Joe Biden came into office promising to restore America’s moral authority in the world to what it was before Donald Trump’s election in 2016. He has since received some early reality checks about how much the world has changed since then.
It is in the Middle East – and his country’s tangled relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran – where Mr. Biden’s heady rhetoric about putting human rights and international law back at the centre of U.S. foreign policy have predictably crashed into hard truths.
The first major test of how far Mr. Biden might go in changing America’s approach to the region came on Friday, with the release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report into the grisly 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The ODNI report pointed the finger of blame, as expected, at Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, assessing that he “approved” the operation to kill Mr. Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
In tandem with the release of the report, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on dozens of individuals, including former Saudi intelligence chief Ahmad Asiri, “for his direct role in the Istanbul operation.” It also targeted the unit, the Rapid Intervention Force, believed to have carried out the assassination. But there were no sanctions or visa ban for the Crown Prince himself.
Back when he was a candidate running for president, Mr. Biden vowed to dramatically change the U.S.-Saudi relationship, to “make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah they are.” He has taken steps in that direction by ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen – and by his insistence on dealing only with the 85-year-old King Salman, rather than the Crown Prince who had the ear of Mr. Trump’s inner circle.
However, the administration’s muted response to the ODNI report was seen as a major letdown by Mr. Khashoggi’s friends and allies.
Naming, but not sanctioning, Crown Prince Mohammed was “insulting on top of ineffective,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, an organization founded by Mr. Khashoggi. “Sadly, it reflects some of the doublespeak of the Biden administration, trying to have it both ways, talking tough about human-rights values, but really doing nothing.”
The Washington Post, which regularly carried Mr. Khashoggi’s columns, published an editorial headlined “Mohammed bin Salman is guilty of murder. Biden should not give him a pass.”
“To be sure, Mr. Biden is putting a stop to the grotesque and unprecedented coddling of Saudi Arabia by former president Donald Trump,” it read. “In the end, however, the U.S.-Saudi relationship under Mr. Biden may look much like it did before the Trump administration, when the kingdom was treated as a prime U.S. ally in the Middle East.”
There were other signs last week that Mr. Biden’s team was looking to appease, rather than antagonize, Riyadh.
Hours before the Khashoggi report was released, Mr. Biden authorized the first military action of his presidency, ordering F-15 warplanes to strike buildings in eastern Syria that the U.S. believes were used by Iranian-backed militia. The independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 22 people were killed in the U.S. attack.
The air strikes were retaliation for a Feb. 15 rocket attack on an airport used by U.S. and allied forces in Erbil, in northern Iraq, that was claimed by another pro-Iranian militia. Mr. Biden said the message to Tehran was “you can’t act with impunity.”
They were also an acknowledgement that Mr. Biden’s goal of undoing what he sees as the damage done by the Trump years won’t be easy to achieve. Mr. Biden came into office vowing to return the U.S. to the Iran nuclear deal – a pact known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – that was negotiated in 2015 by Barack Obama’s administration (in which Mr. Biden served as vice-president). Mr. Trump pulled out of the pact three years later.
The planned return to the JCPOA is fiercely opposed by Saudi Arabia, as well as by Israel and the United Arab Emirates, two other long-time American allies in the region. The Iranian side has also thrown up roadblocks, arguing that the U.S. must withdraw the sanctions that Mr. Trump imposed, and compensate it, before it will resume compliance with the curbs on its nuclear program.
“The new American administration has just changed mask and continues the path of the former one,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, foreign affairs adviser to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, said in remarks carried by the state-run Tehran Times.
Ms. Whitson said the criticism wasn’t far off. “It’s really hard to imagine that the strike on Syria was just accidentally, coincidentally, at the same time as the buildup to the ODNI report, this little balancing of messages.”
She said that by striking at Tehran to try and reassure Riyadh, and letting the Saudis carry on purchasing “defensive” weapons even as the U.S. named Crown Prince Mohammed as the man behind the murder of a U.S.-based journalist, Mr. Biden and his team were “really just mimicking the tactics of the Trump administration and Obama before him.”
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