Biden’s First Foreign Policy Test

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S1: Just before the weekend, the office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report, this document plainly stated the United States official conclusions on the death of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was the kind of document Slate’s Josh Keating had been waiting for. But he says, if you look at this thing, it’s almost too straightforward.

S2: Well, it didn’t take too long to read. It’s three pages, four, including the cover and just a few paragraphs.

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S1: Really, there aren’t a lot of details here. Just a simple list of 18 names, people the U.S. government thinks helped kill Khashoggi just over two years ago. And then this 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.

S2: Sometimes he goes by his initials MBS, mostly tells us what we already knew, which is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was almost certainly the man who ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2008.

S1: In the brevity of this document, Josh says it tells you something about how President Biden’s thinking about the Middle East has evolved.

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S2: You know what’s interesting is Biden, during his campaign promise to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah, President Trump is not punished.

S3: Senior Saudi leaders, would you? Yes, this was back in a presidential debate during the primary because he was, in fact, murdered and dismembered. And I believe in the order of the crown prince and I would make it very clear we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.

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S1: There’s very little social redeeming. But the day this intelligence report got declassified, President Biden reached out to the king of Saudi Arabia and didn’t even mention Khashoggi. Why the tiptoeing? Does it tell you something about Biden’s approach to the Middle East?

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S2: You know, candidates running for president always talked tough about Saudi Arabia and then they changed their tune when they come in.

S4: The Bush administration has been putting out every signal possible that it doesn’t want to get bogged down in dealing with these Middle East conflicts, which sees very little upside for the U.S. But, you know, it’s this kind of thing where, you know, it’s like we want to quit the Middle East, but not quite yet. We have a couple of things we want to take care of first. And I think the ISG report shows that there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need Saudi Arabia to play a role. So, I mean, what this tells me is if we need Saudi Arabia to continue playing a role on all these strategic priorities, that indicates to me that Biden isn’t really done with the Middle East. That for all the talk of, you know, pivoting away from the region, that there’s clearly some unfinished business and that it’s not done with the Middle East by a long shot today on the show, Biden’s unfinished business in the Middle East.

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S5: If his administration can’t cut ties with a prince it is accusing of murder. What actions will they take across the region? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.

S1: Josh Keating says while President Biden might not be able to quit the Middle East, a lot’s changed over the last few years. That’s made bowing out of this region make a kind of 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 a global policeman. And the murder of Jamal Khashoggi just underlines how difficult strategic alliances can be here. Plus, foreign terrorism just isn’t top of mind for a lot of Americans.

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S2: It was really striking to me, somebody who covers foreign policy, the degree to which terrorism did not factor into the last election at all. I mean, it’s been a long time since we’ve had an election where, you know, al-Qaida or ISIS aren’t major issues on the campaign trail. It certainly was when Trump was selected. It certainly was when Obama was elected going back to the Bush administration. So that is a real change, that stamping out jihadist terrorism is not a major priority. I mean, it is a priority, but it’s not something that the US public and the media spend a lot of time talking about anymore. Whereas you said the, you know, 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 prioritize the Middle East or thinks that’s an achievable goal, even if it’s going to take a lot longer than maybe they suggested.

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S6: And with that, it is my pleasure to introduce the president of the United States, Joe Biden.

S1: On February 4th, President Biden gave his first big foreign policy speech at the State Department. Good afternoon, everyone.

S6: It’s an honor to be back at the State Department.

S1: He said. This line, which has become a bit of shorthand for how Biden sees his administration.

S6: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.

S1: Then he said the U.S. was going to meet the moment, challenge Russia and China and repair the damage the Trump administration had wrought on international cooperation over the past two weeks.

S6: I spoke with the leaders of many of our closest friends Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia to be re forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances and atrophied over the past few years and neglect and I would argue, abuse American alliances.

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S1: But for Josh, what was most notable about this speech is what Biden didn’t say and who he didn’t mention.

