A Bad 'Deal' with the Saudis That Blew Up in Biden's Face
The Biden administration’s “back to basics” approach has already been tested and found seriously wanting
The Biden administration made the mistake of believing that the Saudi government could be trusted:
Lawmakers who had been told about the trip’s benefits in classified briefings that included details of the oil deal — which has not been previously disclosed and was supposed to lead to a surge in production between September and December — have been left fuming that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman duped the administration.
It was foolish to trust the Saudi government’s promises, but this does at least help to explain why the administration was willing to humiliate itself by sending the president to Jeddah as if he were a supplicant and why they were so irate when the expected cooperation failed to materialize. They wrongly imagined that they had a deal with Mister Bone Saw, and they proceeded on the assumption that the Saudis would honor the deal after Biden came to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the president’s willingness to curry favor with Riyadh told Mohammed bin Salman that there was nothing that he and his government could do that would lead to real consequences from Washington.
The crown prince assumed he had no reason to worry about going back on any agreement his government may have made with the U.S. As Biden had already gone on his trip in the name of repairing the relationship, there was little reason for the Saudi government to expect a backlash when they broke their word later. The president had already shown that he wasn’t willing to penalize the Saudi government at all. Biden’s visit was taken as a sign that the U.S. was eager to rebuild ties, and the U.S. had demonstrated once again that it absolutely would not use its leverage to press the Saudi government on any issue. The president repeatedly and publicly said that his visit had nothing to do with energy while his officials were attempting to work out a deal to secure Saudi cooperation on that very issue, and then they claim to be surprised when it all blew up in their face.
The administration’s embarrassment has been in the works for months:
Leading proponents of the visit, including Mr. Hochstein and Brett McGurk, the top National Security Council official for Middle East policy, met during the spring with Prince Mohammed and his advisers. American officials said that in May, they reached a private oil deal with the Saudis that had two parts.
First, the Saudis would accelerate an OPEC Plus production increase of 400,000 barrels per day already planned for September, moving it to July and August. Then the Saudis would get the cartel to announce a further production increase of 200,000 barrels per day for each month from September to December of this year.
Obviously, it has not worked out this way, but then there was no good reason to think that it would. At best, the U.S. officials advocating for making up with the Saudis were oblivious to the divergence in Saudi and U.S. interests and were setting the administration up for a fall. It seems possible that these officials knew all along that the Saudis wouldn’t hold up their end of the bargain, but still used this supposed deal to sell Biden on an ill-advised trip. One thing that is clear is that Biden needs to stop listening to the officials that urged him to go to Saudi Arabia, and he needs to replace the officials at the White House responsible for so much bad advice. McGurk in particular should be sent on his way.
The Biden administration’s “back to basics” approach has already been tested and found seriously wanting. The president still has at least two years to change course and make necessary corrections to how he deals with the Saudi government. The oil production cut was just the latest wake-up call that the Saudis can be trusted only to do what is best for them and their interests have little or nothing to do with ours. Don’t get mad at the Saudis. Get even. Begin cutting off the weapons and military assistance that they have come to rely on, and make it clear to the Saudi government that the U.S. will make policy decisions in its own interests just as they do. The U.S. owes them nothing, and unless they can prove that they can advance U.S. interests they should not receive any more support from our government.
The Saudi government can’t be trusted, but then we should have known this for a long time. They have lied again and again about the conduct of the war on Yemen, and they violated the agreements they made with the U.S. by handing off U.S.-made weapons to third parties. Agents of their government murdered Jamal Khashoggi on the crown prince’s orders, and then they spent weeks lying and pretending that Khashoggi had left the consulate in Istanbul. They still maintain the obvious lie that the crown prince was not responsible for commissioning the murder. Now they also sentence U.S. citizens to absurdly long prison sentences for nothing more than expressing dissent on social media while in the United States.
This is not an ally. This is not even a client, since their government does so little to advance U.S. interests. The Saudi government is at best a headache and a liability and at worst a menace. If the Biden administration is beginning to understand that, there may yet be hope that U.S. policy can improve. Until then, Congress needs to take action to block as much support for Saudi Arabia as it can.