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In Biden's World, Midterms Trump Human Rights

Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia signals a volte-face, demonstrating that upholding human rights is not as crucial as the midterms.

President Joe Biden leaving air force one
Credit: White House Flickr Stream

At a Democratic debate in 2019, then-candidate Biden said of Saudi Arabia's royal family: "We are going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are."

Biden was responding to MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell's question about Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia and its prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who disappeared inside the walls of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and U.S. permanent resident, had gone there to pick up his divorce papers so he could marry his fiancée, who was waiting outside the building, the next day. U.S. intelligence agencies, working with Turkish intelligence, later concluded that MBS had ordered Khashoggi's brutal killing and dismembering.

American attitudes towards Saudi Arabia have always been ambivalent. Americans recognize that Saudi oil translates into massive purchases of American exports, such as planes and machinery. But Americans detest Saudi Arabian practices regarding women and human dignity. In a September 2020 TIPP poll of 1,200 adults, Saudi Arabia ranked fourth in favorability among Middle East nations, behind Israel, Jordan, and the UAE, only marginally higher than Lebanon.

To prove to the world that the Kingdom had violated human rights in the Khashoggi murder, the Biden administration declassified a CIA report within five weeks of assuming office. The war of words to isolate Saudi Arabia had begun.

For the next 16 months, there was no high-level contact between America and Saudi Arabia. Although every foreign power recognized MBS as the de-facto ruler, given the ailing health of King Salman, President Biden demoted MBS to the defense minister level. In truth, MBS holds a vastly more expansive portfolio, overseeing the Saudi economy and its Vision 2030 blueprint to transform the oil-rich state into a global hub of business. Demoting MBS allowed President Biden to avoid any direct talks with him.

This week, President Biden shed all anger and turned 180 degrees, confirming that he will visit Saudi Arabia next month for talks with its leaders. He hopes to convince them to pump even more oil into world markets after OPEC+ countries, led by Saudi Arabia, agreed to increase production by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, the peak summer driving season. The White House statement bordered on kowtowing and seemed distant from Biden's 2019 assertion that he wanted to make the Kingdom a ‘pariah’ state. "The President appreciates King Salman's leadership and his invitation. He looks forward to this important visit to Saudi Arabia, which has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly eight decades."

Really? So, what gave?

One word: Midterms. With U.S. gasoline prices breaching a historical record and crossing $5 a gallon, Biden was forced to abandon his moral grandstanding. Diesel - the fuel that drives America's supply chain of cargo ships, trains, and trucks - is more expensive than gasoline and is behind steep price increases at the grocery store.

Throughout history, U.S. presidents have temporarily overlooked human rights violations to meet more pressing priorities. The justification is motivated by Maslow's five-tier hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this pyramid are physiological needs like food and shelter, necessities that have become too expensive for Americans. At the top of this pyramid are human needs that Maslow calls "Self-actualization" -a desire to become the most that one can be.

But the messy world of realpolitik has no room to achieve moral self-actualization goals, and President Biden's left-wing coalition realizes it daily. Since Afghanistan last year, nothing has gone well for an administration consumed by foreign policy debacles. The crippling sanctions on Afghanistan have not changed the Taliban's treatment of its women and children, while millions of ordinary Afghans face starvation. Despite throat-choking sanctions, Russia appears to be winning the war against Ukraine, conquering over 20% of its land mass.

Janet Yellen, the embattled Treasury Secretary who acknowledged in a Congressional hearing that she was wrong about her initial classification of inflation as transitory, proved again how hypocritical her policy proposals could be. She suggested she would team with European allies to form an oil-buying cartel and procure Russian oil at Russia's production price. Yellen said that doing so would stabilize prices and fend off a global recession. So, does Russian oil become less toxic at a lower price point? Besides, why would Russia agree to sell at a massive discount to countries that have severely punished it?

The Left believes that there's a price at which America's values can be lowered - if the Democrats do the bidding. The Khashoggi killing happened when President Trump was in office. When Trump refused to criticize MBS sufficiently and actively sought Saudi Arabian trade by selling the Kingdom advanced weapons, the Left cried foul. How could America abandon its vaunted liberal principles to ink a deal that could help provide physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter to thousands of Americans employed by the military-industrial complex? Is money the only driving factor? What about America's values? Andrea Mitchell's question at the 2019 debate was predicated on drawing a stark contrast between a heartless Trump and principled Democrats.

But Saudi Arabia is seeing again that the only principle driving debate within the Democrat party these days is to reduce the shellacking in the upcoming midterms. So much for the Left's moral grandstanding.

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