The result has not only been a feeling of betrayal in Riyadh, but empowerment among the Houthis, who earlier this month seized the American Embassy in Yemen, taking hostages.
The issue which seems to be most driving Joe Biden’s antipathy toward the Saudis is the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In response to his death, many in the U.S. media and some Members of Congress called for the U.S. to break relations with or even sanction Saudi Arabia, as all available evidence points to agents of the Saudi government being responsible.
Trump understood the wrong of the Khashoggi killing, but he also understood the need to consider America’s broader interests in the region, as any U.S. president must. If the U.S. cut off aid to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, then the U.S. might have to send troops itself, as may well happen given the recent fate of the embassy. If the U.S. cut off military sales to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia could buy weapons from Russia or China. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia has oil, lots of it, and wields considerable influence over other Gulf states which do as well. Like it or not, oil matters, and the U.S. needed it. President Trump did not have to like it, and he didn’t, doing everything in his power to expand domestic production to loosen the dependency on Riyadh, efforts Joe Biden has reversed. But Saudi Arabia had that power, and for Donald Trump a strong U.S. economy was more important than one man, as tough of a decision as that may have been.
When the media suggests Donald Trump would also be having problems with supply chains and inflation, they may not be wrong. The difference, however, is that Donald Trump always prioritized the American economy over moralizing and virtue signaling, and he would have responded to gas price increases by doing everything he could to secure greater supplies without compromising vital U.S. interests. Far from refusing to meet with them, he would have called up the Saudis and asked what they wanted in exchange for supplying the U.S. with the energy Americans need for Christmas. Joe Biden won’t even talk to them. The Saudis say “Biden has the phone number of who he will have to call if he wants any favors.” Joe Biden’s only response at a recent townhall was to say “There’s a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them.” And to think people accused Donald Trump of alienating America’s allies.
America deserves a President who has the confidence, and the competence, to talk to people. Joe Biden cannot even do that.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of 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.