PETER BAKER: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Peter Baker.
Let’s continue the conversation where we left off and go in depth on President Joe Biden’s latest foreign policy moves. President Biden will not penalize Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman even after the declassified intelligence report showed that he directly approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The president also took his first overseas military action this week by striking Syria, but some congressional Democrats are knocking the Biden administration decision.
Joining me tonight are four top reporters covering Washington: Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast; Errin Haines, editor at large for The 19th; Mark Mazzetti, Washington investigative correspondent for The New York Times; and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post. Welcome.
Mark, President Biden’s release of this report today was an act of accountability in a sense for Saudi Arabia, but he also chose not to impose sanctions on the crown prince himself, choosing instead to target about 70 or so other Saudis but not the de facto leader of the Kingdom. What did we learn from that? What is the lesson of that, if he’s not going to actually penalize the person who actually ordered the operation in the first place?
MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I think to some degree it shows that, you know, willingness to rupture ties with Saudi Arabia only goes so far. I understand that there were actually options put on the table of possibly sanctioning Crown Prince Mohammad directly, but the president chose not to take that measure. He chose some, you know, I would say important steps to show contrast between the Trump administration and his administration. He had a discussion with King Salman of Saudi Arabia this week, not with Crown Prince Mohammad – of course, Crown Prince Mohammad is really the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, developed this very close relationship with the Trump White House and specifically with Jared Kushner. Joe Biden chooses to speak to his father, who is ailing, is frail, and by most accounts is not really running the Kingdom, so it’s things like that. But I think that what we are going to have to see is how much of this – of these early steps continue – you know, what President Biden decides to do in other foreign policy measures in the Middle East, how much he decides to incorporate Saudi Arabia’s views in any kind of ultimate potential deal with Iran over the nuclear program. Of course, the Obama administration was quite concerned about what Saudi Arabia might say about that. And so, I mean, I think that, you know, the Biden administration is very – I mean, has taken very strong steps to show its anger towards Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad’s behavior, but we’ll see exactly whether – you know, how much further down that road they’re willing to go.
MR. BAKER: Errin, what do you think this tells us about President Biden’s approach to human rights overseas?
ERRIN HAINES: Well, I think that we are seeing him begin to kind of wade into that conversation in these early weeks of the administration. Now, it’s only been a little bit over a month, so I don’t want to, you know, predict too much into the actions that the administration has taken, but certainly saying, you know, that America is back on the world stage and looking to reestablish relationships, but also, you know, I think signals like releasing this – declassifying this report, which, you know, Avril Haines said during her confirmation process was going to be something that happened, you know, after she was confirmed, now that she’s in the building that is happening; the situation with the Uighurs over in Asia. These are issues – seeing where, you know, president – the Biden-Harris administration is going to weigh in on these issues I think can tell us a lot, and maybe even tell us a lot early about where they plan to come down and the tone that they plan to set now that they are returning to the world stage.
MR. BAKER: Ashley, of course, the president also took his first military action overseas this week since taking office. He struck some targets inside of Syria against forces that are blamed for attacks on Americans in Iraq. What does that tell us about how he’s going to use military force around the Middle East, given his long history in the – as the vice president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?
ASHLEY PARKER: Again, it’s hard to predict based on one action, but it does show that he is willing to use force where he believes it is necessary. Again, this was not a tremendous display of force. You know, he was given several options, I believe, and this was one of the more moderate ones that he chose. It was in Syria and not across in Iraq. But also, you know, this gives a sense of the – if you take the Saudi Arabia thing, that shows that he is cautious, and he is sometimes cautious by nature on foreign policy. But if you look at the reaction to this single strike you’re already having some Democrats disagreeing with his use of force, saying this is maybe something that should have gone through Congress. So there’s kind of mixed signals, but it is that he is willing to use it and potentially we should expect that in the future, and this goes within a broader context of him saying that America is back on the world stage. The challenge for him is that after four years not just of Trump but Trumpism, it’s not as simple as saying, hi, we’re America, we’re back and we want our seat at the head of the table and our moral superiority to export our values abroad. So this is as much recalibrating, reintroducing the Biden doctrine to a world that has also recalibrated for this new dynamic.
MR. BAKER: Susan, Ashley alluded to the reaction on Capitol Hill. It did seem like the president was getting more criticism from his own party than from the other. What’s the concern here? What does that tell us about the nature of war powers and the push-pull between the executive and legislative here almost 20 years – more than 20 years, I guess, since the attacks on 9/11?
