‘Recalibration’: An Interview With Michael Doran on the Biden Administration’s Saudi Policy Moves

u.s. saudi arabia relations
Photo credits: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik (U.S. President Joe Biden) and Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images (Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman)

 

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has long been a subject of debate in American politics. Its importance was tied for decades chiefly to its role as a major oil provider, but the kingdom has increasingly played an important role in curbing Iran’s expansionist ambitions. At the same time, the Saudi’s monarchial and theocratic form of government have moved some to question whether America’s partnership should be more tempered.

After the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi journalist highly critical of his country’s leadership, this debate took on additional steam.

President Joseph Biden has pledged to “recalibrate” the U.S. relationship with the kingdom, a nod to many in the Democratic camp who claim the Saudis are human rights abusers and that close American ties are unseemly. He has frozen arms sales to the kingdom and withdrawn support for the Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen in their civil war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels — claiming that doing so will alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis there.

Last week, the Biden administration released a CIA report linking Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto leader, Mohamed bin Salman, to the Khashoggi murder. A decision was made to sanction several Saudis directly connected to the events, but the administration took no actions against the Crown Prince.

The moves come at a time when the administration is actively trying to revive talks with Iran to reenter the Obama-era nuclear deal, a move the Saudis strongly oppose.

Hamodia spoke with Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute specializing in Middle East security issues. Doran served as a senior director in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, focusing on Middle East policy.

u.s. saudi arabia relations
Michael Doran

Given the actions we have seen from the Biden administration so far, what do you think their goals are vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia?

I think the Biden administration has several goals, none of which actually have much to do with Khashoggi or human rights. The key ingredients to those goals are a strong anti-Saudi feeling in much of the Democratic Party and an underestimation of the threat posed by Iran.

President Biden’s foreign policy team, which, with few exceptions, was President Obama’s team, is looking to return to the Obama policy of realignment in the Middle East. Realignment can best be understood as the opposite of the policy of containment of Iran that guided the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Trump administrations.

In the view of the Biden team, conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq are exacerbated by the aspirations of America’s traditional allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel, and by what the team views as Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s neurotic paranoia of Iran and its proxies. In their view, our allies are catapulting the U.S. against Iran as a way of fighting their own battles and that this forces America to take on more of an anti-Iran agenda than would serve our national interests.

This camp wants the U.S. to get out of being aligned with Israel and the Gulf states against Iran and to serve as a grand mediator between them. That was Obama’s stated goal and that is the direction that the Biden administration would like to take.

One of what I see as the most disturbing premises of this view is that it looks at Iran’s interests and claims as legitimate and deserving of being balanced against those of our allies. It’s based on a false assumption that Iran is a pragmatic power with limited goals. They feel that the U.S. and Iran have certain common goals like the destruction of Sunni-backed terrorism and that there is a deal to be made with them.

It’s a very dangerous position that will deliver chaos to the Middle East and weaken our allies. Time has shown that the fact is that Iran is a dangerous power whose goal is hegemonic control of the region.

I can’t say that I’m shocked that this is how people in the administration view things, but I am surprised that there is not more of an outcry against it.

There is another more cynical aspect to this as well. Jake Sullivan said in an interview before the administration took office that “we’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy … and the work that we do abroad fundamentally has to connect to making the lives of working people better, safer, fairer.”

The Democratic Party’s number-one goal is to defeat Trumpian populism and they will punish any actor that was close to Donald Trump. Bin Salman is in that category and the Democrats are eager to use him as a demonstration to others who in their view committed the grave sin of cooperating with the “Orange Demon.”

The greatest foreign policy success of the Trump administration was the Abraham Accords. Even though the Saudis were not signatories, the UAE and Bahrain could not have gone ahead without Saudi cooperation and approval.

While the Biden administration speaks positively about the Accords, their plan is to roll them back in a sense. I don’t mean that they want to nullify the peace treaties, but the underlying idea of the Accords is to build a clear alternative to Obama-era policy by creating a coalition of states committed to containing Iran. It’s a different organizing system of the Middle East which runs contrary to the Obama-Biden view. So, in that sense they do not mind moves that undermine it, like keeping the Saudis at a distance.

The Khashoggi killing was indefensible and I do not want to minimize that. But precisely because it was so indefensible it is now being dug up two years after it happened and used as a bomb by the administration as cover for its policy moves.

u.s. saudi arabia relations
Former President Donald Trump meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018. (Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

The Biden administration got a good deal of criticism from the left for not putting sanctions directly on the Crown Prince himself. If your view that the President’s team is set on distancing themselves from the Saudis is true, why did it not take that step?

They don’t want to destabilize Saudi Arabia. They are not looking to defeat the Saudis and turn them into enemies, and they realize that going so far would do just that. What they want to do is to balance out their positioning between the Saudis and Iran.

Ned Price, the spokesman for the State Department, said that they would like to continue cooperating with the Saudis but that they must “respect American values.” That essentially says that more important than working with the Saudis, our ally, to bring peace between Arab states and Israel and to help fend off Iran, the U.S. wants to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for what it brands as human right violations as a way of making it easier to downgrade the U.S.-Saudi relations, to delegitimize the Saudi voice, in order to clear the way to bring Iran to the table as a legitimate American interlocutor. The greatest fear of the administration is that Bin Salman will team up with Prime Minister Netanyahu in public opposition to the administration’s Iran policy. Downgrading Saudi Arabia, branding it as a human rights pariah, is a way of threatening Bin Salman not to cross the administration.

Do you think that it is appropriate for the U.S. to take some action regarding the Khashoggi killing or other acts seen as egregious human rights abuses?