S2: He didn’t mention Israel. He didn’t mention Syria or Iraq. He didn’t mention Egypt. He didn’t mention al-Qaida. He didn’t mention ISIS. Really no Middle East issue other than Yemen. And that was only because he had made a major announcement on Yemen a few days earlier. Biden didn’t call any Mideast head of state until about a month into his presidency. That was Benjamin Netanyahu. And, you know, you compare that to Trump, who made a point of visiting Saudi Arabia on his very first foreign visit as as a head of state. Usually U.S. presidents go to Canada or Mexico or the U.K. Biden hasn’t gone anywhere because of covert, but Trump chose as his first visit to go to Saudi Arabia. And you probably remember that famous photo of him laying his hands on the curb with the king of Saudi Arabia and the president of Egypt. It’s hard to forget, right? He gave this speech there where he basically just completely threw in his lot with the Saudi view of the Middle East and the view of the Gulf states where it was the US in alliance with the Gulf kingdoms and Israel against Iran. So basically like laying out this civilizational struggle. Yeah, it’s a major contrast. Biden has not done that. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about the Middle East at all. He sort of seems reluctant to be involved in these conflicts. But just when he thinks he’s out, he keeps getting pulled back and. Trump viewed it very simply there, there on one side where our guys and on the other side or the bad guys, both Obama and Biden, I think, want to take a more balanced approach. You know, it’s not that they are switching sides, but I think that they would like to at least have a more kind of normalized, balanced relationship with Iran, where the U.S. isn’t kind of enlisted in this big regional Cold War.

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S1: Let’s linger a bit on Saudi Arabia, because I’m wondering 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 sort of led to that phone call where Khashoggi wasn’t mentioned?

S2: So the U.S. Saudi relationship dates back 75 years to when FDR met the king of Saudi Arabia on the Suez Canal in 1945. And the traditional rationale has always been that we want to keep the oil flowing out of the Middle East and that the kingdom can play a role in maintaining regional stability. Now, of course, you know, what’s changed in the last few years is the US 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. Hopefully in the coming years, we’re reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, period. So 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 kind of role, especially since Mohammed bin Salman has sort of emerged as the de facto ruler. I mean, they’ve pursued this war in Yemen, which has been a disaster both morally and strategically. So they’ve been a provocateur. Yeah, they’ve been a part of al-Qaida, especially during the Trump years where you saw ambassadors just given basically complete carte blanche. And so you saw him, you know, trying to blockade Qatar, some sort of basically kidnap the prime minister of Lebanon at one point, you know, locked up and tortured a number of prominent members of the royal family and business associates. So, you know, this isn’t the kind of thing that like this isn’t really what stability looks like, but the argument is always that Saudi Arabia is our ally against Iran.

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S1: Right.

S2: 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, they are our allies in the main kind of 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 and get back into the 2015 nuclear deal. So, you know that that’s definitely comes into play here as well. You know, I think from Biden’s perspective, they definitely want to they do want to get back into the nuclear deal, but they also want to maintain some kind of leverage over Iran and negotiate from a position of strength. So that may be one reason why they want to they don’t want to sort of complete rupture with the Saudis.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, does the fact that the Biden administration wants to pursue a reopening of the Iran nuclear agreement and the fact that we’re producing our own energy, we have these humanitarian concerns, it just it seems like, OK, we don’t necessarily need this relationship the way we once did.

S2: Yes. And that is the case I would make. But, you know, I think from their perspective, it’s you know, Saudi Arabia is still influential, even if we don’t directly depend on them for our oil supply, because Saudi Arabia is still the world’s top oil exporter at about 10 million barrels a day, they still have 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 for the first few times. So it’s not as if their 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 them the kind of blank check that the Trump administration did, that it’s just not worth having a sort of complete rupture with them right now that would maybe see them getting friendlier with Russia or China.

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S5: So when we come back, why Biden has to make a choice whether to fight Iran or meet them at the negotiating table.

S7: Good evening, everyone. We’re coming on the air with breaking news, word from the Pentagon that on orders from President Biden, US military forces have carried out airstrikes in eastern Syria, targeting infrastructure utilized by Iranian backed militant groups. President Biden has been in office for five weeks. This is the first military action he has authorized. Chief White House correspondent Christine.

S1: The idea that Biden could take a step back from the Middle East seemed to be thrown out the window last week. That’s 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, a militia that is funded by Iran. Josh says these airstrikes symbolize Biden becoming part of a presidential tradition.

