US Congress Views Joe Biden’s Middle East Trip Through Traditional Ideological Lenses
Commemoration organized by the Freedom First platform in front of the US Congress on the 3rd anniversary of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Washington, DC, Oct. 2, 2021. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

US Congress Views Joe Biden’s Middle East Trip Through Traditional Ideological Lenses

Sen. Ben Cardin: America needs to play an active role in the region so that malign forces don’t fill the vacuum

Congressional Democrats were mostly leery but understanding of US President Joe Biden’s meetings with Saudi officials this weekend. Some Republicans, after largely backing former President Donald Trump’s coziness with Saudi Arabia, took the opportunity to needle President Biden for taking his eye off domestic priorities.

The US president completed a four-day trip on Saturday, visiting Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia. He met with a host of government officials at each stop, culminating with Saturday’s Jeddah Security and Development Summit, which included the US and the GCC+3, composed of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations along with Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.

President Biden’s meetings with Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were among the most heavily anticipated and watched, based on the tension between the US leader and Mohammed following his heavy criticism of the latter’s human rights record and alleged involvement in the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Media Line that America needs to play an active role in the region, even if uncomfortable at times, so that malign forces aren’t filling the vacuum.

“We have to make sure that we can conduct relations with strategic partners, even though we have strong disagreements. And with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we strongly disagree with their human rights commitments. Some of the things that they’ve done − and the Khashoggi murder is one of the principal issues as yet to be fully resolved − but it goes well beyond that, to other human rights violation issues that are of concern to us,” Cardin said.

“But that can’t prevent us from being engaged. Saudi Arabia is a principal player in that region. We want them to align with us in regard to strategic negotiations. We don’t want them to be forced to choose other partners that are adversaries for their relationships,” the senator continued.

“We also would like to see the Saudis more sympathetic on the production of oil, considering the impact that oil prices are having on inflation. So, there are reasons that we have to have these strategic discussions. We also like the Saudis to be a clearer player in what’s happening in Yemen. So, we have multiple issues in which we have to make progress. And I think the president’s actually right to conduct these meetings, but he has to make it clear that it’s within the framework of our values,” said Cardin.

During President Biden’s trip, Saudi Arabia announced the opening of its airspace to all countries. Israeli officials pointed to the move as a first public step toward Israel-Saudi normalization, though Saudi officials said it had nothing to do with Israel and remained firm in their stance that normalization would not occur absent a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Saudi officials also disavowed reports of a looming Gulf security alliance in the mold of NATO, which would include Israel.

Nevertheless, US Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-New York), a member of the bipartisan, bicameral Abraham Accords Caucus, told The Media Line that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is a US priority that should be pursued.

“The United States has a historic opportunity to build in the Middle East the kind of security architecture that we have in Europe, and the Abraham Accords, which has laid the foundation for a new Middle East, is a critical pillar of American leadership in the world. And for me, the Holy Grail of the Abraham Accords is the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which the United States is in a strong position to help broker. So that should be the strategic priority of the president,” said Torres.

Republicans, meanwhile, though overwhelmingly supportive of the Abraham Accords concept, and having previously criticized the president for a failed Middle East foreign policy being partially to blame for the rise in oil prices, said he would be better served staying at home, dealing with the domestic issues that have plagued his agenda and sent his polling numbers spiraling downward.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) tweeted side-by-side photos, one of which showed him speaking with workers at what appeared to be an American oil production facility. The other photo showed President Biden first-bumping Crown Prince Mohammed. The caption of the tweet read, “America First vs. America Last,” showing McCarthy’s disdain for the president’s domestic energy production agenda.

That following a letter sent to President Biden on Tuesday by a group of 69 House Republicans, led by New Mexico Rep. Yvette Herrell. The missive called on the president to commit to producing oil and gas in the US, and to meet with Americans who work in the energy industry. The lawmakers criticized America’s reliance on energy from authoritarian governments like Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took the opportunity to slam President Biden for focusing on securing the wrong borders.

“Joe Biden found the time to go to Saudi Arabia, but not to the southern border, to the worst illegal immigration in 62 years,” Cruz said in an interview over the weekend.

Some of Congress’ more progressive Democrats – Torres being an exception – were just as critical of what they called President Biden’s fawning visit to Israel, during which multiple joint declarations, pacts, and initiatives were announced. Among them was the launch of the US-Israel High-Level Dialogue on Technology, tasked with establishing a partnership on several “critical and emerging technologies and solutions to global challenges,” according to a statement released by the White House.

“Israel is the leader in ingenuity and innovation and has more innovation per capita than any country in the world. And the technological partnership between the United States and Israel reminds us the relationship is not one-sided. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” said Torres, who sits on a House Homeland Security subcommittee dealing with cybersecurity.

Congressional Republicans who spoke about the president’s trip to Israel were largely critical of his lack of leadership in the region and supposed coddling of the Palestinians.

“He is not going there in a pro-Israel manner,” declared GOP Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee on Fox News, as President Biden landed in Israel on Wednesday. Blackburn said he only went to Israel “because he had to.” Blackburn also blasted the president for failing to note former President Donald Trump’s stewardship of the Abraham Accords, and the Republican National Committee took aim at President Biden’s questionable claim in an interview with an Israeli TV station that the Trump administration “sort of walked away from the Middle East.”

Six Republican members of Congress, led by Rep. Beth Van Duyne of Texas, sent President Biden a letter criticizing his visit to a Palestinian hospital in the eastern part of Jerusalem. The letter called the visit there “a sign of continued support of the Palestinians in their illegitimate efforts to claim” the eastern part of the city.

That visit led to one of the few controversial aspects of President Biden’s visit to Israel. The White House refused to allow Israeli officials to tag along on that portion of the itinerary, claiming it was a private visit, and American staff removed the Israeli flag from the president’s armored presidential car during the trip to the hospital.

In a microcosm of the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, and the announcement of major US aid to the Palestinians, were largely viewed as a footnote to the broader regional trip.

Cardin said it’s important that the issue remains a priority.

“I think it is absolutely essential that we keep alive and make progress in the fundamental issue of two states living side by side in peace. And we need to deal with the humanitarian needs. But, we have to do that in a way that’s consistent with our values. You have to do it in a way that makes sure that the aid is really getting to the Palestinians and not being funneled into terrorist activities. The Palestinian leadership needs to be sensitive to these issues and needs to take advantage of opportunities that exist,” said Cardin.

President Biden, while reiterating support for a two-state solution, made clear during his visit to Bethlehem that he didn’t believe conditions were currently ripe for the advancement of a political settlement process.

Torres laid the fault for that at the feet of Ramallah.

“The Palestinians are victims of failed leadership on the part of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The Palestinians are caught between a theocracy in Hamas and a kleptocracy in the Palestinian Authority, and those are two structural challenges to the creation of a Palestinian state. The ineptitude of the Palestinian Authority never comes as a shock to me,” Torres said.

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