Biden faces criticism for not doing more on human rights during Middle East trip

President Biden last week met with the leaders of several Middle East countries accused of human rights violations. It's raising questions about what the U.S. got out of his Middle East trip, and the balance of human rights and pragmatic foreign policy. Nick Schifrin delves into the debate.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, today, the family of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate, wrote to President Biden asking him to intervene in the detention of one of Khashoggi's lawyers.

    The United Arab Emirates sentenced that lawyer to three years in prison the same day President Biden met with that country's president. It raises the question of what President Biden got out of his Middle East trip and of the balance between human rights and pragmatic foreign policy.

    Nick Schifrin delves into that debate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A meeting with a leader of what critics call a brutal regime, a fist bump with a crown prince accused of persecuting and approving the murder of his enemies.

  • President Joe Biden:

    It's really good to see you again, Sheik Mohammed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And warm greeting for the president of a country the State Department says arbitrarily arrests and tortures detainees, or, rewind, a meeting with a leader at the center of a changing region, greetings with a 36-year-old who helps control oil and will be a regional power broker for decades, and the conversation with the president helping integrate the region with Israel.

    The debate between an idealistic and realistic foreign policy is not new.

  • President Joe Biden:

    I know it's late, but thank you for being here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it's one President Biden faced head on this trip, saying he can juggle both. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia talked about a half-dozen topics, and President Biden said he confronted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about the U.S. intelligence conclusion that Salman approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate.

  • President Joe Biden:

    He basically said that he — he was not personally responsible for it. I indicated I thought he was.

    This trip is about once again position America in this region for the future.

    Sanaa Seif, Egyptian Filmmaker and Activist: I'm very disappointed, honestly, in this trip.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sanaa Seif is an Egyptian filmmaker and activist. Her brother Alaa Abd El-Fattah is one of Egypt's most prominent political prisoners. He's been on a hunger strike now for 109 days.

    Sanaa has been arrested three times in the last nine years, since President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and the military seized power.

  • Sanaa Seif:

    Why did President Biden grant him that handshake without conditioning any human rights concessions, even forcing Sisi to at least pretend to care about human rights?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How's your brother doing?

  • Sanaa Seif:

    Alaa is slowly dying, but he's trying to slow down his death as much as possible because he's fighting this for his life, right?

    Sisi has managed to oppress the society in all sectors. Like, human rights defenders are in prison. Just normal females who, like, make TikTok videos wearing some revealing clothes are in prison. Political opposition from Islamist background own prison. In a nutshell, Egypt is deeply unstable. And this is — this is just a plain authoritarian regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The president says that, while dealing with President Sisi and other regional leaders, he does bring up human rights.

    What policy would you rather see President Biden pursue?

  • Sanaa Seif:

    Bringing up human rights confidentially, secretly, is something, and being vocal about human rights is another thing.

    The Egyptian regime understands very well that when Western governments are only bring up human rights in private diplomacy, that they don't have to interpret this seriously.

  • Gerald Feierstein, Middle East Institute:

    It was important for the president to travel to the Gulf to really reset the relationships, turn the page, if you will.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gerald Feierstein is the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and a distinguished fellow at the Middle East Institute.

  • Gerald Feierstein:

    We continue to look to the region as a prime source of energy. And that's going to continue for many years into the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why is it important for President Biden to have met not only with Saudi leaders, but also leaders including President Sisi of Egypt?

  • Gerald Feierstein:

    If part of the objective of the president's travel to the region was to expand the scope of regional defense and security integration, to include Israel in the architecture, then having Egypt participate in those conversations, having Jordan participate in those conversations is also going to be important.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Biden vowed to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy. Has he gone against his vow by fist-bumping or shaking hands with regional leaders who have bad records on human rights?

  • Gerald Feierstein:

    I think that the president was very clear that it's going to continue to be an aspect of U.S. foreign policy, but it can't be the only issue that the United States bases its policies on.

    We don't have the opportunity or the luxury of only looking at our foreign relations through that single aperture.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration simultaneously blocked $130 million in military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns, but approved $2 billion worth of military cargo planes and radars.

    Sanaa Seif says the policy debate is not either/or.

  • Sanaa Seif:

    The relationship between Egypt and the U.S. is so strong that, if, at the aesthetics level, the administration raises human rights, it will have a positive effect on our situation inside without really undermining the relationships.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The debate will continue, even if President Biden wants to move on.

    Asked whether he regrets the crown prince fist bump:

  • President Joe Biden:

    Why don't you guys talk about something that matters?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But there's no escaping those questions when the U.S. calls these countries and these leaders allies and partners.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

Listen to this Segment