S2: There’s always that joke, like the people that say about Trump, like this is the moment he became president. I think that almost is kind of true of Biden in the last few days. Every administration comes in with what they want to do. And Biden is the third president in a row who’s wanted to pivot away from the Middle East and concentrate more on, you know, the rise of China and great power competition and all these issues that seem like they’re bigger strategic priorities. And I have a feeling that he’s going to be the third President Arroyo, who spends a lot more time dealing with the Middle East than he planned to.

S1: Is it kind of stepping on our own toes to go after Iranian backed rebels when we want to restart the nuclear deal?

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S2: Doesn’t help. I mean, you could say Iran is stepping on its toes also by, you know, launching these strikes against the U.S. at a time when it also wants back in the nuclear deal. It’s like there’s a lot of sort of posturing right now where both sides are sort of want to get back in on this deal, but also want to look tough at the same time and don’t want to concede any leverage. And, you know, at a certain point, like one of these countries has to stop trying to look macho and just like make some concessions and get back into this deal. But neither one seems to want to make the first move right now.

S1: I like how you put it that this was the moment Biden actually became president, because every president has to kind of. Don, the yoke of this complicated relationship with the Middle East, where there are so many proxy fights going on and you, you know, pick a fight with one country and you find yourself picking a fight with other countries, too.

S2: Yeah, I mean, if you it like the Mike Tyson doctrine of international relations, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. And so, yes, it’s all well and good to come in saying, you know, we’re going to use diplomacy instead of military force. Now, when Iran backed Shiite militias are attacking US forces in Iraq, you know, that changes the calculation a little bit. And clearly, the Bush administration felt like there was credibility at stake here where it had to respond in kind and show Iran that it wasn’t going to tolerate these kinds of attacks. Now, obviously, that’s going to complicate the overall effort to get back into this nuclear deal, which we saw over the weekend is is really kind of faltering, as you’ve pointed out, that officially the Middle East doesn’t even rank in the top three foreign policy priorities for the Biden administration.

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S1: But looking at this strike in Syria, it kind of 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..

S2: Yes, that that’s a good point. You know, the problem is like the U.S. is so committed in these conflicts already that it’s very hard to simply walk away from them at this point. It’s it’s we are so invested already that it’s hard to say we could just pick up and walk away. I mean, what I wrote in the piece the other day is that it seems like the real strategic priority in the Middle East for the U.S. is cleaning up the mess that are left behind by the last strategic priorities. So this is kind of just the trap that when US president, after another, always seems to find himself in.

S1: Do you see this approach, this kind of slow fade on the Middle East? Week or is it the only possible way this could go down because it takes so long to get yourself out of a complicated relationship?

S2: I think that, yes, I do think that it’s smart that they’re being slow and deliberate about this. I don’t think they want to repeat the mistakes of the Obama administration where they have to send troops back and send troops back into the Middle East a few years later. I do think there are areas where they could be a little bolder. For instance, maybe is one. I know that 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. I think 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? I think, you know, you could point to Iran as another case. The US is saying it’s not going to drop sanctions until Iran gets back into compliance with the nuclear deal. Iran is saying, you know, correctly, in my view, that it was the US that violated the nuclear deal when Trump pulled out of it and that what they did in sort of a one by one, abandoning the provisions of that deal and the limits on their nuclear program were done after the US already pulled out. So, you know, in my view, the US could be a little bolder on that front and could, you know, take the first step and drop some of these sanctions and show that it is serious about getting back into compliance with the deal and then put it on Iran to follow suit.

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S1: Hmm. So you think the U.S. has something to prove with Iran?

S2: I do. And, you know, it was discouraging what we saw over the weekend. Iran announced that they’re not interested in getting back into these talks until the US makes a more concrete move towards getting back into compliance with the deal. And I’m sure the airstrike in Syria didn’t help on that front. And so I think that if Biden really wants to get back into this deal, as he said he did from the days of the campaign trail, that he’s going to have to be a little bit bolder and take a few more political risks.

S8: Josh Keating, thank you so much for joining me. Anytime. Thanks. Josh Keating is a senior editor here at Slate. He covers the whole wide world for us. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt and Elana Schwartz and starting today, Carmel Dilshad. Welcome, Carmel. We are so thrilled to have you. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. Go find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. And thank you for listening. Talk to you tomorrow.

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