Over the course of Trump’s presidency, outraged politicians across the US system took many principled stands against Saudi Arabia. With a president who was so shamefully subservient to crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman, Congress, and every democratic politician running for president was free to condemn the country, and propose a number of concrete ways to punish and humiliate the Kingdom’s out of control leadership. My guess is that it is going to be shocking how quickly all of that evaporates.
But, as I lay out in today’s video, that’s not necessarily a reason for despair. An emotionally satisfying blow-up with Saudi Arabia is vastly less important than the end of the invasion of Yemen and the speedy restoration of the Iran Nuclear Deal. That ought to be our true measure of success in dealing with Saudi Arabia.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. So How screwed is Saudi Arabia right now? Over the past four years, the Saudi royal family, and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman in particular have chained themselves to Donald Trump. They have acted in extreme ways with Trump’s encouragement, and they have relied excessively on Trump’s well paid-for forgiveness, on a range of issues, from Yemen to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Will the Saudi government be punished for all of this under Biden? My guess is probably not.
On the campaign trail Joe Biden certainly had some harsh words for the Saudis. It’s likely that human rights will be a slightly bigger focus in Biden’s administration than it was in Trump’s. But it’s important to remember that Donald Trump talked a lot of shit about Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail too. Those who are hoping for a massive US-Saudi blow-up are going to be disappointed.
But I don’t think the world should be disappointed by this. Because I think Biden understands a central truth of American Empire that always eluded Donald Trump. The U.S. president can do far more with with a quiet word than with loud shouting.
To paraphrase the Usual Suspects, The greatest trick the American Empire ever pulled was convincing the world it didn’t exist. What Trump ignored, but I believe Biden is well aware of, is that this subtlety is key to US power. For 75 years now, the world has run on the fiction that the US is merely the first among many equals, not the greatest imperial power the world has ever seen.
The past 20 years of horrific failure have diminished this, but behind closed doors, if the US government speaks with a united voice, it can still force most governments in the world to do what we want. But we can never do so publicly. Because if we do it publicly, we humiliate other countries, forcing them to fight us. Rubbing people’s noses in our power dramatically diminishes our power.
For the past four years, Donald Trump has provided a master class in what not to do. His ridiculous bleating about putting America First has been a tremendous gift to hardline anti-US governments in Venezuela, Iran and North Korea, helping them all strengthen their regimes. Worse, four years of Trump has left our traditional alliance structure in open revolt, as insulted allies have joined trade groupings excluding the US across Asia and Europe.
Biden knows better. A US president that is publicly quiet and friendly can get much more done. As satisfying as it would be to have a loud blow up over Khashoggi, or some kind of formal arms embargo against the Gulf, I am far more interested in Yemen, the Iran nuclear deal and Saudi dissidents who are still alive. The disgusting Trump-Saudi relationship has given Biden some very effective threats to hold over Saudi Arabia’s head. Biden would be wiser to do so quietly. This has worked before.
The US relationship with Saudi Arabia goes back until at least the 1940s, but in the 1960s it reached a turning point. John F Kennedy was less on board with supporting a medieval slave state than Eisenhower had been, just as Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Yemen was invaded by Egypt, which was a Saudi Rival at the time. In an October 1962 meeting with king Faisal Kennedy privately made it very clear that Saudi Arabia had to change to continue to receive US support. There was no big press release or public shaming from the US, but Saudi Arabia quickly abolished slavery, and engaged in a sweeping program of reform.
Now it’s certainly true that the United States has fallen far from that peak of mid- 20th century power. But Saudi Arabia has fallen far as well. US energy independence is over-sold, but there is no disputing that we need less Saudi oil than we have at any point in the past 50 years. And Trump’s lackadaisical reaction to the bombing of a Saudi oil refinery in 2019 made it clear how desperately Saudi Arabia needs us.
So not only does Biden have a number of things MBS has to make up For, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position is shakier than it has ever been. What this is, is an opportunity to quickly whip Saudi Arabia back into a shape that is actually useful for US foreign policy.
None of the pressure exerted needs to be public. But it needs to be exerted. Saudi Arabia and all its DC think tanks and lobbyists need to get out of the way of the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal. Even more importantly, Saudi Arabia needs to end its war on Yemen as soon as humanly possible. These objectives are far more important than emotionally satisfying condemnations of Saudi Arabia’s leadership. If these objectives are blocked however, it’s a different story.
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