Here’s the real problem with Joe Biden’s reversal on Saudi Arabia

President Joe Biden took a defensive tone in the run-up to his visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday. “I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” he said at a news conference in Israel on Thursday. But his reason for going to Saudi Arabia, he said, was much broader: to promote U.S. interests and reassert our influence in the Middle East. And anyway, Biden added, he was “going to be meeting with nine other heads of state. It’s not just — it happens to be in Saudi Arabia.”

That’s a shorter version of the argument the president has made for weeks since his first official Middle East visit was announced with a tour stop in Riyadh. As a 2020 candidate, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state for the regime’s murder of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And in a recent Washington Post op-ed, Biden touted his administration’s reversal of “the blank-check policy (toward Saudi Arabia) we inherited” from the Trump administration. But the bulk of his op-ed played defense, pushing back on widespread criticism that cast this trip as a betrayal of Biden’s promises and ideals motivated by a desperation for oil.


There’s merit to that charge. The Saudi state’s human rights record is gruesome, and the visit is unquestionably a reversal for Biden. But most criticism of the trip is wrongly aimed: Diplomacy is not what’s wrong in Washington’s handling of Riyadh; it’s the long-term U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and ongoing U.S. support for the Saudi military, including its brutality in Yemen.

Confusion around the purpose of diplomacy is a regular and unfortunate feature of American foreign policy debates. Diplomacy is not just for friendly countries. Yes, sometimes our diplomatic conversation partners are friendly countries with ideals and styles of government similar to our own. But diplomacy also includes far more difficult discussions with far less savory states. Indeed, those more complicated situations are where it’s needed most: to address conflicts of interest without resorting to sanctions or war.

It may be possible for some small and distant states to avoid diplomacy with a reprehensible but strategically important and resource-rich regime like that of Saudi Arabia. It is not possible for a global superpower to do the same. Biden’s “pariah” promise was an understandable impulse, born of justified outrage, but Washington refusing to speak with Riyadh was never a true option. The only question was whether diplomacy would happen at lower levels, through layers of bureaucracy, or whether Biden would speak with his Saudi counterpart himself. His decision to visit in person is reasonable.

The objectionable thing here, then, is not Biden’s choice to personally pursue diplomacy. The diplomacy is both inevitable and good. The same cannot be said of other aspects of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, particularly the stationing of nearly 3,000 U.S. troops on Saudi soil, where they operate “in coordination with the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” per an administration report to Congress last month, and “provide air and missile defense capabilities,” though the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are not, and never have been, treaty allies. Riyadh has no obligation of mutual defense toward us, and keeping U.S. troops in Saudi territory exposes us to risk of unwanted conflict — especially with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran — and has been used as a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks.

The Biden administration partially reversed its predecessors’ expansion of the U.S. military footprint in Saudi Arabia, and ending U.S. support for the Saudi coalition’s “offensive operations” in the Yemeni civil war was Biden’s first major foreign policy move in 2021.

But U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia continue on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth annually, and Washington has also facilitated other sales of U.S.-made weapons from third parties to Riyadh.

Meanwhile, though Yemen’s monthslong truce continues to hold, raising hopes for a durable peace, recent reporting has revealed U.S. extrication was much less complete than Biden implied.

In his op-ed in the Post, Biden wrote of his commitment to furthering diplomacy, advancing U.S. interests and keeping the U.S. out of combat missions in the Middle East. Those are all strong reasons for him to visit Saudi Arabia.

But they’re also strong reasons to rethink U.S.-Saudi relations, draw down U.S. military support for Riyadh and bring U.S. forces home from Saudi lands.

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