At this age, with a lot of miles on my jaundiced trunk, I have no excuse for magical thinking.
I believed that President Joe Biden was a man of honour. But one little fist-bump jolted me back to my realpolitik senses.
Knuckles-to-knuckles with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The very man who allegedly had his hand in the assassins’ gloves for the murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. And what a PR coup that was for MBS, as the de facto ruler of the Saudi Kingdom is familiarly known.
The very man who Biden had vowed should be shunned as a “pariah” by the international community for authorizing that 2018 killing, as an investigation by U.S. intelligence had concluded.
Gathered back into the embrace of America. Because, you know, oil. Because of mutual economic and military interests. Because allies make for strange bed partners in a Middle East where the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And the enemy is Iran.
The very man who had a three-hour diplomatic parley with the American president in Jeddah on Friday, their bro-fisting captured live during a photo-op greeting outside Al Salman Palace, pictures of their cordial outstretched arms immediately flashing around the world. Slam-dunk Saudi Kingdom, MBS with a broad grin on his face.
First trip to the Middle East since Biden gained the Oval Office, a pal-around diplomatic sortie that included visits to Israel and the Occupied Territories, then a group session with half a dozen Gulf State leaders chez MBS. While back home Biden’s approval rating has tanked so disastrously that he’s now around the same nadir level as his predecessor, Donald Trump, right after the violent storming and insurrectionist occupation of the Capitol.
As per FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, Biden’s popularity is lower than Trump’s at this time in the latter’s presidency. A New York Times-Sienna College poll pegs floundering Biden’s approval number at 33 per cent, compared with 60 per cent who disapprove. And 64 per cent of Democrats say they’d prefer another candidate to carry the party’s flag in the 2024 election, the two main reasons cited for the anti-Biden swell being job performance and his age — he’ll be 81 next time Americans cast their ballots in a presidential election.
One might have thought Biden’s esteem could have not taken a worse battering than his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan last summer, abandoning both that benighted country and America’s allies, as the Taliban immediately swooped back into power. Geopolitically, low-fiving MBS carries lesser consequences than condemning a nation anew to the wretched oppression, women-hating, medieval-fixated zealots who once sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida of dandruff. And he can ill-afford putting yet another foot wrong, with midterm elections looming amidst speculation Democrats might lose both the House and the Senate.
Symbolism matters. Biden making congenially nice with autocrats matters. Biden all dabs chummy with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince matters. After all, the president had long refused to speak with MBS over the Kingdom’s atrocious human rights record and the killing of Khashoggi, who’d been lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — he was seeking documents for his upcoming marriage — while his fiancé waited futilely outside for the man she loved to reappear.
He’d been butchered with a bone saw, his body parts never recovered.
At a presidential debate during the 2020 election campaign, Biden had declared: “Khashoggi was in fact murdered and, I believe, on the orders of the Crown Prince,” a person, Biden added, of “little” redeeming value.
The prince would “pay the price,” Biden vowed.
Instead, the prince — who basks in the company of celebrities, something of a star-groupie, desperately seeking rehabilitation — is relishing his moment of unwarranted redemption, what Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan described as “shameful.”
“One fist is worth a thousand words,” tweeted Democratic representative Adam Schiff.
Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, had pleaded in an open letter, published in the Post, for Biden not to meet with the Crown Prince, that it would be a crass betrayal of her slain partner. “The details of the suffering he endured have haunted me.”
On Friday, Cengiz took to Twitter to express the depth of her dismay, writing an imagined account of what Khashoggi would say: “Hey @POTUS, Is this the accountability you promised for my murder? The blood of MBS’s next victim is on your hands.”
In his press conference remarks after the confab with MBS, Biden insisted he hadn’t shied away from pressing the prince about human rights violations and Khashoggi’s murder. “I said, very straightforward, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am.”
Biden relayed that the Crown Prince had claimed he was “not personally responsible” for the death of Khashoggi. “I indicated I thought he was.”
Further, according to Biden, MBS responded that “this was a painful episode for Saudi Arabia and that it was a terrible mistake.”
Yet the Kingdom’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, later told Fox News that he did not “hear” Biden telling the prince he blamed him for the murder.
In any event, that was that, apparently, hands clean enough for Biden to do business with the despot, so widely admired in many circles for “loosening” the harsh social restrictions in the Kingdom. That was after he sliced through — you should forgive the expression — his rivals for succession to the ailing King Salman via sidelining, detaining and seizing their assets.
Engaging with the prince, Biden had explained before leaving, was to reassure him that the West had not turned away from the region and would not leave a power vacuum to be filled by Russia, China and Iran. His intention, as well, was to shore up thawing bilateral relations between the Kingdom and Israel, with Saudi Arabia already allowing Israeli commercial aircraft to fly over Saudi airspace.
At stake, most crucially, is Saudi Arabia agreeing to crank up oil production in September, after the current OPEC+ agreement expires, to alleviate soaring gas prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not that Washington has been unfriendly towards the Kingdom, funnelling billions of dollars in military equipment to the Saudis, under Biden too — which surely has been used in the ghastly war against Yemen that Riyadh started.
Such a tangled web of iniquity, perfidy and amorality, with disgraceful capitulation by the U.S. president.
On Sunday morning, when Biden was asked by reporters at the White House if he regretted his fist-bump with MBS, he answered: “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters?”
It matters. Reversing a pledge of honour should matter.
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
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