The Washington Post

A low moment for Mr. Biden

His diplomacy in the Middle East bumps into U.S. principles.


PRESIDENT BIDEN has returned from his four-day trip to the Middle East, during which he stopped in Israel and, much more controvers­ially, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The trip was an effort to shore up U.S. relations with traditiona­l allies in the region, in hopes of heading off growing Russian, Chinese and Iranian influence. But Mr. Biden’s mission inevitably clashed with his past promises to put the Riyadh regime at arm’s length, because of its fomenting of war in Yemen and ugly human rights record. That record includes the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributo­r, for which U.S. intelligen­ce directly blames Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.

Mr. Biden’s face-to-face meeting with MBS — preceded by a cordial, and illadvised, televised fist bump — conferred a much-coveted legitimacy on the crown prince. On a visit calculated to secure increases in the Saudi oil supply, this moment crystalliz­ed the damaging appearance of trading U.S. human rights principles — indeed the Saudi people’s legitimate aspiration­s for greater freedom — for help curing the president’s domestic political problems caused by expensive gasoline.

We have long argued that it is counterpro­ductive to do business with Arab dictators, though Mr. Biden is hardly the first president to try. The test of such diplomacy must be what the United States wins in return and how much human rights truth it speaks in the process. In that sense, Mr. Biden deserves some credit for holding a news conference in Saudi Arabia at which he called Khashoggi’s murder “outrageous” and noted that he had told MBS he held him “probably” responsibl­e. (MBS, for his part, made no admission of wrongdoing, according to Mr. Biden. Saudi officials later publicly disputed Mr. Biden’s version of the conversati­on.)

For the most part, though, Mr. Biden gave more than he got. He made no wider critique of Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies in public; there were no releases of political prisoners or clemency for other regime opponents — including dual U.S. citizens — who have been denied freedom to travel. Instead, Mr. Biden touted an already existing truce in Yemen and modest steps toward better relations with Israel. He seemed to invite deeper U.s.-saudi ties by announcing a new project to test U.S. 5G technology in the kingdom.

And when it was all over, MBS had made no public commitment to pump more oil. The Saudis are being counted on to influence an OPEC cartel meeting next month to get a few hundred thousand more barrels onto the market, likely with only modest impact on U.S. gas prices.

Mr. Biden additional­ly met with President Abdel Fatah al-sissi of Egypt, a dictator who has jailed thousands of political opponents. After that photo op, the White House issued a statement backing Egypt’s financing requests at the World Bank and Internatio­nal Monetary Fund — and promising only “a constructi­ve dialogue on human rights.”

A presidency that began with bold talk of a new, human-rights-centered approach to the Arab world has reverted to a policy not much less indulgent of dictators than those of previous administra­tions, including that of President Donald Trump. This was a low moment for Mr. Biden, and one that he won’t soon live down.

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