SUSAN DAVIS: You know, I think it was really familiar. This is something we’ve seen play out on Capitol Hill, as you noted, over the past 20 years. I mean, Congress, I’d put the grumbling as mild grumbling this week about it, certainly from corners you would expect – from the progressives, they didn’t like it; they don’t want more foreign engagement. You saw some criticism from senators like Chris Murphy, who has tried to carve out a space in this foreign policy area, saying these are the kind of decisions that presidents should consult with Congress with. But there’s a pretty good reason presidents don’t do this. You know, they’ve – in the past when they’ve tried, Congress has kind of proven itself not very capable of coming to any kind of agreement on these foreign policy issues, and presidents don’t want to accede authority to a Congress that they can’t be assured they’re going to get the backup on. And Congress, frankly, doesn’t want that responsibility. If they wanted that responsibility they have the tools to claw some of it back, and they don’t. So when you see this kind of criticism coming from Capitol Hill about presidents’ foreign intervention – and you know, depending on who’s president, you hear it in both parties – I would say you have to take that with some skepticism and a little bit of grain of salt because Congress does have the authority to exert itself in foreign policy in a much greater capacity. But in the post-9/11 era in particular, they have been happy across Republican and Democratic leaderships, across controlled Democratic Congresses and split Congresses, to cede that authority to the president, and I don’t think that that’s going to change for Joe Biden. I do think if he continues to have these kind of military engagements you’re going to hear this criticism come up time and time and time again, but actual action from a Democratic-controlled Congress to rein in a Democratic president on foreign policy is just not something I can really see happening.
MR. BAKER: Mark, that’s the reaction here at home. What about in the region? How do we tie these things together? What signals is President Biden sending to our allies in the region by hitting Iranian targets or Iranian-linked targets at the same time he’s, you know, confronting Saudi Arabia, which is the leader of the anti-Iran coalition in the region?
MR. MAZZETTI: I mean, I think there’s a few messages here, right? I mean, there’s a lot of traditional American allies in the region who might be wary of the Biden administration, especially compared to what they had – how they had it under the Trump administration. Namely the Saudis, the UAE, Israel. You know, they don’t know what Joe Biden is going to do, particularly with regards to Iran. So doing this strike I think may be, in a way, a message to these traditional allies that, you know, I, Joe Biden, will be willing to use force against pro-Iranian groups and Iranian-funded groups.
But it’s also a message to the Iranians, I think, that, you know, I’m not here just to come hat in hand to do a nuclear deal, and that it’s going to be 180 degrees from the Trump administration. I am going to use force to a degree. And I will – you know, I will beat back Iranian aggression where I think it’s warranted. And so it’s also, I think, to a degree, a negotiation ploy – not a ploy – but a negotiation tactic with regards to a future Iranian deal over its nuclear program.
MR. BAKER: Errin, there’s so much going on overseas, but obviously still at home as well. Next week we’re likely to see more on the COVID relief package. There’s a lot of attention being paid to Neera Tanden, the president’s embattled director – or, nominee for director of the budget office. We have an immigration plan that he’s put forward that is always, of course, going to stir some controversy. What are you looking ahead to over the next week or so? What are you expecting to see? What are you trying to examine to look for clues to the future?
MS. HAINES: Well, you’re right, there certainly is a lot going on in terms of the ongoing confirmation hearings, the fate of Neera Tanden kind of still up in the air, although it seems like, you know, the interior secretary nominee, Deb Haaland, her nomination reassured with Representative Joe Manchin saying that she was somebody that he is now willing to support. Xavier Becerra also looking like, you know, that is something that is going to happen. But, you know, next week as this pandemic relief package continues to move through so many of the activists, especially women activists and women lawmakers who met with Vice President Harris last week, who were pushing for the – a lot of the items in that pandemic relief package.
Whether you’re talking about housing assistance, food assistance, unemployment insurance, and direct payments – the types of things that will directly impact women and also marginalized communities, the main groups that have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. You know, not necessarily from a public health standpoint, but certainly from an economic standpoint. Making sure that as much of those items stay intact in this pandemic relief package as it heads, you know, down the hall to the Senate for them to hash out. Obviously, a lot of them were very disappointed that the minimum wage piece did not – doesn’t seem like it’s going to survive final passage. And also the paid leave issue is not going to make it. And those are – those are things that will certainly affect those communities that I mentioned.
But you know, at 19thNews.org, we’ve been writing a lot about the “she-cession,” which has been devastating over the past year; hundreds of thousands of women having to drop out of the workforce, and so many of those essential workers, those frontline workers we know are either women and/or people of color. And so these are also the folks that elected a lot of these Democrats. And that’s certainly what you see everyone from, you know, a Speaker Pelosi to a Pramila Jayapal, to you know, the two Georgia Democrats that were recently elected in those Senate runoffs saying: You know, this is what they sent us to Washington to do.
And so, you know, the bipartisanship conversation I think has been taken nationally as opposed to being so focused on Washington. And you’re seeing mayors and governors of both political stripes saying that this is relief that they are in favor of, that would help their constituents directly. And so what that fight looks like as it heads over to the Senate is going to be very interesting to watch.
MR. BAKER: OK, well, we’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Susan, Errin, Mark, and Ashley for your insights, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind the scenes look into all things here in the nation’s capital. I’m Peter Baker. Good night from Washington.