Editor’s Note: This was excerpted from the March 1 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
US President Joe Biden vowed to hold the Saudi Crown Prince accountable. Instead he’s accused of letting him get away with murder.
The White House is on the defensive following Friday’s release of a US intelligence report finding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) culpable 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 US relationship with the kingdom. He’s ending US complicity in the war in Yemen and put a massive Saudi arms sale on hold. He’s also willing to talk to Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran. And releasing the report itself reverses the Trump administration’s absolution of MBS.
Biden has shamed Riyadh and it’s unthinkable we’ll see MBS in his Oval Office. But he now faces criticism that he backed down from a vow to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over human rights abuses. New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff said that by not personally sanctioning the crown prince, Biden had “choked” and let “a murderer walk.”
Biden’s predicament emphasizes the danger of big talk on the campaign trail and reflects the murky ground US governments tread when they introduce morals into the grubby, transactional business of foreign policy. But his approach also recognizes the power of a crown prince regarded as reckless and ruthless in Washington — but who could soon be king of a longtime US ally.
Saudi Arabia is a vital anti-terror partner and remains key to stabilizing oil markets that could scuttle US economic prosperity. Ditching it would make America’s top enemy in the Middle East, Iran, more powerful.
Should Biden seize the crown prince’s US assets or ban him from entering the country? Some want Washington to signal that the succession of MBS would make close US-Saudi relations untenable. But when was the last time the US successfully tried to dictate the shape of regimes in the Middle East?
Khashoggi’s brutal murder exposes the uncomfortable truth that the US relationship with a Saudi royal family that has used oppression and funded extreme forms of Islam to stay in power has always been something of a corrupt bargain – one that reveals tensions between America’s founding values and the country it actually is.
“We believe there is more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement – where there is national interests for the United States. That is what diplomacy looks like,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told CNN’s Dana Bash, when asked why the administration isn’t punishing the crown prince.