If there was any doubt that President Joe Biden should not have visited Saudi Arabia, let alone fist-bumped its de facto dictator, the oil giant’s thinly veiled threats that it might cut rather than increase oil output should settle that issue once and for all. Biden went there pleading for more oil to help reduce gas prices at home.
At first, the Saudis snubbed him by announcing one of the smallest oil production increases in the history of OPEC+. To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia now threatens to cut its oil production explicitly to keep prices high.
Saudi Arabia’s notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, may be seeking to sabotage the diplomacy around the Iran nuclear deal as the talks enter their most sensitive stage yet. (A high-level Israeli delegation is in Washington this week in a last-ditch effort to press Biden to stick to Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran and not rejoin the deal.) Or he may simply be signaling to Biden that even if the U.S. returns to the nuclear accord and Iranian oil returns to the energy markets, the vindictive Saudi dictator can still hurt, if not tank, the Democrats in the midterm elections this November by jacking up oil prices.
Either way, Saudi Arabia’s gesture shows the folly of Biden’s visit in June. The trip was meant to present Biden at his best — a foreign policy giant who dealt with the world as it is and who understood when geopolitical imperatives must trump values and human rights. The problem with this framing was not that human rights were sacrificed at the altar of security interests (they always are, notwithstanding American rhetoric), but that the prospects of securing any major geopolitical gains were minute at best and never sufficient to justify the humiliation of Biden’s caving to MBS.
Saudi Arabia’s predictable defiance of Biden also sheds light on another geopolitical miscalculation behind the effort to appease MBS. During his visit, Biden declared America’s intention to remain militarily in the Middle East to counter the influence of Russia, China and Iran. “Let me say clearly that the United States is going to remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East. ... We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran, [and we] will seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership,” Biden said in a speech the day after he held talks with MBS.
The statement was designed to reassure the Arab states of the Persian Gulf — including countries like Saudi Arabia — that the U.S. would remain committed to their security. This meant keeping U.S. bases and troop levels in the Middle East more or less at current levels, and it also signaled that the U.S. has the will to fight on behalf of these Arab authoritarians. Biden clearly failed to convince them of America's will to fight. And a widely overlooked phenomenon of flourishing regional diplomacy in the Middle East shows why the U.S. — and the world — would be better off if the U.S. withdrew from the region instead of wasting resources on this pointless game.
Biden had an opportunity after the withdrawal from Afghanistan to continue to reduce U.S. troop levels in the Middle East. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” he famously said on the eve of the withdrawal. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. … Moving on from that mindset and those kind of large-scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home.”
Biden was absolutely right. And my conversations with administration officials at the time indicated that he had planned a larger withdrawal from the region, to be announced through the publication of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Global Posture Review a few months later. But these same sources explained to me that his plans abruptly changed sometime last fall, primarily because the White House concluded — erroneously, in my view — that if the U.S. reduced its military footprint in the Middle East, China would fill the vacuum it left.
Washington's conventional wisdom asserts that the real geopolitical contest of this century is with China. The White House ultimately concluded last fall that competition with China would take place not only in the South China Sea, but also in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Consequently, any American military withdrawal from these regions would give China an unwarranted advantage, the reasoning went. Avoiding such withdrawals was also deemed necessary since Washington’s main advantage over Beijing lay in its alliance system — the large number of states that are allied to or strategic partners with the U.S. Keeping these partners at its side is essential to defeat China, according to this logic. The Biden administration subsequently decided that it would have to become even more deferential to some of its most prickly partners, such as Saudi Arabia, lest Riyadh team up with China or, at a minimum, hedge its bets by moving closer to Beijing.
This logic is not only misguided — Biden’s Saudi Arabia trip also showed that it does not work. Instead of strengthening the U.S. vis-a-vis China, this approach will further overextend and exhaust the U.S., while states such as Saudi Arabia will play both sides and take advantage of Washington's unwise deference.
Biden can choose another path. The U.S. can reduce its military presence in the Middle East and support the intra-regional diplomacy that has begun to flourish there, which itself was inspired by the conclusion by regional states that — U.S. rhetoric notwithstanding — the U.S. has lost the will to fight for the Middle East and will withdraw sooner or later.
In the past few years, there has been a systemic shift toward greater efforts to reduce intra-regional tensions through diplomacy. The Saudis and the Iranians have been conducting several rounds of talks facilitated by the Iraqis. The same applies to Iranian diplomacy with the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. The Emiratis and the Saudis have moved to bury the hatchet with Qatar. The Turks have done the same with the Egyptians and the Emiratis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even made up with MBS.
This regional diplomacy has already borne fruit. Just in the past 10 days, the UAE and Kuwait announced that they are reopening their embassies in Tehran. Turkey and Israel normalized their relations, as well. And perhaps most important, the Saudi-Iranian diplomacy helped bring about the truce in the war in Yemen.
The key structural factor helping trigger this outburst of diplomacy is the realization in many of these capitals that without the protection of the U.S., diplomacy and de-escalation are their best options now — which was not necessarily the case when they could hide behind American firepower.
A Middle East where states seek to resolve their tensions through dialogue and without much U.S. military presence has countless benefits for America. A more stable Middle East with fewer U.S. troops in it reduces anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, which is largely driven by resentment over U.S. interference in the region. It also reduces risk to U.S. troops, who often are sitting ducks targeted by a variety of groups and movements. In short, it saves American lives. It also saves U.S. resources that can be put to much better use at home.
But perhaps most important, the flourishing of diplomacy because of the conviction that the U.S. is bound to leave the region militarily shows that the U.S. military presence can inadvertently become an impediment to diplomacy and stability in the Middle East.
Ultimately, the biggest winner of this approach is America itself — not China. This was the path Biden was on when he came to office. He should return to it.