After 9/11, US officials urged Riyadh to implement reforms to stamp out extremism. The strange irony is that 20 years on, US policymakers have more than what they asked for, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman steering the Kingdom through a series of visibly large and successful economic, religious, and social reforms. And yet the White House is nonetheless haranguing a strategically crucial Middle East ally, with President Joe Biden threatening to reassess the US-Saudi relationship. "I’m not going to get into what I’d consider and what I have in mind,” said Biden. “But there will be consequences."
It’s true that the White House was counting on Riyadh to pump oil to help hide the disastrous results of Biden’s climate agenda, which has driven inflation to historic highs. And without that cover, the Democrats are in trouble heading into next month’s midterms. But the recent US-Saudi dust-up is a symptom of a much larger issue that has nothing to do with energy or even the Saudi monarchy. The party Biden leads no longer has a foreign policy. Rather, it projects its domestic quarrels abroad, and confronts those it sees as foreign proxies for its internal rivals.
When the progressive wing of the Democratic Party looks at the Saudis, it sees Republicans, from the Bush dynasty and its counselors like Texas oil lawyer and former Secretary of State James Baker, all the way down to Donald Trump. It is in this context, and not the bygone contexts of American national interests and even reformist realpolitik, that Biden’s statements and actions begin to make sense: If you don’t help us against our domestic enemies by keeping the oil flowing, then you’re an enemy. Worse, says Biden, it means that the long-time US ally has taken sides with Russia, which, because of the false narrative US spy services pushed through the media, is the same as siding with Donald Trump.
In real-world terms, Biden’s charge that Riyadh is aligned with Moscow is nonsensical. It was Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, who effectively partnered with Russia during the Syrian war over strenuous opposition from the Gulf. The Obama-Biden team told Saudi diplomats and others who wanted Russian forces to stop bombing schools and hospitals in Syria to take it up with Vladimir Putin himself. That’s because protecting Bashar al-Assad, and supply lines to Hezbollah across the Lebanese border, advanced the nuclear deal with Iran—which the Saudis, the other Gulf states, and Israel opposed. When the Syrian dictator crossed Obama’s redline and used chemical weapons, Putin stepped in to save the American president’s face and take custody of Assad’s unconventional arsenal, while also stepping up the bombing of Syrian civilian areas. So, who’s cozy with Russia?
Indeed, it’s clarifying to see the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) through the lens of the progressives’ war on their domestic opponents. The purpose of the agreement to legalize Iran’s nuclear weapons program was to realign US interests with those of the Islamic Republic. But just as significantly, from the perspective of the Obama-led progressives, is the fact that the JCPOA weakened domestic rivals who project US political power through their relationships with the states most threatened by Iran—Saudi Arabia (Bush Republicans, and later Trump) and Israel (centrist or Clinton Democrats, as well as Republicans).
When Trump came to office, he set about restoring the traditional U.S.-led regional order spearheaded by Sunni powers by making Riyadh his first official foreign visit. In Trump’s version of global politics, strong relations with Saudi Arabia meant investment and therefore good jobs and a strong U.S. economy. That is, US-Saudi ties were good because they benefitted American workers and companies.
The strategic purpose of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords was to counter Obama’s Iran-centric project for the Middle East by yoking Sunni powers together with Israel. The Obama progressives countered: A network of Democratic operatives, intelligence officials, and the media targeted Saudi Arabia as a proxy for Trump.
It’s worth noting that the same confederation of progressive-aligned operatives, spies, and media that targeted the Kingdom also invented the story about Trump owing his presidency to Putin’s interference in the 2016 election. In the old national interest-centered frame for US foreign policy, it would be nearly incomprehensible that any US statesman would both destabilize the American government and risk angering a resentful Eurasian nuclear-armed power by inserting its leader into the middle of a poisonous domestic political dispute.
And yet senior Obama officials, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, pushed the Trump-Putin collusion narrative, knowing from the beginning that the evidence behind it had been made to order by their own operatives. Because all that mattered was stopping a Republican president, they never imagined that their instruments of domestic political warfare would have consequences on the world stage.
The Biden administration’s Ukraine policy is similarly the product of the new parochial progressivism. There’s no doubt that Russia, especially as part of a rising bloc including China and Iran, represents a real and direct threat to US interests. But had Biden been serious about deterring Putin, he wouldn’t have removed sanctions on Nord Stream 2, which effectively greenlit Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nor would he be keen to fill Putin’s war chest with the $10 billion that will flow to Russia as Iran’s nuclear patron should the United States re-enter the JCPOA. Thus, it’s hard to escape the perception of a profound confusion at the heart of US policymaking—or the conclusion that within progressive circles, no small part of the rationale for arming Ukraine is to sustain the fiction that Russia equals Trump.
The failure to understand that the progressive faction in US politics sees foreign policy primarily through the lens of domestic political warfare comes at a high cost, one that has lately been paid by America’s other major strategic Middle East partner, Israel.
Current Israeli leadership has shown itself eager to distance itself not only from its predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, but also from Trump, whom it perceives as poison to Washington’s once-familiar pro-Israel “bipartisan consensus.” Thus, the Israeli establishment, or that portion of it that rejects Netanyahu, has been eager to establish closer ties to US progressives, even if that means alienating Republican supporters. As former Israeli policy advisor Shimrit Meier put it, “Israel can’t be the Middle East branch of the Republican party like it has been in recent years.” Accordingly, Israel allowed itself to be roped into a Biden-sponsored agreement over the maritime border with Lebanon that pointlessly augments the prestige of an Iran-backed terror organization that plots its demise, Hezbollah.
As the progressive faction of the Democratic Party sees it, the alternatives for US regional allies are clear: Either prove your loyalty to us by taking measures that we think are wise, even if they are harmful to your national interests; or else defy us, which means siding with our enemies at home.
Clearly the equation of treating foreign partners as domestic allies, or else as proxies for domestic political opponents, is toxic to sane policymaking and to traditional formulations of the American national interest. And US partners who prefer to ignore this dynamic do so at their peril.