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Biden’s foreign policy dream is embroiled in risks with little reward

What’s good for Biden’s foreign policy legacy isn’t necessarily good for the country.

Foreign policy wins under Joe Biden's administration have been in short supply. Yes, the president has done an admirable job cobbling together a durable coalition with Europe on behalf of Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia’s aggression. And unlike previous administrations, which paid lip service to the Indo-Pacific being a priority, Biden actually seems to believe it — the State Department and Pentagon have spent considerable time bringing East Asian allies onside and even brokered an entente of sorts between Japan and South Korea, two U.S. allies who had a years-long spat over World War II-era history.

You only need to take a glance at what the U.S. would have to give up in order to get the deal Biden craves so badly.

Still, the kinds of grandiose diplomatic agreements that earn presidents privileged spots in the history books are nowhere to be found. Richard Nixon had his pivot to China and detente with the Soviet Union. Jimmy Carter had the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Ronald Reagan had the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. Bill Clinton had the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians (although we all know how that turned out). Barack Obama had the Iran nuclear deal. Biden, so far, has nothing.

An Israel-Saudi normalization deal is supposed to change all that. In the administration’s view, it would have transformational potential for the Middle East. Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of Washington’s closest partners in the region, would finally bring their relations out into the open after years in which they collaborated in the intelligence sphere. Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) would all win: Biden would surpass the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords; Netanyahu would earn the honor of being the Israeli premier who normalized the Jewish state’s ties with the most significant power in the Arab world; and MBS would get a crucial partner to contain Iranian influence.  

What’s good for Biden’s legacy, however, isn’t necessarily what’s good for the United States. While that may sound overly politicized, you only need to take a glance at what the U.S. would have to give up in order to get the deal Biden craves so badly. 

First, it’s important to note just how difficult it will be to actually bring Israel-Saudi normalization to fruition. In fact, the phrase “Israel-Saudi normalization” is a bit deceptive because the U.S. and the Palestinians are also involved in the process. Before Oct. 7, Riyadh would likely have been content with extracting a few token concessions from Israel on behalf of the Palestinians in return for normalizing ties. But with more than 34,700 Palestinians killed, Gaza leveled under the weight of Israeli bombs and hunger a widespread problem in the territory — a problem that will only grow worse as Israeli forces begin operations in Rafah, where most of Gaza’s humanitarian aid flows in — MBS can’t be perceived as turning his back on the Palestinian file. The Saudis are now demanding “a credible, irreversible track for the implementation of a two-state solution” as a price. 

“Israel-Saudi normalization” is a bit deceptive because the U.S. and the Palestinians are also involved in the process.

What a “credible, irreversible track” toward a two-state solution actually means is open for debate. But even a mere process might be too much for Netanyahu to contemplate. He is dead set against the establishment of a Palestinian state and has repeated that mantra many times over the last few months. Netanyahu’s political career is held entirely in the hands of ultranationalist ministers, like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who seem to regard all Palestinians as terrorists and would rather annex Gaza and the West Bank into Israel. Netanyahu has little room to maneuver: He can either accede to Riyadh’s demands on the Palestinian file and lose his coalition or keep his coalition intact and hope the Saudis change their position.

Even if the Palestinian issue gets resolved — there are rumors Riyadh might be willing to delink the Palestinian piece in order to salvage a U.S. defense guarantee, although the State Department denied such a scheme was in the works — it’s difficult to see why the agreement currently under discussion serves U.S. interests anyway. 

The problem isn’t Israel-Saudi normalization per se, but rather what the U.S. is willing to pay to get it. And frankly, the price is far too high for what the U.S. is getting in return.

The biggest issue on the table is the U.S. granting Saudi Arabia a security guarantee, in effect turning the kingdom into another welfare case relying on U.S. protection. That would be a great arrangement for the Saudis, of course. Short of possessing nuclear weapons, having a superpower committed to your defense is the best security umbrella a middle power can buy.

For Washington, however, this same arrangement runs high risks, not only because the U.S. would in effect be giving the Saudis perpetual protection in an extremely hostile region of the world but also because the entire plan could encourage Riyadh to embark on the kind of aggressive, destabilizing behavior it might otherwise avoid. International relations scholars call this very real phenomenon “entrapment,” whereby a state with a powerful security patron adopts risky policies they wouldn’t normally take. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of a teenager constantly getting into trouble, knowing full well his parents will bail him out regardless of what he does. With the mighty U.S. at his beck-and-call, MBS has less of an incentive to elevate restraint and pragmatism at the core of Saudi foreign policy.

Proponents of a U.S.-Saudi defense agreement stress that it will fall short of an explicit, NATO-style Article 5 commitment in which an attack on one is an attack on all. That’s a fair point; it’s unlikely the Senate would approve of such a commitment. But for the Saudis, this may be a distinction without a difference, particularly if thousands of U.S. troops are stationed on Saudi soil over a long period of time. In such a scenario, it would be highly difficult for the U.S. not to respond if Saudi Arabia were attacked. If that came to pass, Biden and any future U.S. president would be left with an unenviable choice: Don’t respond and undermine the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or respond forcefully and get swept up into a conflict it would prefer to avoid.

Others are trying to sell a U.S-Saudi defense pact as a “mutual defense” commitment. In other words, if the U.S. were attacked somewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia would also come to Washington’s defense. But how credible is this argument? If a U.S. Navy vessel were struck by an Iranian missile in the Strait of Hormuz, does anybody really believe Riyadh would start shooting at Iranian targets on America’s behalf, particularly when MBS is now invested in normalizing the kingdom’s ties to Tehran? The recent past shows us that Saudi Arabia is more than happy to take but is reticent to give. Whenever the U.S. has been at war in the region, whether it was against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia chose to stay on the sidelines.

Biden’s need for a legacy item is understandable. We’re living in a presidential election year, after all. But national interest should top legacy any day of the week.