This week, Biden announced a move that observers had long been expecting: An official visit to Saudi Arabia, effectively thawing diplomatic relations between the countries, and acknowledging that treating the powerful petrostate as a “pariah” would be a diplomatic dead end. Interviews with several U.S. and Saudi officials involved in frank and often-tense discussions between the two sides since Biden took office suggest that it’s MBS’ vision, rather than Biden’s that has ended up charting the path forward between the two countries.
Critics pounced on the official announcement Tuesday morning. Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine told CNN the trip was a “really bad idea.” “His [MBS’] blood stain has not been cleansed,” he said. Mindful of the potential political blowback, the White House has noticeably downplayed the prospects of a meeting with the crown prince in its messaging about the visit, focusing instead on its relationship with MBS’ father, King Salman, and a meeting of regional leaders Biden will have while visiting the kingdom, contrary to a statement by the Saudi embassy in Washington which previewed “official talks” between Biden and the crown prince.
“I’m not going to change my view on human rights,” Biden said earlier this month at a briefing when asked about a possible trip to Saudi Arabia. “But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
For Biden, there has already been a global “recalibration”— and it has taken the wind out of his campaign promise to overhaul U.S.-Saudi relations. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, senior U.S. officials say the president now views America’s global engagement, and his own role as a world leader, through a different lens than when he first took office, one in which cold hard realism takes precedence over moral considerations. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently at an event marking the 100th anniversary of Foreign Affairs magazine, “statecraft often involves making difficult choices.”
“Anyone who has not reconsidered the paradigm by which we look at this region and its importance to our own vital interest is missing the larger picture,” a senior official told POLITICO.
Lest we forget: