In Fight for Democracy, Biden Administration Sides with Autocracy
Whose interests are served by paying off the Middle Eastern rogues’ gallery to play nice?
As he seeks reelection, President Joe Biden has taken up a new cause: to make the Middle East safe for autocracy. Three years ago, he promised to turn the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman into “a pariah.” Today, Biden is slobbering all over MbS, offering a security guarantee that would turn US military personnel into bodyguards for the Saudi royal family. The proposal is a scandalous testament to the flood of Saudi money coursing through America’s political and policy system.
Also benefiting is the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist government. Netanyahu has been charged with corruption. To stay out of prison he formed a radical ethno-nationalist government which enthusiastically treats millions of Palestinians as second class human beings. Netanyahu also has shamelessly meddled in U.S. politics.
Only stupidity or senility can explain current policy. President Donald Trump began the strange practice of making Americans pay Arabs to establish diplomatic relations with Israelis. The biggest losers were the Palestinians, since diplomatic normalization had been one carrot for Israel to agree to creation of a viable Palestinian state. Whatever assurances about occupation policy that Netanyahu made were flagrant falsehoods, instantly violated, leaving residents of the West Bank a subject, exploited population. The Trump administration compounded the US betrayal with its infamous “Deal of the Century,” a Trojan Horse concocted by and for Netanyahu. His sectarian coalition’s predictably harsh mistreatment of Palestinians has since cooled Gulf ardor for recognizing Israel.
More importantly, Americans paid much for little in return for the “Abraham Accords.” To start, whether Arab states formally recognized Israel mattered little to the U.S. Several already had informal dealings with Jerusalem. Israel and its neighbors have benefited economically from increased ties, but that means they had reason to act without being bribed.
Nevertheless, Washington paid off several undemocratic, sometimes hostile Arab regimes. For instance, the United Arab Emirates is rated “not free” by Freedom House, barely ahead of Iran. F.H. observed: “Limited elections are held for a federal advisory body, but political parties are banned, and all executive, legislative, and judicial authority ultimately rests with the seven hereditary rulers. The civil liberties of both citizens and noncitizens, who make up an overwhelming majority of the population, are subject to significant restrictions.” Worse, Abu Dhabi partnered with Saudi Arabia to invade and divide Yemen, sharing responsibility for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, more than have died in Ukraine.
Even more repressive is Bahrain, also rated “not free” and tied in the human rights basement with Tehran. The small Gulf state won favor because it hosts an American base. The regime is unashamedly despotic: “Bahrain’s Sunni-led monarchy dominates state institutions, and elections for the lower house of parliament are neither competitive nor inclusive. Since violently crushing a popular pro-democracy protest movement in 2011, the authorities have systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down on persistent dissent concentrated among the Shiite population.”
When pressed by the Trump administration to recognize Israel, Sudan was in the throes of military dictatorship, which had replaced the country’s civilian dictator. Today, torn asunder by violent conflict, Khartoum has ceased to be a factor. At least Morocco is rated “partly free,” though the Trump administration sacrificed the interests of the Sahrawi people by recognizing Rabat’s illegal conquest of the Western Sahara. It turns out that the U.S. is not opposed to aggression, only to aggression by perceived adversaries like Russia. In Washington’s view, America’s friends are free to commit murder and mayhem with nary a critical word.
However, Trump failed to land his main prey despite fawning treatment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. MbS insisted on better treatment of Palestinians, especially an end to settlers colonizing the West Bank, apparently reflecting his father King Salman’s views. Netanyahu was unwilling to comply, lest he lose support on Israel’s political extremes. So, Riyadh remained aloof.
Nevertheless, the KSA has long used its vast oil reserves to win favor in Washington, forging a dubious bilateral relationship topped by ritualistic hand-holding and kissing. However, as my Cato Institute colleague Jon Hoffman notes, “What Washington needs from the region on” such traditional issues as oil, terrorism, and stability “is quite limited and simple to achieve.” Newer concerns, such as over China’s Mideast role, offer no better reason to shower the Saudi royals with favors.
When he was elected, Biden was not expected to out-Trump Trump in sucking up to the Kingdom. True, no one should have imagined the new president to be any more principled than his predecessor. (After all, Biden once plagiarized the British Labor Party leader’s biography, a deed that suggests a basic emptiness of soul.) Still, in 2020, candidate Biden claimed to favor human rights and promised to treat the crown prince as “a pariah” for the latter’s many depredations, topped by the murder and dismemberment of journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi.
Then Biden got elected. Last summer the doddering president ventured overseas to meet MbS, greeting the latter with a fist bump and doing a symbolic kowtow while begging for increased oil sales. The killer prince responded with ostentatious contempt, cutting production. After threatening consequences, Biden quickly returned to submissive mode and abandoned any thoughts of protecting human rights and advancing democracy.
Absolute monarchy may not be the wave of the future, but the Saudi royal family is determined to maintain power. MbS has deepened repression despite well-publicized social reforms, expanding “his personal stranglehold on all political, economic, and social affairs within Saudi Arabia to an unprecedented level.” Indeed, in the name of fighting corruption—actually, everything the royals own is the result of mass theft and extortion—the killer prince turned the dictatorship into a profit center, arresting and ransoming wealthy countrymen.
Freedom House rates the KSA as “not free,” with a lower score than China and Iran, and just half of Russia’s total. Only hellholes like North Korea, Eritrea, and Turkmenistan are worse. F.H. explained: “Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and members of religious minority groups face extensive discrimination in law and in practice.”
The regime’s foreign policy is equally cruel and criminal, as well as counterproductive and increasingly anti-American. Besides driving up oil prices and helping Moscow avoid allied sanctions, the Kingdom kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, used troops to bolster Bahrain’s dictatorial minority Sunni monarchy, underwrote jihadist insurgents in Syria, intervened in Libya’s civil war, and sought to isolate and coerce Qatar, even pursuing an abortive military campaign.
Worst is the invasion of Yemen, in which the Saudi regime has conducted airstrikes against manifold civilian targets, including weddings, funerals, and even school buses. Riyadh’s blockade has resulted in pervasive malnutrition and disease. Alas, three successive U.S. administrations underwrote Saudi military operations, making Americans complicit in the regime’s abundant war crimes.
This is the state that the president would turn into an American defense dependent and beneficiary of a treaty security guarantee. The U.S. armed services would act as a modern Janissary corps, tasked with defending the royals as they loot their countrymen and bully their neighbors. Biden would be making the world safe for autocracy, a grotesque misuse of U.S. military power.
Thankfully, despite Netanyahu’s claim that an agreement is in the offing, the president’s shameful surrender of American principle and interest is not yet a done deal. So far Riyadh has insisted that Israel provide more than cosmetic and unsupported promises with regard to the Palestinians, which remains anathema to Netanyahu’s political coalition. Moreover, the killer prince has made other unpopular demands, such as a civilian nuclear program despite threatening to develop nuclear weapons. Nor is Senate confirmation of a treaty surrendering to the Saudis a given.
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Nevertheless, the fact that such an approach is receiving serious consideration illustrates the perversion of American policymaking. War should not be waged, nor the promise to wage war be made, absent a vital, meaning an existential, interest. None is present in the Abraham Accords. Observed National Review’s Mark Wright: “America’s implicit security guarantees of the Saudi monarchy have brought us little but grief for 40 years. During every one of those years, the Saudi dictatorship has played us fast and loose. It has never been aligned with our values or our interests.”
Oil supplies are abundant, limited only by American sanctions and lack of will to exploit domestic sources. Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower, militarily more secure than ever. Terrorism is but a modest threat dramatically magnified by Washington’s promiscuous meddling in the Middle East. Riyadh and Jerusalem already cooperate on security. Regional stability is a chimera, something beyond reach and not necessarily advantageous. As for concern over increased Chinese and Russian involvement in the Middle East: let them. Their increased involvement is inevitable and will not endanger American security, nor can it be prevented at reasonable and sustainable cost.
Promoting democracy is difficult. Promoting dictatorship is terrible. Instead, the president should represent and defend the American people. Which means leaving Israel and Saudi Arabia to sort out their own relations, and no longer treating the Kingdom as an ally. As Hoffman notes, “When it comes to U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, less is more.” Washington should stop sacrificing American interests for a mess of foreign policy pottage.