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.