Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
There is little debate about the moment the Biden presidency began to go off the rails. It was 11 months ago when the United States botched its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Before that Biden was riding high in the polls – and for good reason. He had kept his basic campaign promise to lower the temperature after a tumultuous four years led by Donald Trump, and he had helped America quell, or so it seemed, COVID-19.
But after the US left Afghanistan, the Taliban took over control nearly overnight, and American troops died. Biden’s claim that he would run a competent administration was shattered.
Some foreign policy watchers have argued that America’s leading role in the world was shattered as well. European leaders were particularly edgy about America after Afghanistan. Some Asian nations began to flirt with closer cooperation with China, wondering if America could, or would, really have their back.
Republican leaders, always happy to take a potshot, have argued there was a direct line between American weakness in Afghanistan and Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine.
But no matter how bad the Afghanistan pullout was, it was nothing compared to the loss of stature and power Biden suffered when he fist-bumped Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Friday.
Biden, a former vice president and former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been very forceful and clear about where he stood on Saudi Arabia following the kingdom’s murder of a Washington Post journalist in 2018.
As a candidate, he repeatedly said that, if elected, he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” At one point, Biden declared that the Saudi government “had no socially redeeming value.”
As president, he not only released classified information from American intelligence pointing out that the crown prince ordered the death of Post columnist and United States resident Jamal Khashoggi. Biden also released a 2016 report on the Saudi government’s connection to the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks.
And yet here there he was on Friday. Flying to Saudi Arabia. Going to MBS’s home. Giving MBS a fist bump. And then, when the pair sat down and an American journalist asked MBS if he would apologize to Khashoggi’s family, the pair sat in silence as MBS smirked.
The reason Biden was there was his weak political hand back home. He faces the lowest job approval numbers of any American president in modern history. When he agreed to the trip, gas prices were at an all-time high. (They have been going down for the past month.) Saudi Arabia, the second biggest oil producer in the world, could do something about those prices.
There was no indication of an agreement being reached on oil production.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia wants something from the United States. They want world prestige, which they just got with a one-on-one meeting with the American president. They also want more help with their war in Yemen and their attempts to box in rival Iran more generally.
Biden told reporters that he had raised the Khashoggi murder at the beginning of the meeting. “I said, very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden said. “I’ll always stand up for our values.”
But, all in all, it was not a good picture for the world to see.
An American president, who had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah and to pivot away from the Middle East to focus on China, was back in the Middle East. And he was meeting not with the leaders of a democracy but with Saudi royalty – all because he needed a favor they may not grant him.
Nemo me impune lacessit