In 2018, President Trump issued a statement reaffirming the U.S.’s long-standing relationship with the Saudi royal family on the ground that this partnership serves America’s “national interests.” Trump specifically cited the fact that “Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world” and has purchased hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from U.S. arms manufacturers.
American presidents in the post-World War II order made the deep and close partnership between Washington and Riyadh a staple of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Yet, as was typical for the Trump years, political and media commentators treated Trump’s decision to maintain relations with the Saudis as if it were some unprecedented aberration of evil which he alone pioneered — some radical departure of long-standing, bipartisan American values — rather than what it was: namely, the continuation of standard bipartisan U.S. policy for decades.
In an indignant editorial following Trump’s statement, The New York Times exclaimed that Trump was making the world “more [dangerous] by emboldening despots in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere,” specifically blaming “Mr. Trump’s view that all relationships are transactional, and that moral or human rights considerations must be sacrificed to a primitive understanding of American national interests.”
Perhaps the most vocal critics of Trump’s ongoing willingness to maintain ties with the Saudi regime were then-Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. As a recent CNN compilation of those statements demonstrates: “In the years prior to taking office, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and many of their administration’s top officials harshly criticized President Donald Trump’s lack of action against Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.”
In a 2019 Democratic primary debate, Biden vowed: “We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” adding that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Harris similarly scolded Trump for his ongoing relationship with the Saudis, complaining on Twitter in October, 2019, that “Trump has yet to hold Saudi officials accountable.”
That Joe Biden was masquerading as some sort of human rights crusader who would sever ties with the despotic regimes that have long been among America’s most cherished partners was inherently preposterous. As Obama’s Vice President, Biden was central to that administration’s foreign policy. So devoted was Obama to the U.S.’s long-standing partnership with Riyadh that, in 2015, he deeply offended India — the world’s largest democracy — by abruptly cutting short his visit to that country in order to fly to Saudi Arabia, along with leaders of both U.S. political parties, to pay homage to Saudi King Salman upon his death. Adding insult to injury, Obama, as The Guardian put it, boarded his plane to Riyadh “just hours after lecturing India on religious tolerance and women’s rights.”
The unstinting support of the Saudi regime by the Obama/Biden White House was not limited to obsequious gestures such as these. Obama’s administration played a vital role in empowering the Saudi attack on Yemen, which created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: far worse than what has been taking place in Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24. In order to assuage the Saudis over his Iran deal, “Obama’s administration has offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in weapons, other military equipment and training, the most of any U.S. administration in the 71-year U.S.-Saudi alliance,” reported Reuters in late 2016, just months before Obama and Biden left office.
Beyond the enormous cache of sophisticated weapons Obama/Biden transferred to the Saudis to use against Yemen and anyone else they decided to target, the Snowden archive revealed that Obama ordered significant increases in the amount and type of intelligence technologies and raw intelligence provided by the NSA to the Saudi regime.
That is what made the hysterical reaction to Trump’s reaffirmation of that relationship so nonsensical and deliberately deceitful. Trump was not wildly deviating from U.S. policy by embracing Saudi but simply continuing long-standing U.S. policy whenever doing so advanced U.S. interests.
But this has been the core propagandistic framework employed by the DC ruling class since Trump was inaugurated. They routinely depicted him as an unprecedentedly monstrous figure who has vandalized American values in ways that would have been unthinkable for prior American presidents when, in fact, he was doing nothing more than affirming decades-old policy, albeit with greater candour, without the obfuscating mask used by American presidents to deceive the public about how Washington functions.
To the extent that one attempted to isolate any other difference between Trump and official Washington, it was that he was often insistent that “American interests” be defined not by “what benefits a small sliver of U.S. arms manufacturers and the U.S. Security State” but rather “what benefits the American people generally” (hence his eagerness, and his ultimate success, to be the first U.S. president in decades to avoid involving the U.S. in new wars).
In sum, the U.S. always has been, and continues to be, not just willing but eager to support and embrace foreign dictators whenever doing so serves those interests. They are just as willing and eager to overthrow or otherwise undermine and destabilize democratically elected leaders who are judged to be insufficiently deferential to American decrees. What determines U.S. support or opposition toward a foreign country is not whether they are democratic or despotic, but whether they are deferential.
Thus, it was not Trump’s embrace of long-standing U.S. partnerships with Saudi that represented a radical departure from the American tradition. The radical departure was Biden’s pledge during the 2020 presidential campaign to turn the Saudis into “pariahs” and to isolate them. But few people in Washington were alarmed by Biden’s campaign vow because nobody believed that Joe Biden ever intended to follow through on his cynical campaign pledge. It took no prescience or cleverness to see it as nothing more than a manipulative attempt to demonize Trump for what official Washington, and Obama and Biden themselves, have always done.
Last November, “the U.S. State Department approved its first major arms sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under U.S. President Joe Biden with the sale of 280 air-to-air missiles valued at up to $650 million.” Just a few weeks later, the U.S. Senate, reported Politico, “gave a bipartisan vote of confidence to the Biden administration’s proposed weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, blunting criticisms from progressives and some Republicans over the kingdom’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war and its human rights record.”
And it was during that same time — long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine — when Biden had all but abandoned any pretence of weakening ties with the Saudis, let alone turning them into the “pariah” state he promised during the campaign against Trump. “Mr. Biden was already prepared to end the isolation of Prince Mohammed as far back as October when he expected to encounter the Saudi leader at a meeting of the Group of 20 leaders and most likely would have shaken hands,” explained The New York Times last week (bin Salman was a no-show at the meeting).
And now, it appears that Biden is planning a pilgrimage to Riyadh to visit his Saudi partners in person. Last week, The New York Times reported that Biden “has decided to travel to Riyadh this month to rebuild relations with the oil-rich kingdom at a time when he is seeking to lower gas prices at home and isolate Russia abroad.” During the trip, “the president will meet with” bin Salman himself.
The explanation offered by Biden’s Secretary of State for the president’s ongoing embrace of the Saudis is virtually indistinguishable from the rationale offered by Trump that sparked so many outraged denunciations about the fall of American ideals.
“Saudi Arabia is a critical partner to us in dealing with extremism in the region, in dealing with the challenges posed by Iran, and also I hope in continuing the process of building relationships between Israel and its neighbours both near and further away through the continuation, the expansion of the Abraham Accords,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Wednesday at an event marking the 100th anniversary of Foreign Affairs magazine. He said human rights are still important but “we are addressing the totality of our interests in that relationship.”
Despite Biden’s clear abandonment from the start of his campaign pledge to distance the U.S from the Saudis, this trip is being justified by the need to plead with the Saudis to make more oil available on the market in order to compensate for U.S.-led sanctions on Russia. As The Times put it: “Russia and Saudi Arabia are close to tied as the world’s second-largest oil producers, meaning that as Biden administration officials sought to cut off one, they concluded they could not afford to be at odds with the other.” After the Times report, Biden officials said the trip had been postponed to July, but did not deny that it was happening.
But herein lies the unique truth-providing value of the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia. The U.S. does not care, at all, whether a foreign country is ruled by democracy or tyranny. It cares about one question and one question only: whether the government of that country serves or hinders U.S. interests. Donald Trump’s sin was admitting this obvious fact.
This article, by award-winning journalist Glen Greenwald, has been edited for brevity and for sensibilities. To read the article in full visit here.