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Just before the weekend, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report plainly stating its official conclusions on the death of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There aren’t many details, just a simple list of 18 people the U.S. government thinks helped kill Khashoggi about two years ago. And then, the logical conclusion that it would be “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the … authorization” of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS. During the primary, Joe Biden would answer in the affirmative when asked whether he would “punish senior Saudi leaders” for Khashoggi’s killing. But the day this intelligence report was declassified, President Joe Biden reached out to the king of Saudi Arabia and didn’t even mention Khashoggi. If his administration can’t cut ties with a prince it is accusing of murder, what kinds of actions will it take with Saudi Arabia and across the entire Middle East? To find out, I spoke with Joshua Keating, Slate’s international editor, on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: A lot has changed over the past few years that’s made bowing out of the Middle East make logical sense. The U.S. is much less reliant on oil from this corner of the world, plenty of Americans have grown uncomfortable with the idea of the United States as the global police, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi underlined how difficult strategic alliances can be here. Plus, foreign terrorism just isn’t at the top of Americans’ minds anymore.
Joshua Keating: It was really striking to me, as somebody who covers foreign policy, the degree to which terrorism did not factor into the last election at all. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an election where al-Qaida or ISIS aren’t major issues on the campaign trail. It certainly was when Trump and Obama were elected, and going back to the Bush administration. So that is a real change, that stamping out terrorism is not a major priority. I mean, it is a priority, but it’s not something the U.S. public and the media spend a lot of time talking about anymore, whereas the national security shift has focused a lot more on domestic terrorism now. So that’s certainly, I think, one reason why the administration would like to deprioritize the Middle East, or thinks that’s an achievable goal, even if it’s going to take a lot longer than maybe it suggested.
Biden doesn’t seem to want to talk about the Middle East at all. He seems reluctant to be involved in these conflicts. But just when he thinks he’s out, he keeps getting pulled back. Trump viewed it very simply. On one side there are our guys and on the other side are the bad guys. Biden, like Obama, wants to take a more balanced approach. It’s not that he’s switching sides but that he would like to have a more normalized, balanced relationship with Iran, where the U.S. isn’t enlisted in this big regional cold war.
I’m wondering if we can just spell out exactly why there needs to be so much appeasement back and forth from the Biden administration to Saudi Arabia. What’s important about that relationship that led to that phone call where Khashoggi wasn’t mentioned?
The U.S.-Saudi relationship dates back 75 years to when FDR met the king of Saudi Arabia on the Suez Canal in 1945. The traditional rationale has always been that we want to keep oil flowing out of the Middle East and the kingdom can play a role in maintaining regional stability. Now, what’s changed in the past few years is the U.S. has emerged as a major energy producer in its own right. Saudi Arabia can’t just cut off the oil supply to the U.S. the way it did in the 1970s—though hopefully, in the coming years, we’re reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, period. But Saudi Arabia doesn’t have that kind of same energy leverage. And if you’re talking about stability, it’s hard to point to Saudi Arabia playing that role, especially since Mohammed bin Salman has emerged as the de facto ruler. I mean, he’s pursued this war in Yemen, which has been a disaster both morally and strategically. During the Trump years, MBS was given basically complete carte blanche: You saw him trying to blockade Qatar, basically kidnap the prime minister of Lebanon at one point, lock up and torture a number of prominent members of the royal family and business associates. This isn’t really what stability looks like.
But the argument is always that Saudi Arabia is our ally against Iran, right?
Right, and that was certainly the rationale during the Trump years. Well, one of the main rationales during the Trump years was that for all their flaws, Saudi leaders are our allies in the main strategic competition in the Middle East, which is with Iran. Now Biden, like the Obama administration before him, wants to change the U.S. relationship with Iran and normalize it a little bit. I think from Biden’s perspective, the administration definitely wants to get back into the nuclear deal, but it also wants to maintain some kind of leverage over Iran and negotiate from a position of strength. So that may be one reason why they don’t want to completely rupture with the Saudis.
So, the Biden administration wants to pursue a reopening of the Iran nuclear agreement, we’re producing our own energy, we have these humanitarian concerns—it seems like we don’t necessarily need this relationship the way we once did.
That is the case I would make. But I think from the Biden administration’s perspective, Saudi Arabia is still influential, even if we don’t directly depend on it for our oil supply, because Saudi Arabia is still the world’s top oil exporter, at about 10 million barrels a day. It still has an impact on global energy prices. We saw that last year when Saudi Arabia and Russia got into a price war in the middle of the pandemic and sent the price of oil dropping into negative territory. So it’s not as if the country’s role as an energy producer doesn’t matter at all. I think there is a strategic calculation that Biden has made, that while Saudi Arabia is a very problematic ally and we don’t want to give it the kind of blank check that the Trump administration did, it’s not worth having a complete rupture with it right now.
The idea that Biden might take a step back from the Middle East almost seemed to be thrown out the window last week when the U.S. bombed multiple facilities in eastern Syria. The true target of these strikes was the militia inside these facilities: a militia that had attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and was funded by Iranian sources. You’ve pointed out that, officially, the Middle East doesn’t even rank in the top three foreign policy priorities for the Biden administration. But looking at this strike in Syria, it makes you wonder how low down on the list a country would have to be to avoid getting hit by a bomb from the U.S.
That’s a good point. The U.S. is so committed in these conflicts already that it’s hard to simply walk away from them at this point. I wrote that it seems like the real strategic priority in the Middle East for the U.S. is cleaning up the messes that were left behind by the last strategic priorities. This is just the trap that one U.S. president after another always seems to find themselves in.
This kind of slow fade on the Middle East—is it the only possible way this could go down, because it takes so long to get out of this complicated relationship?
I do think it’s smart that the Biden administration is being slow and deliberate about this. I don’t think it wants to repeat the mistakes that the Obama administration made, where those officials had to send troops back into the Middle East a few years later. But I do think there are areas where Biden officials could be a little bolder. For instance, MBS. I know it would be a headache and a big rupture to put sanctions on a guy who’s the de facto head of foreign state—
But he’s also a de facto murderer.
Right. If you’re not going to do that after somebody orders the murder of a Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident, then when are you going to do it? And you could point to Iran as another case. The U.S. is saying it’s not going to drop sanctions until Iran gets back into compliance with the nuclear deal. But Iran is saying—correctly, in my view—that it was the U.S. that violated the nuclear deal when Trump pulled out. Iran says it did what it did, abandon the provisions of the deal and the limits on the nuclear program, after the U.S. already pulled out. So, in my view, the U.S. could be a little bolder on that front, take the first step, drop some of these sanctions on Iran, and show that it is serious about getting back into compliance with the deal and then put it on Iran to follow suit.
So you think the U.S. has something to prove with Iran?
I do. Iran said it’s not interested in getting back into talks until the U.S. makes a more concrete move toward getting back into compliance with the deal. I’m sure the airstrike in Syria didn’t help on that front. I think that if Biden really wants to get back into this deal, as he said he did on the campaign trail, he’s going to have to be a little bit bolder and take a few more political risks.