Biden Punishing Russia but Not Saudi Arabia

The fecklessness of U.S. human rights policy in full display.

The juxtaposition of two foreign policy decisions in as many days should certainly raise eyebrows. This news came out earlier today:

WaPo (“U.S. announces sanctions on Russia over poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Navalny“):

The Biden administration on Tuesday announced punitive sanctions on senior Russian government figures over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and reiterated a demand that Navalny be released from detention.

The sanctions block access to financial or other assets in the United States for seven top figures around Russian President Vladimir Putin.

They are largely symbolic, but represent the first Biden administration action against Russia. U.S. officials who described the measures said they are a signal that the new administration will treat Russia differently than the Trump administration did.

“So to be clear, the United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate,” said one official who spoke to reporters about the sanctions.

The Biden administration also announced new export restrictions on items that could be used to manufacture chemical weapons and a widening of existing sanctions under a law controlling use of such weapons.

This is in rather stark contrast with another high-profile case.

NYT (“Biden Won’t Penalize Saudi Crown Prince Over Khashoggi’s Killing, Fearing Relations Breach“):

President Biden has decided that the diplomatic cost of directly penalizing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is too high, according to senior administration officials, despite a detailed American intelligence finding that he directly approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and Washington Post columnist who was drugged and dismembered in October 2018.

The decision by Mr. Biden, who during the 2020 campaign called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value,” came after weeks of debate in which his newly formed national security team advised him that there was no way to formally bar the heir to the Saudi crown from entering the United States, or to weigh criminal charges against him, without breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies.

Officials said a consensus developed inside the White House that the cost of that breach, in Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and in confronting Iran, was simply too high.

For Mr. Biden, the decision was a telling indication of how his more cautious instincts kicked in, as the responsibilities of managing a difficult ally led him to find ways other than going directly after Prince Mohammed to make Saudi Arabia pay a price.

While human rights groups and members of his own party applauded the president for making public the official intelligence finding, whose contents leaked more than two years ago, many said that it was just a first step — and that more had to be done to hold the crown prince, known by his initials M.B.S., accountable for his role.

The murder of Khashoggi, a journalist for an American newspaper, is certainly far, far more egregious than the failed positioning of a Russian dissident. Arguably, the Navalny case has next to no impact on U.S. interests. Yet we’re treating it much more seriously than the former.

This isn’t a criticism of Biden or his administration per se—the Trump administration was feckless in these cases as well—but of the disconnect in U.S. foreign policy. It made far more sense to look the other way at the horrific conduct of the Saudis during the Cold War, when they were a key bulwark in the region against Soviet influence, and even later, when the cooperation of the Saudis in stabilizing oil prices was more crucial. But, now, the United States is a net energy exporter and is in a much better position to acknowledge that the Saudis are allies in name only.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I dunno, when you have a long history of alliance/friendship, you handle things differently, right?

    We have no history at all of alliance or friendship with Russia or Putin. And maybe as much as 100 years of such with Saudi Arabia. So the difference acceptable to me. Biden has taken notice of SA’s behavior, and I’m sure they understand this kind of thing will cause problems.

    Whereas Russia is engaged in a very serious – what shall we call it? – rivalry with us and a lot of the west.

  2. Slugger says:

    Why are we afraid of the Saudi regime? Yes, they produce oil, but Iraq produces oil, and we were quite content to let Saddam Hussein stretch a rope. Being an oil producer didn’t work out for Gaddafi either. Tell MBS that hostility toward the USA is not a winning play. How about stopping their interventions in Yemen as an act of contrition?

  3. Jon says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Saudi Arabia wasn’t a country until .. 1932 I think? So less than 100 years for sure. We didn’t really start working with them until after oil was discovered there in the late 30’s. And as far as the history of alliances go, I’d point to something I like to call “World War II” and our alliance with the USSR during said war.

    And the larger point is I’d like to think we hold our friends to a higher standard than our enemies.

  4. Michael says:

    Russia doesn’t buy our fighter jets.

  5. This is outrageous but 100% correct.

  6. dazedandconfused says:

    It’s quite possible to conclude the KSA is even more important to the US now then they were during the cold war. Reason isn’t fear of Iran, it’s the US/Saudi petro-dollar, the foundation upon which our status as the world’s banker is based.

    We’re hoping we are just breaking in a new king. A young and rash man, but he has had his ass handed to him in Yemen (he loudly told everyone that would be easy) and now the embarrassment of being caught killing someone who pissed him off. He’s not stepping down, that isn’t going to happen. So…

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Biden cut off arms sales for the Yemen war, and took the Houthis off the terrorist list. He sanctioned some Saudi officials. But the single biggest thing he did was refuse to talk to MBS and insist on talking to his father, king Salman, instead. MBS has been able to posture as a head of state, chatting as equals with elected officials around the world. Now he’s left talking to the Sec. State. He just got moved to the kid’s table. That’s a pretty big insult and loss of face for MBS, and far more painful for MBS than sanctions which would have been at best an inconvenience for the princeling.

