As a candidate for president, Joe Biden was not shy about calling out dictators and authoritarian leaders as he anchored his foreign policy in the idea that the world is in a battle between democracy and autocracy.
But Biden’s governing approach as president has been far less black and white as he tries to balance such high-minded principles with the tug toward pragmatism in a world scrambled by the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns about China’s global ambitions, heightened tensions about Iran’s advancing nuclear program and more.
Those crosscurrents were evident this past week when Biden played host at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where his decision to exclude leaders he considers dictators generated considerable drama and prompted a number of other world leaders to boycott the event.
“We don’t always agree on everything, but because we’re democracies, we work through our disagreements with mutual respect and dialogue,” Biden told summit participants as he tried to smooth over the disputes.
Even as Biden was excluding a trio of leaders from the gathering, his national security team was making preparations for a possible visit to Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich kingdom that the president labeled a “pariah” state in the early days of his successful White House run.
After Biden took office, his administration made clear the president would avoid direct engagement with the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that he likely approved the 2018 killing and dismemberment of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. If the visit to Saudi Arabia goes forward as anticipated, Biden is expected to meet with Mohammed.
The tough talk by Biden during the campaign — and earlier in his presidency — toward the Saudis was part of a broader message he pitched to Americans: The days of blank checks for dictators and strongmen must end if the United States is to have credibility on the world stage.
Of late, though, such sharply principled rhetoric has given way to a greater nod to realpolitik.
At a time of skyrocketing prices at the gas pump, an increasingly fragile situation in the Middle East and perpetual concern that China is expanding its global footprint, Biden and his national security team have determined that freezing out the Saudis is simply not tenable, according to a person familiar with White House thinking on the yet-to-be-finalized Saudi visit who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The blurred lines over with whom the U.S. will and will not engage have left the White House facing a difficult question: How can the president cite principle for spurning engagement with dictators in his own backyard even as he considers paying a call on Saudi officials who have used mass arrests and macabre violence to squelch dissent?
“President Biden committed to putting human rights and democracy at the heart of our foreign policy. It is,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at a summit closing news conference Friday. “That doesn’t mean that it’s the totality.”
But Edward Frantz, a presidential historian at the University of Indianapolis, 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, looked past the blood-thirsty reputation of the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. President George H.W. Bush held off supporting an uprising against Saddam Hussein as his advisers warned Iraq would plunge into civil war without the strongman. U.S. administrations from Presidents Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama overlooked the Hosni Mubarak government’s torture and arbitrary detention in Egypt for the sake of a reliable strategic partner in a difficult corner of the world.
“It’s notable that Biden is being forced from his position on the Saudis in large part because he held a principled stance on Ukraine,” Frantz said. “But it’s hard not to see the same patterns here as have been established over the last 80 years.”
Human rights advocacy groups and even some of the president’s Democratic allies are warning Biden that a Saudi visit could be perilous.
Six House Democrats, including the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, wrote to Biden this past week that if he decides to move forward with the visit, he must follow through on a pledge of “recalibrating that relationship to serve America’s national interests” and press Saudi officials on oil production, human rights and reported ballistic missile sales by China to the kingdom.
“President Biden should recognize that any meeting with a foreign official provides them instant credibility on a global stage, whether intended or not,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights commitments would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for egregious rights violations.”
Even as Biden was warming to the Saudis, he was committing to keeping the Western Hemisphere’s dictators out of the summit in his own backyard.
The decision was seen as heavy-handed by some allies. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and leaders of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Bolivia all opted to skip the summit over Biden’s decision to exclude the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, and Belize’s prime minister, John Briceño, were among those to show up but publicly criticize Biden’s move.
“Geography, not politics, defines the Americas,” Briceño said.
Before taking office, Biden did not hold back about what he saw as some of his fellow leaders’ shortcomings, particularly those who had less than stellar records as champions of democracy but were in the good graces of President Donald Trump.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden argued that Brazil should face “significant economic consequences” if President Jair Bolsonaro continued deforesting the Amazon. Biden labeled Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an “autocrat” and waited more than three months into his presidency to speak with the fellow NATO leader. Most notably, Biden said Saudi Arabia was a “pariah” that would “pay a price” for its human rights abuses, including the brutal killing of Khashoggi.
When Biden met with Bolsonaro o n the sidelines of the Americas summit on Thursday, the engagement was decidedly civil. Biden made no mention of the Brazilian leader’s baseless claims about his own country’s voting systems and about unsupported claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 U.S. election.
During the two leaders’ appearance before reporters, Biden even commended Brazil for making “real sacrifices” in protecting the Amazon. The White House said that in their private talks, they discussed working together on “sustainable development” to reduce deforestation.
Bolsonaro, the most prominent Latin American leader to attend the summit, had agreed to take part on the condition that Biden grant him a private meeting and refrain from confronting him over some of the most contentious issues between the two men, according to three of the Brazilian leader’s Cabinet ministers who requested anonymity to discuss the issue. White House officials said no preconditions were set for the talks.
In recent weeks, top Biden advisers and NATO officials have been working to persuade Erdogan to back down from his threats to block historically neutral Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
Last week, Biden and his administration were effusive as they praised Saudi Arabia for its role in nudging OPEC+ to increase oil production for July and August. Biden even called the kingdom “courageous” for agreeing to extend a cease fire in its seven-year war with Yemen.
Douglas London, a former CIA officer who spent 34 years in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and is a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said Biden’s tone shift represents an uncomfortable reality: Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, is someone the U.S. will likely have to deal with for years to come.
“Yes, we’re reminded how the president referred to MBS as the dictator of a pariah state who the U.S. was going to teach a lesson,” London wrote in an analysis. “Timing in politics and foreign policy, as in life, has great bearing, and it’s important to recall that the average price of oil when then candidate Biden said that was $41 per barrel.”
Now, it’s hovering around $120 per barrel.