US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia bears risk, warns military strategist

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One of world’s most sought-after military strategists who has advised the Pentagon, presidents, and prime ministers across the globe has told Al Arabiya English that US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia is unlikely lead to any lasting strengthened bilateral relations.

Edward Luttwak, a polyglot American born to Jewish parents in Romania and raised in Italy and England, is the author of more than a dozen books on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations, including Strategy: The Logic Of War And Peace, The Grand Strategy Of The Soviet Union and his famed 1968 book Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook.

Edward Luttwak is one of world’s most sought-after military strategists who has advised the Pentagon, presidents, and prime ministers across the globe. (Screengrab)
Edward Luttwak is one of world’s most sought-after military strategists who has advised the Pentagon, presidents, and prime ministers across the globe. (Screengrab)

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In an extended interview with Al Arabiya English, Luttwak discussed the US President’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, while he also paid tribute to his former colleague and friend Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who was assassinated on July 8 ahead of a parliamentary election..

Through the lens of a self-described “grand strategist,” Luttwak, who has served on the editorial boards of Géopolitique (France), the Journal of Strategic Studies, The European Journal of International Affairs, and the Washington Quarterly, laid out his theory on why President Biden will head to the region outlining his affirmative vision for US engagement in the region over the coming months and years, his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – and the likely outcome of that encounter.

Q: What can we expect from President Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia?

A: This visit is actually what is called a ‘Summit meeting’; which is not usually places or events when anyone ever decides anything. Summit meetings have to be prepared in great detail beforehand. It’s an absolutely reckless thing to go into a Summit meeting [without that preparation]. You only go in with things you are negotiating. The principles, the ones that meet in the room, have been fully briefed on what was decided by them and their governments before the meeting. Also, because otherwise things can go wrong, and accidental things can go wrong, each side also has to have a ‘loud voice person’; someone who will immediately summon the media and tell the media their version of the story. So, if now, [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman and Biden are not in a good relationship at the summit at all, the Summit is a strained and forced Summit… that’s bad. Also, from the way the insults and messages were exchanged, it’s not a fully preferred Summit.

Q: What could go wrong at – in your words – a Summit meeting if things go wrong?

A: Well, in case you want to be frightened, the last time a not fully prepared summit happened was (former US President) John F. Kennedy’s – who thought he was a genius - meeting in Vienna with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev… This resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost burned the world. That is as bad as it can go down. So, I do hope that the Saudis have the ‘loud voice person’ who will take charge and issue the communication. I certainly hope that President Biden will stick to his own ideas about foreign affairs with his very long experience and his own natural moderation and will ignore the [Former US President] Obama people and the Clinton people that are not really interested in him being the successor but are nevertheless his staff. And that’s the reality of life. To them [followers of Obama and Clinton], allies are highly suspect. Enemies are not. If an American president improves relations with Cuba [a known enemy of the US] they are applauding, if they improve relations with Iran, they are applauding. Relations with an ally; they don’t applaud.

Biden en route to Israel for high-stakes Middle East visit. (File photo: Reuters)
Biden en route to Israel for high-stakes Middle East visit. (File photo: Reuters)

Q: So President Biden will not be – in your words – applauded for meeting with Saudi Arabia? Because they are a key ally, rather than an enemy?

A: They believe Saudi has committed a sinful act. So, the people who are surrounding Biden, when they’re back in Washington, they’re surrounded by people that think that Saudi Arabia is awful. And who are indifferent when you point out to them that nice or not nice, they are a key regional ally and the loss of it would diminish key American power.

Q: Is losing that key American power not an incentive for these upcoming talks with Saudi to be fruitful?

A: Half of them believe key American power should be diminished. After all, the United States is the country that declared independence in 1776 in order to preserve slavery; that is the current line, because the British were abolishing it. So, if you go and tell them that the American power is weakened, this is the kind of situation we are in. However, Saudi Arabia is by no means unique. There’s a category called key American ally. Everyone one of them is under attack. For example, the government of Indian President Modi is highly unpopular in the Biden White House, and Trump invited Modi over and they had the massive celebration with the Indian community; it was a massive thing at Madison Square Garden applauding the two presidents. So Modi is suspect because he is non secular, and he is evil because he doesn’t let people have transgender rights or drink. So Saudi Arabia is the key regional ally – but it’s evil. India is a key ally – because of China – but now Modi is an enemy; he wouldn’t be invited to the White House, if he were he would be besieged by questions. When the people who are around the American President are anti-American, that would cause hysteria, but their priorities is not actually enhancement of American power their priorities are varied, such as transgender rights and abortion rights. So, these people would always welcome improving relations with Cuba or something like that. Iran for example, if Biden were to meet the Iranian leader – one who hangs and castrates’ people – they would be ecstatic. If Biden announced, he was flying over Saudi Arabia to meet the Iranian leader – they would applaud… they would say he was making a “diplomatic breakthrough.” This is like when [former US President] Richard Nixon met Chinese leader Mao Zedong – who at that point been responsible for 60 million deaths – in Beijing to reset their countries’ relations. Who in Washington criticized that? Your friends are suspects – you want to embrace your enemies. That is a logical position, if you fundamentally believe if American power is evil. So, this Summit meeting is an irresponsible meeting because you’re never supposed to go to a Summit meeting which has not been fully prepared and fully agreed and fully scripted.

There has been, as you touched upon earlier, some choice language used by the US against Saudi Arabia. He said he was meeting Saudi Arabia royalty as part of a broader “international meeting” and has previously named the Saudi Crown Prince a “pariah.” What do you think of this and how will this affect the outcome of the visit?

A: The language is highly disturbing. When he said, “I’m going there, I am not sure if I am meeting him,” then, ‘I am going somewhere else but he’s going to be there.” Then, “I won’t shake his hand.” And I think, this will be the [US] headlines of that meeting. It will be keyed in two ways, ‘Biden avoided embracing Mohammed bin Salman,’ if they are able to write the words ‘Biden refused to shake Mohammed bin Salman’s hand’ they will but there’ll be catastrophic consequences from that kind of stuff. There is another fact which is, summits are very dangerous consequences. But Saudi need to respond to the people that will attack them. Saudi has to say, “You have to decide if you want us to be your friends or your enemies, if you want us to be friends this is who we are here.”

Will the meeting address some of the other topics that are pressing in the region, including Iran’s stalled nuclear deal?

A: That is where Biden’s long experience and maturity will come in. His staff, Obama people, they pressed him very hard to meet the JCPOA (the formal name of the Iran nuclear deal) requirement. Biden said no, which horribly disappointed the Obama people. But he wouldn’t budge. Which is why now there isn’t an agreement. Biden was the one who prevented the agreement.

You were a long-term friend of the assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, what is your takeaway from Friday’s tragic death?

A: Shinzo Abe was the most significant Japanese leader. He was killed most accidentally, but the truth is that he had to withdraw from the longest Prime Ministership in Japanese history. Because of his colitis. This is an extremely difficult disease. It happened to him before he was finally forced to resign and then came back and thankfully remained 12 years, partly because he’s very stoic because he can withstand pain. And now he was severely deteriorated as it happens, and it’s a very sad thing. I knew him for a very long time – he was a friend. A week after he became Prime Minister, he asked me to help set up a National Security Council and then I stayed in for 10 years. I have pictures of me and Abe hugging and kissing, he created contemporary Japan. Because before him, Japan had no real foreign policy. Abe changed all that.

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