In general terms, values and concerns about this incident or any similar acts can definitely be part of the discussion between the U.S. and the Saudis, but they have to take place in the context of the alliance that exists and with a recognition that the U.S. is in a conflict with Iran, which is allied to different degrees with China and Russia. With that in mind, it is not sound policy to air these grievances in a way that makes our coalition look weak or makes our coalition look as if we are not prepared to stand behind our allies.

There has been a concerted campaign to Americanize Khashoggi and to sanctify him, but the fact is that he was not a citizen. He was not even a permanent resident, contrary to what Secretary Blinken tweeted out. There is nothing that can justify his killing, but the Chinese do this all the time. They’ve even kidnapped people from America, who have then disappeared in China. This past year, the Iranians lured an Iranian dissident living in France into a trap in Iraq, kidnapped him, took him to Iran, tortured him and then killed him in December. Who’s talking about that murder?

Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, killed 500,000 in Syria and drove 10 million from their homes. The Houthis are sending missiles into Saudi Arabian cities. There is no shortage of bad actors at play here, which begs the question, why is the Biden administration focusing on this one killing, if not for a broader political goal? Values can and should be part of the discussions here, but the administration’s moves are strategic and if you think they’re about human rights, you’re not paying attention to the bigger picture.

What’s more, to the extent that there are those who legitimately care about the well-being of the Saudi people, this approach seems like the worst possible way to go about influencing the Crown Prince or others. America has cut off arms sales and asked the Saudis to capitulate to the Houthis in Yemen, who pose an existential threat at their southern border. It essentially puts them at Iran’s mercy. It’s crazy to think that you can combine those actions with an appeal for human rights.

I believe that the U.S. can have a positive effect on the Saudis’ behavior, but that has to come together with actions that show legitimate concern for the well-being and security of its citizens.

To what extent do you feel the portrayal of the Saudi regime as habitual human rights abusers and of the Crown Prince as a ruthless dictator are accurate?

For decades the U.S.’ complaints about Saudi Arabia centered on three things: the power of extremist clerics, the rights of women, and the aged nature of the ruling members of the royal family. I am not saying that he is without blemish, but MbS (Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman) addressed all of those things. He’s brought in younger leadership, opened up a lot of opportunities for and reformed laws about women, and curbed the role that the clerics play. But, all the Democrats and their allies in the press focus on is that he’s anti-Iranian and cracks down on his critics.

The portrayal of Saudi Arabia as somehow on par with Syria and Iran as a human rights abuser is not accurate; and it’s part of the press’ propaganda campaign against them.

I tend to think that MbS is much more popular than other members of the royal family and I don’t think it is wise for America to pretend to understand too much about the inner workings of our allies’ countries.

Some fear that if the U.S. continues to give the Saudis a cold shoulder, they will drive them into closer ties with Russia and China. As both of those powers have aligned themselves largely with Iran, is it realistic to fear that the Saudis would join that coalition?

This is not something that would change overnight, but people underestimate the role China plays in the Middle East-and it’s playing all sides. The Chinese have a base in Djibouti and sell weaponry to Iran. They conduct joint naval operations with Iran and Russia and the Chinese are using both countries as stalking horses. China increased its investments in Iraq by 1,000% during the Obama administration. That was at the same time that Iran-backed militias were making Iraq inhospitable to American business.

The Chinese are engaged in a hard power game in the Middle East and it’s something that goes almost totally unnoticed in the American press. China even gets quietly praised for building up Iraq’s economy as if that is something that serves American interests.

It would take time, but China and Russia are fully capable of finding a way to befriend the Saudis and if the U.S. does not support them, they will have no choice but to look for allies capable of helping them manage the Iranian threat, which is real and growing.

u.s. saudi arabia relations
Supporters of the Yemeni Houthi rebels raise protest against the blockade imposed on their country by the Saudi coalition,in the capital Sanaa, last month. The writing on the placards reads in Arabic: “G-d is great, death to America and Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.” (Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)

Those that supported withdrawing support for the Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen painted the matter as working to end the humanitarian crisis there. To what extent is it fair to blame the Saudis for the crisis and what risks exist in Yemen now that the U.S. has changed its position on the war there?

I do not believe that Saudi disengagement would solve the humanitarian crisis. For some reason, the Houthis’ abuses have gotten a free pass. That is not to say that the Saudis have conducted themselves in an exemplary way in Yemen, but I do not think that withdrawing U.S. support serves our interests there.

The war in Yemen is a Yemenite civil war in which Iran is an external participant. The extent of the U.S.’ interests there should be to make sure that the Houthis are not able to establish themselves in the county and become a Yemenite version of Hezbollah, which is Iran’s goal. Just like Iran has Hezbollah in Lebanon to threaten Israel from its northern border, Iran envisions the Houthis playing the same role on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. More than that, if the Houthis gain power in Yemen, that gives Iran a presence on the Red Sea, which, together with their imposing presence in the Persian Gulf, would give them tremendous control over oil shipping.

What are your final thoughts on the role of the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

Saudi Arabia is the single most influential Arab county. It is the richest and holds a special place in the Islamic world as the protector of the Muslim holy sites. Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey are the U.S.’ most valuable allies in the Middle East. As with the other two, we can try to influence them, but we can’t change who they are. Our allies are not perfect and there will be friction, but everything needs to be framed in the context of the larger struggles we face.

The Biden administration and the press would have you believe that the Saudis are on equal moral footing with Iran and that they are the ones creating the conflict. The truth is that the Saudis have nowhere near the military strength of Iran’s Al Quads force and they are engaged in a game of self-defense against Iran — a power that poses a serious threat to the entire region.

The minute the U.S. backs away from its allies and allows itself to look like bystanders, we have lost the game.