The White House is on the defensive following the release on Friday of a US intelligence report declaring Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) guilty of the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden has sanctioned 76 Saudis involved in harassing activists and journalists, and plans to recalibrate the United States’ relationship with the kingdom. It is ending US complicity in the war in Yemen and called off a massive sale of Saudi arms. He is also willing to talk to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. And the release of the report itself reverses the acquittal of MBS by the Trump administration.
Biden’s situation underscores the danger of big talk in the election campaign and reflects the murky terrain that US governments tread when they introduce morality into the dirty, transactional business of foreign policy. But his approach also recognizes the power of a crown prince considered reckless and ruthless in Washington, but who could soon be the king of a longtime U.S. ally.
Saudi Arabia is a vital counterterrorism partner and remains key to stabilizing oil markets that could ruin America’s economic prosperity. Abandoning it would make America’s main enemy in the Middle East, Iran, more powerful.
Should Biden seize the crown prince’s US assets or bar him from entering the country? Some want Washington to point out that the MBS succession would make close relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia untenable. But when was the last time the United States successfully tried to dictate the shape of regimes in the Middle East?
Khashoggi’s brutal assassination exposes the uncomfortable truth that America’s relationship with a Saudi royal family that has used oppression and financed extreme forms of Islam to stay in power has always been a kind of corrupt deal, one that reveals tensions between America’s founding values and the country that it really is.
“We believe that there are more effective ways to make sure that this does not happen again and also to be able to leave room to work with the Saudis in areas where there is mutual agreement, where there are national interests for the United States. This is diplomacy,” he said White House press secretary Jen Psaki to CNN’s Dana Bash when asked why the administration is not punishing the crown prince.