Mohammed bin Salman & Joe Biden — Is Saudi’s Crown Prince Exacting ‘Revenge’ on Biden?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gives a speech from his office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 23, 2021. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters )

Unfinished business is the theme of today’s Morning Jolt. Back on the campaign trail in 2019, Joe Biden pledged a conflict with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — and even though Biden changed his mind on the topic shortly after taking office, the U.S. may be getting the bitter fruits of that conflict anyway. Elsewhere, volunteers are getting it done in Afghanistan but are held back by a slow-moving State Department; new revelations prove that Andrew Cuomo was not the brilliant pandemic leader his media fanbase insisted he was; and Bridget Phetasy asks why we never heard anything else about that Southwest Airlines pilot.

Are We Stuck in a Subtle Economic and Energy War with Saudi Arabia?

The Intercept offers a provocative, and not necessarily crazy, theory about what is partially driving the global rise in energy prices: “The main driver of inflation is a murderous maniac in Riyadh . . . Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is enacting revenge on Democrats in general and President Joe Biden specifically for the party’s increasingly standoffish attitude toward the kingdom — by driving up energy prices and fueling global inflation.”

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only reason gas and energy prices are high (see yesterday’s Morning Jolt for more details on high gas prices, the likelihood of even higher prices in the next year, and what policy moves could alleviate the pain at the pump), but it does explain why Biden keeps talking about OPEC:

Biden himself seemed to allude to this at a town hall event with CNN last month, during which he attributed high gas prices to a certain “foreign policy initiative” of his, adding, “There’s a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them.”

Biden was making a not-so-veiled reference to his refusal to meet with Salman and acknowledge him as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler due to his role in the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018. The move came after Biden vowed during a debate with President Donald Trump to make MBS, as he’s known, “a pariah” and represented a stark departure from Trump’s warm relations with the desert kingdom and the crown prince.

But if Mohammed bin Salman is keeping Saudi Arabia’s oil production low to punish the United States, he’s doing so after President Biden already backed off once-bold promises that if he was elected, he would hold the prince accountable for his crimes. In the November 2019 Democratic presidential-primary debate, Joe Biden made it sound as if it was time to completely upend the existing U.S.-Saudi relationship:

Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There’s very little social redeeming value of the — in the present government in Saudi Arabia. And I would also, as pointed out, I would end — end subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children, and they’re murdering innocent people. And so, they have to be held accountable.

But once Biden was in office, he took only mild steps such as ending U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia related to their offensive military operations in Yemen. However, Biden left the door open to additional arms sales, and earlier this month, he signed off on a new $650 million arms deal, including 280 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles. Apparently when Biden pledged that he would make MBS “pay the price,” he meant for new missiles.

Biden’s early about-face appalled friends of Jamal Khashoggi: “Biden has done nothing to punish M.B.S. Absolutely nothing — to the astonishment of human-rights groups, foreign-policy experts, Saudi activists, and even some on his own staff,” reported The New Yorker’s Robin Wright. “It appears as though under the Biden administration, despots who offer momentarily strategic value to the United States might be given a ‘one free murder’ pass,” fumed Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Washington Post.

One may have thought that Biden embarrassingly abandoning bold promises might have bought some goodwill from the Saudi Kingdom, but apparently MBS holds a grudge. The reporting of The Intercept does make the Saudis sound downright gleeful that Americans are feeling such extraordinary pain at the pump:

In a comment to The Intercept, [Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national who is considered a voice for MBS in Washington] said, “Saudi has put a lot of work into getting a cohesive OPEC+ to work over the past 15 months since the crisis that dropped oil futures below zero so will not break ranks with the consensus or Russia on this. Also the Kingdom resents being blamed for what is essentially a structural problem not of its own making in the US which has hampered its own energy production. Finally, I hear that the price of Thanksgiving Turkeys has doubled in the US so why can oil prices also not inflate?” Shihabi added a wink emoji to the end of his comment.

Back in 2018, I observed that a lot of media institutions which were furious that then-president Donald Trump had a far-too-cozy relationship with Mohammed bin Salman had themselves written some generally glowing profiles of the prince (with a handful of exceptions).

“It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country,” Thomas Friedman gushed. And in addition to Trump and high-level GOP officials, lots of top-level Democrats and leaders of corporate America were happy to take a meeting and pose for pictures with MBS, then the hot new rising star of Saudi Arabia. Of course, at that time, MBS hadn’t yet ordered Khashoggi to be dismembered.

But it appears that by taking the middle path, Joe Biden has ended up with the worst of both worlds. MBS still holds power and hasn’t really been held accountable. He is also still mad at the Biden administration and is willing to inflict a lot of pain on Americans in order to punish Biden.