    But yes, of course we treat different countries differently. Russia is a threat to US interests, Saudi Arabia isn’t. Diplomacy requires a degree of hypocrisy, because the goal is not performative outrage but the advancement of US interests.

  8. CSK says:

    Mohammed bin Salman boasted to his associates that he had Jared Kushner in his pocket.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t think you can compare Russian behavior to Saudi Arabia vis a vis their relationship with the US and the West in general. I was going to start listing the reasons why, but the whole idea is ludicrous, so here is the 5 cent summary: They both are led by thugs responsible for many murders, but while Russia is actively plotting (and executing on that plotting) America’s downfall, the Saudis sell us oil and buy our stuff. Whatever Biden the man wants to do, his actions are dictated by being the head of the country and US interests are worlds apart for the two countries.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Yeah, I’m a little disappointed.

  11. charon says:

    There are a lot of Americans working in Saudi who are potential hostages, MBS has shown he is dangerous. Need to tread carefully.

  12. charon says:


    From that link I posted:

    That reason is that every US Soldier, Sailor, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DOD or Service civilian, and an exceedingly large number of Americans working in Saudi as contractors is a potential hostage for Muhammad bin Salman. And I can tell you from personal experience – more on that in a bit* – that this is a VERY LARGE CONCERN!!!!

    Each of these Americans – every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DOD and Service civilian, civilians from other US departments and agencies, and contractors working in the defense and other economic sectors – is a potential hostage for Muhammad bin Salman. And until or unless you can bring each of them home so that the only Americans with any ties to the US government are those with diplomatic immunity – not that I would expect that would stop bin Salman – overtly, harshly cracking down on Muhammad bin Salman is out of the question. Bin Salman has already taken a number of his cousins hostage in a shake down to take their wealth, which is the source of their power and ability to act independent of the Saudi throne. He also took the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, and his family hostage, forcing Hariri to resign on live television. So he really isn’t too concerned with things like diplomatic immunity! Bin Salman also appears to have lured a Saudi dissident who had sought asylum in Canada back to the Kingdom, which, of course, has a lot of other Saudi dissidents both inside and outside of the Kingdom concerned for their lives and those of their families. I expect that taking US personnel hostage is not a really big step for bin Salman.

  13. Mr. Prosser says:

    Adam Silverman wrote at Balloon Juice on Sunday there was a very practical reason for the Administration to light on MBS. “That reason is that every US Soldier, Sailor, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DOD or Service civilian, and an exceedingly large number of Americans working in Saudi as contractors is a potential hostage for Muhammad bin Salman. And I can tell you from personal experience – more on that in a bit* – that this is a VERY LARGE CONCERN!!!!”

  14. Mr. Prosser says:

    @charon: Sorry, I was writing my comment while you posted yours.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @charon: @Mr. Prosser: Beat me to it also too.

    And I think Biden made a point by taking the position he talks to his peer, the King, not to MBS. There’s a new sheriff in town and we’re not going to MBS saying “Let’s make a deal.” I hope the FBI or somebody is looking into Jared and MBS.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @charon: @gVOR08:
    He can retaliate quite legally by Saudi standards as I suspect a large percentage of US contractors are violating at least a few Saudi laws – being gay, owning a bible, immodest dress, alcohol, weed. . . MBS can easily arrange to ‘catch’ a miscreant or two.

  17. Gustopher says:

    One hopes that there is a stronger, less public response. They bought a lot of planes, and those planes need parts, for instance — a slowdown there can have a lot more impact than a mild sanction against the future head of state.

  18. Sleeping Dog says:

    The Navalny sanctions are correct and a proper response. While I understand the the admin rational, not sanctioning MBS seriously undercuts US efforts to return to the forefront on human rights.

    As far as perceived threats of MBS taking hostages of US citizens, most of the US civilians there are maintaining the country’s oil industry and defense systems. Any move against those civilians would result in thousands of western professionals leaving. But the US’s biggest hammer is that SA is virtually defenseless without the US to back them up. Let us not forget, that it was within the last couple of years that Iran sent a message to MBS in bombing SA oil production facilities.

  19. Kathy says:


    If he did, then he found out on November that his trump card was a lame duck (she said without a hint of irony), and he missed his chance to play it.

  20. Andy says:

    It made far more sense to look the other way at the horrific conduct of the Saudis during the Cold War, when they were a key bulwark in the region against Soviet influence, and even later, when the cooperation of the Saudis in stabilizing oil prices was more crucial.

    There are two more cold wars going on between Iran and Israel and Iran and the Sunni gulf states. And thanks to our kneecapping of Iraq as any kind of regional power, SA is the big player on the Sunni side of both of those conflicts.

    I don’t think it’s about oil anymore, or at least primarily about oil – it’s about the regional balance of power. Basically, we are playing nice with SA because of Iran.

    And the Saudi’s need a patron – they can’t stand on their own. If it’s not us, they will turn to Russia or China. I think the NATSEC establishment fears that slapping them too hard will move them out of our orbit.

  21. Gustopher says:

    @Andy: “He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard” needs a few teeth to make sure “our” bastard isn’t hurting our interests. The Saudis have been a thorn in our side at least since 9/11 — their branch of Islam is not western friendly.

