WASHINGTON (AP) — As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden has not shied away from challenging dictators and authoritarian leaders, as he anchored his foreign policy to the idea that the world is in a struggle between democracy and autocracy.
But Biden’s approach to governance as president has been far less black-and-white as he seeks to balance such high-minded principles with a streak of pragmatism in a world troubled by the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns over China’s global Ambitions and heightened tensions have been muddled over Iran’s advancing nuclear program and more.
These crosscurrents were evident last week when Biden hosted the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where his decision to expel leaders he believes are dictators sparked considerable drama and prompted a number of other world leaders to cancel the event to boycott.
“We don’t always agree on everything, but because we are democracies, we resolve our disagreements with mutual respect and dialogue,” Biden told summit attendees as he attempted to settle disputes.
While Biden barred a trio of leaders from the gathering, his national security team prepared for a possible visit to Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich kingdom the president described as a “pariah” state in the early days of his successful White House run.
After Biden took office, his administration made it clear that the president would avoid working directly with the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after US intelligence officials concluded he was likely the assassination and dismemberment of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. If the visit to Saudi Arabia goes as expected, Biden is expected to meet with Mohammed.
Biden’s tough talk during the campaign — and earlier in his presidency — toward the Saudis was part of a broader message he was conveying to Americans: The days of blank checks to dictators and strongmen must end if the United States is to be credible on the world stage .
More recently, however, such astute rhetoric has given way to a stronger allusion to Realpolitik.
At a time of skyrocketing prices at the pump, an increasingly fragile situation in the Middle East, and constant concern that China is expanding its global footprint, Biden and his national security team have determined that freezing the Saudis at one with the White House is simply not sustainable trusted person who is reflecting on the ongoing Saudi visit and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The blurring of who the US will and will not engage with has left the White House with a difficult question: How can the President invoke principle to refuse engagement with dictators in his own backyard, even as he considers pay a visit to Saudi officials who have done so? Mass arrests and macabre violence used to quell dissent?
“President Biden is committed to placing human rights and democracy at the heart of our foreign policy. That’s it,” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken told reporters at a final press conference on Friday. “It doesn’t mean it’s all.”
But Edward Frantz, a presidential historian at Indianapolis University, sees signs that Biden has “fallen into the same trap” as his predecessors when it comes to the Middle East.
President Jimmy Carter, who said human rights were central to his foreign policy, ignored Iran’s Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s bloodthirsty reputation. President George HW Bush has been reluctant to support an insurgency against Saddam Hussein when his advisers warned that without the strongman, Iraq would plunge into civil war. US administrations from President Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have overlooked the torture and arbitrary imprisonment of the Hosni Mubarak government in Egypt in favor of a reliable strategic partner in a troubled corner of the world.
“It is noteworthy that Biden is being pushed by his position on the Saudis in large part because he has taken a principled stance on Ukraine,” Frantz said. “But it’s hard not to see the same patterns here that have been established over the past 80 years.”
Human rights groups and even some of the president’s Democratic allies are warning Biden that a visit to Saudi could be dangerous.
Six House Democrats, including House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff of California, wrote to Biden last week that if he decides to go ahead with the visit, he must fulfill his promise to “recalibrate that relationship.” serving America’s national interests” and pressuring Saudi officials over oil exploration, human rights and China’s reported sales of ballistic missiles to the kingdom.
“President Biden should recognize that any meeting with a foreign official gives him instant credibility on a global scale, whether intentional or not,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights obligations would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for egregious rights violations.”
Even as Biden warmed to the Saudis, he pledged to keep the Western Hemisphere’s dictators off the summit in his own backyard.
The decision was seen as cumbersome by some allies. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Bolivia all opted to skip the summit because Biden decided to exclude the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Belize Prime Minister John Briceño were among those who emerged but publicly criticized Biden’s move.
“Geography, not politics, defines America,” Briceño said.
Before taking office, Biden did not hold back what he saw as some of the shortcomings of his fellow leaders, particularly those who had less than outstanding record as champions of democracy but were in President Donald Trump’s favor.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden argued that Brazil should face “significant economic consequences” if President Jair Bolsonaro continues to deforest the Amazon. Biden called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “autocrat” and waited more than three months into his presidency to speak to the NATO counterpart. Most notably, Biden said Saudi Arabia is a “pariah” who would “pay a price” for its human rights abuses, including the brutal assassination of Khashoggi.
When Biden met Bolsonaro on the sidelines of the Americas summit on Thursday, the engagement was decidedly civil. Biden failed to mention the Brazilian leader’s unsubstantiated claims about his own country’s electoral systems and unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 US election.
During the two leaders’ appearance to reporters, Biden even praised Brazil for making “real sacrifices” in protecting the Amazon. The White House said in their private talks they discussed working together on “sustainable development” to reduce deforestation.
Bolsonaro, the most prominent Latin American leader attending the summit, had agreed to attend on the condition that Biden grant him a private meeting and not confront him over some of the most contentious issues between the two men, according to three of the Brazilian leader’s cabinet ministers, who asked for anonymity to discuss the issue. White House officials said no preconditions for the talks had been set.
In recent weeks, senior Biden advisers and NATO officials have been working to persuade Erdogan to back off his threats to block historically neutral Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
Last week, Biden and his administration were gushing as they praised Saudi Arabia for its role in getting OPEC+ to increase oil production for July and August. Biden even called the kingdom “brave” for agreeing to extend the ceasefire in its seven-year war with Yemen.
Douglas London, a former CIA officer who has spent 34 years in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and is a fellow at the Middle East Institute, said Biden’s shift in tone represents an uncomfortable reality: Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, is someone in the US will probably have to deal with this for years to come.
“Yes, we are reminded of how the President described MBS as the dictator of a pariah state that the US wanted to teach a lesson,” London wrote in an analysis. “Timing in politics and foreign policy, as in life, matters a lot, and it’s important to remember that when then-candidate Biden said the average price of oil was $41 a barrel.”
Now it’s hovering around $120 a barrel.
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in Los Angeles and Mauricio Savares in Sao Paolo, Brazil contributed to this report.