Is Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in America’s best interest?

Correction: This transcript has been adjusted to identify Abdulrahman Al-Sarhan as the son of an American. He is not an American citizen. NewsHour regrets the error.

To further examine President Biden's trip to the Middle East and whether it's in America's interests for him to go to Saudi Arabia, we get two views. James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center on International Relations, join Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, later this week, President Biden will visit Saudi Arabia, a country, as we just heard, he labeled a pariah during his campaign.

    Amna Nawaz picks up the conversation from there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    For more on President Biden's trip and whether it's in America's interests for him to go to Saudi Arabia, we get to views.

    James Jeffrey had a 35-year career in the Foreign Service and served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. He is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars. That's a think tank. Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles' Burkle Center for International Relations. She has written widely about the Middle East.

    Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us tonight.

    Dalia Dassa Kaye, I want to begin with.

    You have said President Biden's decision to visit to Saudi Arabia is a mistake, it never should have been planned. Explain to me why.

    Dalia Dassa Kaye, University of California, Los Angeles: Yes.

    Well, I think the dilemma is that the president clearly has compromised on us values and actually interests in accountable partners. And the likelihood is, he's not likely to get many significant strategic gains from this visit.

    As your piece set up, this is a leadership now in Saudi Arabia believed to be responsible for the murder of a Washington Post journalist, is continuing to repress dissidents both inside the country and abroad, including U.S. citizens, and launched a catastrophic war in Yemen.

    So, if you're going to make Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of your foreign policy, it's, I think, fair to ask, what are we going to get in return, from a U.S. perspective? It's not clear the Saudis are going to be able, even if they're willing, given the tight oil market, to significantly increase oil output to affect oil prices at the pump.

    Israeli normalization with the Saudis, which is shaping up to be a centerpiece of this trip, is — normalization is happening even without a presidential visit. And it doesn't look like a major breakthrough, despite these modest symbolic gains, is in the offing.

    And, finally, the idea of using this visit to kind of turn regional partners away from global competitors like China and Russia is often — is also a little bit unrealistic. These partners are quite invested in these relationships. We have seen this most recently in our regional partners' unwillingness to confront Putin and join in international sanctions against Russia.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Allow me to bring in Ambassador Jeffrey here.

    It is striking 180, Ambassador, from pariah to a presidential visit. Doesn't this visit help rehabilitate Saudi Arabia on the world stage?

    James Jeffrey, Former U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement: It certainly emphasizes not just Saudi Arabia, but the importance of the whole region.

    Let me emphasize he's not just going to Saudi Arabia. He's going to Israel. He will meet with the Palestinian leadership. He will meet with all of the Gulf states, Iraq, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders. There's a purpose to this, as he laid out in The Washington Post. It's to help integrate the region, to preserve security, to advance stability, and, most importantly, as he said, to promote U.S. interests.

    We're facing an existential threat from China and Russia worldwide and in the Middle East by their partners, particularly Russia and Iran. He's trying to build up a by, with and through with the countries of the region to deal with these threats. They won't deal 100 percent with them, but they're better on our side than against.

    And, as far as human rights go, the biggest human rights threat in the world today is emanating from Russia and China because their totalitarian systems have the capability of threatening all of us if we don't find a way to mobilize the globe against them. And that's what he's doing in the Middle East right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador, if I may, it was it necessary for him to go to secure some of those things as you're talking about, to work towards those goals to secure some of the steps that Nick Schifrin just reported they will be announcing?

    I mean, these are all things that the U.S. could be working on. The presidential visit brings with it a level of prestige and credibility. Did he have to go?

  • James Jeffrey:

    Absolutely. There's no doubt in my mind, from everything I have learned since the 1970s in this region, personal relationships and, underlying that, friendships and trust, even with people we would perhaps not like to have a drink with in the evening, is absolutely important if you want them to be predictable, if you want them to move on the margins.

    And Dalia is right — it's only going to be on the margins — to help us when we're in a crunch. And that's what he is doing. This is an investment in a regional security architecture. It doesn't promise immediate great benefits, but it's moving us in the right direction after 20 years of being in the various wrong directions in the Middle East, I fear.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dalia, what about that?

    Mohammed bin Salman is 36 years old. He is clearly in line. He's not going anywhere. Is this visit just an acknowledgement that they are resigned to that fact this is someone they have to work with?

  • Dalia Dassa Kaye:

    Yes, absolutely. Saudi Arabia is an important country. You're going to have to work with it.

    The question, though, is what you raised earlier, which is, why did it have to be a presidential visit, choosing Saudi Arabia as the first country in the Arab world to visit, with this track record, and, frankly, policies that have really contradicted and undermined U.S. interests in a variety of arenas?

    It's a different region than it was decades ago. So I think that's really the question. Was this the best way to do it? And did we miss an opportunity, did the president perhaps miss an opportunity to promote this positive vision that I think the ambassador is outlining here. It is important to have a regional vision.

    Is he missing an opportunity to promote a more positive agenda that isn't going back to kind of old standard policies of military relationships with authoritarian dictators, which are not bringing stability and peace to the region? And I'm afraid that's the direction this trip is headed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Jeffrey, I will give you the last word here in about the minute-and-a-half we have left

    Dalia mentions this human rights record as well. We know Saudi Arabia carries out mass executions. We know there's been very little accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Can the Biden administration continue to say their foreign policy is centered on human rights after this visit?

  • James Jeffrey:

    Again, it depends on what he says to the crown prince when he's there and what the crown prince does in his country afterwards. I think that's an issue we have to wait on.

    But I have to underline this is not a choice between geostrategic security on the one hand and human rights on the other. If we do not get partners and allies throughout the world to work closely with us, we're not going to stop the Russians in Ukraine, we're not going to stop the Chinese in the South China Sea or in Taiwan, and we're not going to stop the Iranians continuing to essentially ruin countries, as they have Lebanon, contributed to in Yemen, Syria, and potentially Iraq.

    That's the fear that the people of the region see. That's why they're turning to President Biden. And everyone in the region is delighted he's coming out here, minus the Iranians.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dalia, what about that regional note, as Ambassador Jeffrey just mentioned, and the potential normalization ahead for Israeli-Saudi relations?

  • Dalia Dassa Kaye:

    Well, look, normalization is good, but I think we need to understand that, without dealing with the festering Palestinian conflict, there will not ever be true peace and stability in the region, least of all for Palestinians and Israelis themselves.

    And in terms of the anti-Iran front, I think we also have to understand, yes, many states are looking for U.S. engagement, but are also concerned that they will be in the crosshair and be targeted by Iran with too active of an anti-Iranian stance. This is not a monolithic region. There are different viewpoints.

    So it's going to be a long struggle for that. So we do need to think about the balance of what we are risking here. And we have American forces in the region vulnerable to Iranian attacks and groups aligned with Iran. So this trip carries risks, as well as some questions about what gains we're getting.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a big trip we will be following, for sure.

    Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, Dalia Dassa Kaye, thank you both for your time.

  • James Jeffrey:

    Thank you.

  • Dalia Dassa Kaye:

    Thank you.

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