    I’m not saying cut them loose, but we shouldn’t be so afraid of them drifting into the Russian or Chinese orbits that we don’t give them a measured smack when they deserve it. Biden measures very lightly — see the bombing in Syria, which was the least possible potentially effective response to the Iranian backed militia there.

  22. MarkedMan says:

    Five years after the price of oil drops to $10 a barrel, MBS and the other Royals will be hanging from a lamp post

  23. Kathy says:


    I’m not saying cut them loose, but we shouldn’t be so afraid of them drifting into the Russian or Chinese orbits that we don’t give them a measured smack when they deserve it.


    Barbara Tuchman in “The March of Folly,” claims threats from France to cozy up to the Soviets played a part in the decision to support them militarily in Indochina after WWII. This led to the long, bloody debacle in Vietnam.

  24. Sleeping Dog says:


    I’m not saying cut them loose, but we shouldn’t be so afraid of them drifting into the Russian or Chinese orbits…

    Agreed, neither China or Russia is a good fit for SA. China will want them as a vassal and exploit them for oil Russia, due to their own dependence on oil revenue will do whatever it takes to limit SA oil production. SA may turn to Israel and the Israeli air force can assist SA, but w/o US assistance, Israel lacks the logistical capability to project power beyond countries with which they share a border. Without US backing SA, Iran could overrun the country in a few weeks.

  25. Bill says:


    Bill: We’re happy to have conservative and/or Republican viewpoints. Sheer trollish comments having little to nothing to do with the subject at hand, however, are unwelcome. – jhj

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @Bill: It seems to be generally accepted on your side of the aisle that Biden’s mentally incompetent. Got a shred of credible evidence?

  27. Thomm says:

    @Bill: wanna see pics of Trump’s crap stained golf pants? I mean, I wear an adult diaper because of a spinal injury. What is big ol’ manly man’s excuse? When you can show me a pic with piss stained pants on biden, maybe your insults would have some sting.
    Oh and at least jackson lee didn’t turn a blind eye to wrestlers being sexually abused like rising star jim jordan. Personally, I don’t think he turned a blind eye…I think he liked to watch.

  28. Michael Reynolds says:

    You’re peddling tired old shit that no one outside of Cult 45 is interested in. You’re a stupid man, Bill, not competent to comment on anyone’s mental state.

  29. Ken_L says:

    It’s incorrect to imply Biden has done nothing in response to Khashoggi’s murder. As others have observed, his sanctions are at least as severe – or as mild, if you prefer – as the ones on Russia. Bear in mind all he did was declassify a report about an event that occurred two years ago. The US government responded to it at the time, and had ample opportunity to do more once it received the (classified) report. Incoming presidents can’t spend all their time second-guessing everything their predecessors did; it prevents them getting on with their own initiatives and other countries give up in frustration trying to understand what America really wants.

    Khashoggi was a member of a prominent, wealthy Saudi family. He wasn’t killed in America, or under American protection. He was killed by his own government on Saudi Arabian territory. If Americans are going to start sanctioning every government that ruthlessly assassinates its own citizens if it regards them as enemies of the state, it’s going to be very busy. And it will be guilty of atrocious double standards.

    Remember how “Al-Awlaki became the first U.S. citizen to be targeted and killed by a U.S. drone strike without the rights of due process being afforded. President Barack Obama ordered the strike which was effectively ordering the execution of a U.S. citizen without a trial”? As far as I can see, the only significant difference was that in the latter case, no bone saws were involved.

  30. @Michael Reynolds:

    What happens when MBS becomes King?

  31. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Andy: This. We don’t have leverage like we use to anymore. China and Russia are trying to reformat traditional alliances and are actively trying to isolate the United States’ partners everywhere–especially the middle east. Any partner we ghost is an opportunity to lose that partner. Saudi will not go it alone in the Middle East. They are terrified of Iran and rightfully so.

  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Are you contemplating the death of 85 year-old king Salman? That, sir, is treason!

    Very interesting moves taking place in the ME. Israel is making deals with the Arabs. The Palestinians are abandoned. Turks up, Kurds down. Hezbollah losing popularity in Lebanon. Putin probably beginning to wonder why he’s in Syria. Egypt seems sidelined.

    We may have an axis of kings – MBS, Zayed, Abdullah, Bibi. . .

  33. Bill says:

    @gVOR08: I posted the video, but the mods got all “cancel culture” about it! I mean really, he said “what am I doing here “? after flubbing noted Democrats names. C’mon man, he’s losing whatever marbles he’s ever had. No wonder they want to remove his ability to launch the nukes!

  34. Michael Reynolds says:

    You are dishonest and hypocritical.

  35. Bill says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Dementia Joe, again, dazed and confused as usual! Facts are facts Mike, report me to the mods if your feelings are hurt!
    This is after another “virtual meeting” because he can’t do a real press conference with real spontaneous questions!
    “I’m happy to take questions, if that’s what I’m supposed to do, Nance. Whatever you want me to do.”