Also back in 2018, I wrote in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death that the U.S needed a carefully calibrated response — tough enough that it couldn’t be ignored, not so tough that it would end this alliance of convenience: “We don’t want to blow up the whole relationship; we just need to send a signal that they’ve done something unacceptable, that they need to make restitution and need to resist the temptation to take similar actions in the future.” Keep in mind that at the time, Lindsey Graham was appearing on Fox & Friends contending that MBS “has got to go,” which seemed like a particularly unrealistic demand. There was also the complicating factor that Khashoggi’s secret ties to the Qatari government made him not quite the crusading, independent journalist that the Washington Post editorial page painted him as. (This doesn’t mean it was okay to murder and dismember him, obviously.)

I think that for the entirety of the Trump era, almost every issue that came down the pike was squeezed, digested, and churned into a simplified pro-Trump/anti-Trump dichotomy narrative — and the U.S. media tended to portray foreign leaders as either good and anti-Trump (Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Pope Francis) or bad and friendly with Trump (Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, MBS). After the Khashoggi murder, the national media, and plenty of Democrats, concluded that MBS was a monster and that the U.S. had to cut all ties with Saudi Arabia, no matter the consequences. Biden followed the tides of emotional, short-term-thinking public opinion — and once he was in office, he realized how severe the consequences would be and tried to back away. Unfortunately, just because Joe Biden wants to forget about his campaign-trail rhetoric, it doesn’t mean MBS is willing to forget it.

Foreign policy is complicated, and sometimes a foreign leader we can’t stand, or even one who commits crimes such as MBS, is one half of a strategically important geopolitical alliance. This doesn’t mean we never communicate, privately or publicly, that an ally’s actions are unacceptable, it just means that we must manage these disputes carefully. Otherwise you end up with average gasoline prices in California hitting $4.68 per gallon — a new record.

U.S. Citizens Stuck in Afghanistan Because of Delayed State Department Manifest Approval

Just when you thought the situation in Afghanistan could not possibly get worse:

Hundreds of Afghans have been forced to leave safe houses in Afghanistan after the volunteer group trying to help them evacuate failed to negotiate their passage out of the country and ran out of money to support them, the group said Thursday.

The Afghans include U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, former U.S. government workers and others who worked on U.S. funded projects, and their families. They have been told to return to their homes or to fund their own accommodation in hope of a future flight, the group, Task Force Argo, said. . . .

Task Force Argo was one of the biggest volunteer groups, made up of current and former U.S. government officials, veterans and others working to charter evacuation flights out of Afghanistan. The group’s leaders said it has three flights ready to leave but nowhere to land the planes because the U.S. government hadn’t approved the passenger manifests or otherwise cleared the departures.

Because it cannot be repeated often enough, at least 100 American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

Andrew Cuomo, Obstructionist Pandemic Micromanager

Every media voice who spent 2020 telling us that Andrew Cuomo was swell and bold and reassuring and wise should report to the public square to have rotten vegetables hurled at them as penance. It turns out that Cuomo blocked his own state health officials from coordinating with local officials because he wanted to approve every move himself:

Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, the former medical director of the state DOH’s office of epidemiology who personally administered Cuomo’s first COVID-19 swab test last year, made the bombshell claim during questioning by lawyers hired by state Attorney General Letitia James who investigated sexual harassment and other allegations leveled against the ex-governor.

“We were not allowed to collaborate with our peers in the local health departments
and New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene which is a critical component in an outbreak response to collaborate with different facets of public health,” Dufort, identified as state employee #2, said in more than 200 pages of witness testimony. . . .

“So generally, so not being able to collaborate with them in the way we normally would really hindered our ability to perform our jobs we felt,” Dufort said.

“And collaborate with other associations, organizations and community based or statewide associations or organizations. That would be normal during an outbreak response or certainly during a pandemic.”

“We had to stop doing webinars with them. We couldn’t collaborate with them on evaluations of different problems and projects,” said Dufort, who resigned last December.

Asked who was preventing the collaboration with city and county health officials and holding other decisions up, she said her colleagues told her “it came from the executive chamber” — the governor’s office.

I wonder if this will get mentioned in CNN’s prime-time programming.

ADDENDA: Another case of the drive-by media, as Rush Limbaugh used to say. Bridget Phetasy remembers that which we were all supposed to forget: “Did we ever find out if that Southwest airlines pilot really said, ‘Let’s go Brandon’?Southwest Airlines is allegedly investigating the incident, but the company has offered no updates in eleven days. That investigation, and the entire controversy, just disappeared into thin air like Gavin Newsom.

In other news, the Department of Homeland Security says it is still investigating the claim of border-patrol agents whipping Haitians. DHS “won’t say when the investigation will be finished — but does pledge to be transparent about its findings.” Back on September 22, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas pledged the investigation “will be completed in days, and not weeks.”