Joe Biden began his trip with Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) with an embarrassing fist bump. Presumably this was a choreographed effort to avoid Biden shaking hands with MBS, whose actions in the death of Jamal Khashoggi Biden had called “outrageous,” and whose country Biden had campaigned on making a “pariah state,” for its role in the killing. Now, months later, with Americans suffering from extremely high prices for gasoline and diesel, Biden was begging MBS and the Saudis to pump more oil. The Wall Street Journal’s Karen Elliott House reports that after the fist bump “Things went downhill from there.” She continued:
Mr. Biden insisted that, in front of the entire U.S. and Saudi delegations, he had labeled the crown prince the killer of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Minister of State Adel al-Jubeir was quick to say he didn’t recall hearing that. When Mr. Biden was asked if the foreign minister was telling the truth, he said no—implying that a key Saudi official was a liar. Even the New York Times questioned if Mr. Biden’s account was accurate, noting that he has a history of describing events other meeting participants don’t recall.
So much for rebuilding U.S.-Saudi cooperation, which was Mr. Biden’s goal. This trip was worse than a missed opportunity. It damaged U.S. security interests in the Middle East by highlighting to the world that neither Saudi Arabia nor other Gulf states trust the U.S. enough to make any sacrifices to renew badly frayed relations. In a speech to Arab leaders, the president proclaimed: “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”
That fell on doubting ears from a man they watched walk away from Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates promptly announced its effort to return an ambassador to Tehran and resolve differences diplomatically. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud contradicted Mr. Biden’s claims of enhancing Saudi-Israel relations, and reiterated that any increased oil production won’t be a Saudi decision but one by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus, which includes Russia. That’s a not-so-subtle way of saying Saudi will maintain its warming relations with Vladimir Putin regardless of what the U.S. thinks.
In short, the president walked away with no progress—not only on oil, but on peace in Yemen, confronting Iran and everything else. That failure was compounded by the risible way the White House handled the visit. The White House staffer who thought a banal buddy-to-buddy fist bump was preferable to a customary formal handshake should be fired. It had nothing to do with Covid; the president shook hands with other Saudis and also, earlier, with Israelis and Palestinians. If he thought that forgoing a handshake would appease anti-Saudi critics in his own party, he was wrong. Rep. Adam Schiff blasted the fist bump as “visible proof of the continuing grip oil rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy.”
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