Should President Biden meet Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to try to persuade him to increase his country’s oil production? Should he speak directly to Vladimir Putin to try to end the war in Ukraine? Neither outreach would represent a form of endorsement; and they are arguably both necessary for much larger considerations.
To the first question, Biden has already said yes; he will go to Riyadh in July. The argument for the visit is obvious: With oil prices rising, inflation growing, and mid-term elections in November, it is imperative for Biden and the Democrats that the world’s oil production is increased, so that supply can respond to demand and decrease the price at the pump. The assumption behind the visit is that if Saudi Arabia increases its oil output, the world’s supply will increase, prices will go down, inflation will be lowered, and Democrats will have better chances at the polls in the November mid-terms.
The arguments against the visit are also obvious. “Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights commitments would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for egregious rights violations,” said a Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Biden had said during his 2020 campaign that he would seek to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.” He specified that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
The link between the crown prince and the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has been documented, as have war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Besides the human rights argument, there are no guarantees that increased oil production by Saudi Arabia or other members of OPEC will reduce prices and slow inflation.
Asked about the decision to take the trip despite Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record, Biden replied in terms of his overall strategy of bringing peace to the Middle East: “I’m not going to change my view on human rights, but as President of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre repeated this “peace” argument: “The President views Saudi Arabia as an important partner on a host of initiatives that we are working on, both in the region and around the world.”
The administration’s argument for a Biden-MBS meeting is that it is in the interest of peace in the Middle East and “around the world” that the two should talk. Overall peace—as well as increased oil production—overrides the horrendous human rights record of the Saudi leader, according to the Biden team.
If “pariah” was the term Biden used to describe MBS during his campaign before apparently changing his mind, what about the President’s views on Vladimir Putin? If the Biden team sees meeting MBS face-to-face as a positive step to increase oil production and reduce tensions in the Middle East, surely there is a more pressing need to have another Biden-Putin summit to stop the carnage in Ukraine and increase grain delivery. But the last—and only—summit between the two, in Geneva on June 16, 2021, led to no concrete results. On the contrary, eight months later, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Putin was obviously not impressed enough with Biden to alter his plans for military aggression. For the moment, no mention is being made of a follow-up meeting.
If Biden can’t talk to Putin, who can? The most promising candidate is French President Emmanuel Macron. According to reports, Macron has had a hundred hours of telephone conversations with the Russian President since December. To what avail? While the dialogue may have solidified Macron’s self-image as a big-league international leader, the war continues to rage in Ukraine.
The fundamental question is one of the value of conversation. Any proposal to have Biden meet with Putin again brings comparisons with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 talks with Hitler, and the ‘appeasement’ agreed in Munich, which failed to prevent World War II. Macron is already being criticized along these lines; Biden would certainly be rebuked for even proposing a second summit.
For the Biden team, talking to MBS is acceptable; talking to Putin is not. Perhaps the fact that Putin’s human rights violations are more egregious serves as the logic behind this. However, the evidence appears to be that the war in Ukraine has more immediate and grave consequences than the price of oil or any slim progress towards Middle East peace, and one might think that this would be reason enough to engage in discussions.
The Biden team will argue that they see no positive results from negotiating with Putin. The failure of the Geneva summit will be their point of reference, as will the failed attempts by Macron to deescalate the conflict through telephone conversations. For the moment, only autocrats like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus have managed to convene any major peace negotiations.
President Biden’s planned trip to meet with MBS raises serious questions about the criteria for deciding whom to talk to: If speaking to a human rights violator like MBS is deemed acceptable because it is in some general interest, surely speaking directly to Vladimir Putin follows that same logic. Indeed, if “meeting jaw-to-jaw is [always] better than war,” according to Churchill, then some form of Biden outreach to Russia should at least be on the cards.
This piece originally appeared in French in a slightly different version in Le Temps.