Biden juggles principle and pragmatism in his stance on autocrats
As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden has not been shy about challenging dictators and authoritarian leaders because he has anchored his foreign policy in the idea that the world is in a battle between democracy and autocracy.
But Biden’s approach to government as president has been far less black-and-white as he tries to balance such lofty principles with the tug of pragmatism in a world scrambled by the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns about China’s global ambitions, heightened tensions over advancing Iran’s nuclear program and more.
These cross-currents were evident last week when Biden hosted the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where his decision to exclude leaders he sees as dictators generated considerable drama and incited a number of other leaders worldwide to boycott the event.
“We don’t always agree on everything, but because we are democracies, we resolve our disagreements with mutual respect and dialogue,” Biden told summit attendees as he tried to iron out differences. .
Even as Biden excluded a trio of leaders from the gathering, his national security team prepared for a possible visit to Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich kingdom that the president called a “pariah” state early in his success. House managed.
After Biden took office, his administration made it clear that the president would avoid direct engagement with the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after US intelligence officials concluded he likely had approved the 2018 murder and dismemberment of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. If the visit to Saudi Arabia goes as planned, Biden is expected to meet with Mohammed.
Biden’s harsh rhetoric during the campaign — and earlier in his presidency — toward Saudis was part of a larger message he delivered to Americans: The era of blank checks for dictators and strongmen must end if the United States is to have credibility on the world stage.
Lately, however, such trenchant rhetoric has given way to a greater nod to realpolitik.
At a time of skyrocketing gas prices, an increasingly fragile situation in the Middle East, and perpetual concern that China is expanding its global footprint, Biden and his national security team have determined that freezing Saudis is simply not tenable, according to a person familiar with the White House thinking about the yet to be finalized Saudi visit who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The blurred lines on who the United States will and will not engage with have left the White House with a difficult question: how can the president invoke a principle to reject engagement with dictators in his own backyard even as he plans to visit Saudi officials who have used mass arrests and gruesome violence to stifle dissent?
“President Biden is committed to putting human rights and democracy at the heart of our foreign policy. It does,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at a closing news conference for the summit on Friday. “That doesn’t mean it’s all of it.”
But Edward Frantz, a presidential historian at the University of Indianapolis, sees signs that Biden “fell into the same trap” as his predecessors when it comes to the Middle East.
President Jimmy Carter, who has declared human rights to be at the heart of his foreign policy, looked beyond the bloodthirsty reputation of the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. President George HW Bush refrained from backing an uprising against Saddam Hussein as his advisers warned that Iraq would descend into civil war without the strongman. US administrations from Presidents Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have ignored the torture and arbitrary detention of the Hosni Mubarak government in Egypt in the name of a reliable strategic partner in a difficult corner of the world.
“Notably, Biden is being forced out of his position on the Saudis largely because he had a principled position on Ukraine,” Frantz said. “But it’s hard not to see the same patterns here that have been established over the past 80 years.”
Human rights groups and even some of the president’s Democratic allies are warning Biden that a Saudi visit could be perilous.
Six House Democrats, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff of California, wrote to Biden last week that if he decides to go ahead with the visit, he must follow through on a pledge to “recalibrate this relationship with serving America’s national interests” and press Saudi officials on China’s oil production, human rights and reported sales of ballistic missiles to the kingdom.
“President Biden should recognize that any meeting with a foreign official gives him instant credibility on the world stage, whether intentional or not,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights commitments would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for gross human rights violations.”
Even as Biden warmed to the Saudis, he pledged to keep Western Hemisphere dictators off the top in his own backyard.
The decision was considered brutal by some allies. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Bolivia all chose to skip the summit following Biden’s decision to exclude the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and from Nicaragua.
Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Belize Prime Minister John Briceño were among those who showed up but publicly criticized Biden’s decision.
“Geography, not politics, defines the Americas,” Briceño said.
Before taking office, Biden did not hold back on what he saw as some of the shortcomings of his fellow leaders, especially those who had less than stellar records as champions of democracy but were in the good graces of President Donald Trump.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden argued that Brazil would face “significant economic consequences” if President Jair Bolsonaro continued to deforest the Amazon. Biden has called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “autocrat” and waited more than three months into his presidency to speak with his fellow NATO leader. Most notably, Biden said Saudi Arabia was a “pariah” that would “pay a price” for its human rights abuses, including the brutal killing of Khashoggi.
When Biden met Bolsonaro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas on Thursday, the engagement was decidedly civil. Biden made no mention of the Brazilian leader’s baseless claims about his own country’s voting systems and unsubstantiated allegations of widespread fraud in the 2020 U.S. election.
During the two leaders’ appearance before reporters, Biden even praised Brazil for making “real sacrifices” in protecting the Amazon. The White House said in their private talks they discussed working together on “sustainable development” to reduce deforestation.
Bolsonaro, the most high-profile Latin American leader to attend the summit, had agreed to attend on the condition that Biden grant him a private meeting and refrain from confronting him on some of the most contentious issues between the two men, according to three of the Brazilian leader’s Cabinet ministers who requested anonymity to discuss the matter. White House officials said no preconditions were set for the talks.
In recent weeks, top Biden advisers and NATO officials have worked to persuade Erdogan to drop his threats to block historically neutral Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
Last week, Biden and his administration were enthusiastic in praising Saudi Arabia for its role in pushing OPEC+ to increase oil production for July and August. Biden even called the kingdom “brave” for agreeing to extend a ceasefire in its seven-year war with Yemen.
Douglas London, a former CIA officer who has spent 34 years in the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia and is a researcher at the Middle East Institute, said Biden’s change in tone represents an uncomfortable reality: the Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, is someone the United States will likely have to deal with for years to come.
“Yes, we are reminded of how the President branded MBS a pariah state dictator whom the United States was going to teach a lesson,” London wrote in an analysis. “Timing in politics and foreign policy, as in life, matters a great deal, and it’s important to remember that the average price of oil when then-candidate Biden said was 41 dollars a barrel.”
Now it is hovering around $120 a barrel.
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in Los Angeles and Mauricio Savares in Sao Paolo, Brazil, contributed to this report.