Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia … no hits, not runs but several errors
Traveling abroad in an election year is often helpful to the political party in power. It can distract public attention from domestic problems — such as inflation, the border, Ukraine invasion, and crime. What could be better than having world leaders praising the American President as his party faces the midterm elections?
In reviewing the post-visit punditry – from the high self-praise of the White House to the more critical analysis of “the other side,” we can render an overarching and more objective opinion. If distracting from a pile of problems besetting Biden at home was a goal of the trip to the Middle East, it is fair to say that things did not go according to plan.
Not only did his domestic problems not abate, but some got worse. The trip, itself, further undermined Biden’s popularity among the public. Even worse, it produced significant criticism from the President’s own political party.
The first issue was Biden’s meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. American intelligence had determined that the Crown Prince authorized the gruesome murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. Biden called the bin Salman -led government a pariah – and promised to punish both the Crown Prince and the Saudi government for the heinous crime.
Biden’s strong words were never met with severe actions. The administration did little more than criticize bin Salman. But now that the American President was heading to the Middle East to not only meet with the pariah but to beg Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to help bail Biden out of the inflation his policies – directly and indirectly – caused.
Prior to the trip, Biden assured the American people that he was not meeting with bin Salman to beg for oil. He even intimated that any meeting with bin Salman would only be informal and incidental to his trip to Israel and the later meetings with other Arab leaders. That political fib did not pass the smell test – and many on both sides of the partisan political divide called on Biden to cancel his trip.
In the advance announcements, the White House not only fibbed about his purpose and meeting with the Crown Prince, but they also had no specific “deliverables” to announce. Other than the subject of oil – which Biden said was NOT the purpose of his trip – there was no credible explanation for the tour of the Middle East.
Without any significant achievements proposed or accomplished, the most important aspect of the trip was the meeting and fist-bump with bin Salman. That got the most coverage – and it was mostly negative.
So, let’s start with the meeting between Biden and bin Salman. Unlike Biden’s pre-visit assurances, he not only met with the Crown Prince in a private session, but he also shared the fist-bump seen around the world.
Leading in, there was curiosity whether Biden would shake the hand of the Crown Prince … do a fist-bump … or just nod. Some even opined that there would be no public meeting – no Kodak moment. The fist-bump could have been a symbol of disrespect if Biden and the White House geniuses had not screwed it up.
As the President arrived in Israel, the White House explained that the fist-bump would be used as the form of greeting at the advice of the President’s medical team due to the Covid Pandemic. Uh-huh. That undermined the suggestion that fist-bumping bin Salman was a lower level of disrespect. bin Salman would be greeted in the same manner as the Prime Minister of Israel.
Upon his earlier arrival in Tel Aviv, Biden could not remember his doctor’s advice. He started out with fist-bumps in the receiving line, but then shook hands – even engaging in a prolonged handholding with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (I now understand why his staff gives Biden note cards telling him to enter a room, take a seat, and greet guests.)
Contrary to his pre-visit statements, Biden entered into private discussions with bin Salman. Both sides have a different view of what was said. Biden claimed he brought up the Khashoggi murder – but not what he said. The Saudi Foreign Minister said he did not hear Biden raise the issue.
Whether Biden did not, is inconsequential. Both sides well understood that any mention of the murder would be seen as something that had to be done – but it would be nothing more than words … empty works. There would be no actions against bin Salman or the Saudi government. In the situation into which he put himself, Biden was pitifully weak. He had come to entreat – not demand.
Even the normally Biden-friendly Washington Post criticized the fist-bump. “It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking,” said Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan.
If anything, the meeting with bin Salman was intended to backpedal from Biden’s harsh remarks – and to signal to the world that Saudi Arabia and the United States are again on good terms again. That is an embarrassing accomplishment for Biden – and a disappointment to those on the left – but it had to be done. For all its faults, Saudi Arabia is a critically important ally in many ways – for restraining Iran to controlling the price of oil.
While in the Middle East, Biden met with other Arab leaders. He talked about building on President Trump’s Abraham Accords – creating more agreements between Israel and various Arab states. However, Biden did not mention Trump and the huge success he had in bringing peace between Israel and four Arab nations. While Biden talked about such agreements in the future, he had nothing specific to announce or sign in the visit.
Biden reaffirmed America’s requirement of a two-state solution in any future agreements – creating a Palestinian State alongside Israel. That pre-requisite – and having Palestinian representatives at the table — has been the stumbling block for Israeli/Arab agreements for generations. With the Palestinians refusing to agree to the right of Israel to exist – and making unacceptable demands for territory– Trump abandoned the two-state solution as an underpinning – engaging in direct one-on-one negotiations with individual Arab nations. It was leaving the Palestinians out of the negotiations that enabled Trump to pursue the successful Abraham Accords.
If Biden had hoped to increase his credibility with the Palestinians by resuming a flow of taxpayer money to the PLO and re-imposing the two-state pre-requisite, he had to be disappointed. Despite his meeting, the Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PLO, the Palestinians were highly critical of Biden’s references to Jerusalem as an Israeli city.
Rarely has an American President traveled overseas with such a low anticipation of positive outcomes – and failed to meet even those anticipations. The White House did not have any deliverables on the agenda. Biden got no notable accomplishments. And his popularity back home continued to decline.
So, there ‘tis.