Biden Wants to Mend the U.S.-Saudi Alliance, Not End It

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Anyone paying attention for the last three years should not be surprised that President Joe Biden on Thursday announced the end to U.S. support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, calling the war a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” Most of Biden’s party has given up on the Saudi regime, particularly after its agents murdered and then dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

But it would be a mistake to read too much into the Biden administration’s opening move in its attempt to reset the U.S. relationship with its oldest ally in the Middle East. Unlike members of Congress, the U.S. president does not have the luxury of only posturing on an issue. He also has to make policy.

This is why it’s important to pay attention to what else Biden said on Thursday. He pledged U.S. support to revive long-dormant peace talks between the Saudis and the Houthi rebels in Yemen and to continue to sell Saudi Arabia defensive weapons to protect it from drones, missiles and other threats.

In other words, Biden is interested in mending, not ending, the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

This process will not be entirely positive for the Saudis. For one, his administration has promised Congress that it will release an unclassified CIA report on the crown prince’s own culpability in the Khashoggi murder. According to the Washington Post, the agency concluded in 2018 that he did indeed order the operation in Istanbul. At the time, administration officials pushed back on that assessment.

There is also an inter-agency review of the broader relationship. It’s possible that more senior Saudi officials could face sanctions for Khashoggi’s murder. Other senior Biden officials have signaled to Congress that the new administration will press the Saudis to release liberal activists who have been jailed under the regime. There will be far more pressure now on Riyadh to end its war in Yemen.

All of that is good as far as it goes. But Biden will also have to come up with ways to tame the reckless crown prince. Some Saudi watchers, particularly Saudi dissidents, believe this to be a fool’s errand.

One such activist, Omar Abdulaziz, who now is exiled in Canada, told me that many Western diplomats were making the same mistake with bin Salman that they made with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, acknowledging his brutality but deeming him an important bulwark against Iran. “MBS is a threat to the stability of the Middle East in the same way that Saddam was,” he said.

That may be true. But most experts do not think the U.S. has the leverage or savvy to persuade the Saudi royal family to pick another crown prince.

Kirsten Fontenrose served as the senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council until she resigned at the end of 2018, and is now director of the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. She told me that bin Salman has so effectively consolidated his power that there is no chance that he can be knocked off the throne. She does, however, think there is a chance to work toward more realistic goals for Saudi Arabia.

For example, she said, the Saudis have expressed an interest in formalizing a national security process that would include a more diverse and experienced group of advisers in major decisions. “When we did work with the Saudis on the Khashoggi issue, many wise advisers were open to amending the decision-making structures,” she told me.

Admittedly, this kind of modest diplomacy is not satisfying. Nor is there any guarantee it will work. Abdulaziz may be right that the young crown prince is irredeemable.

At the same time, alienating Riyadh entirely undermines the national interest. If the Biden administration fails to bring an end to the war in Yemen, the Saudis can always purchase less precise munitions from China or Russia. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the Saudis have already begun working with China on a civilian nuclear power program.

If the Saudis are persuaded that the U.S. will remain a steadfast ally, they will be more willing to bankroll humanitarian relief work and reconstruction in Yemen, Syria and the Palestinian territories. Over time, that will make it easier for the Biden administration to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. The trick now is to persuade bin Salman that his country’s alliance with the U.S. is a two-way street. Biden can’t be a good friend to a man who has dissidents murdered — and neither can America.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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