Rebeca Ibarra: We're back with The Takeaway, I'm Rebeca Ibarra in for Tanzina Vega all week. Recently, the Biden administration released an intelligence report that found that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, approved the operation that resulted in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While the Biden administration announced financial and travel restrictions on those involved in Khashoggi's death, the sanctions do not extend to Mohammed bin Salman.
Here with us to discuss the Biden administration's approach to foreign policy and the status of the US-Saudi relationship is Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs reporter at POLITICO. Nahal, thank you for joining us.
Nahal Toosi: Thanks for having me.
Rebeca: Nahal, talk to me about President Biden's approach to foreign policy so far. Where do you see the starkest differences between the former President Trump's approach to foreign policy and President Biden's approach?
Nahal Toosi: I'd say it's two stark differences. One is a matter of tone, Biden just is a bit calmer, doesn't use Twitter, doesn't throw things out there that are wild and unpredictable and so, I think a lot of people around the world appreciate that. The second big difference I would say is that Biden is more inclined to talk to US allies and partners in a good way, versus President Trump, who often belittled US allies and partners and preferred a more unilateral approach to foreign policy.
Rebeca: Last week, the Biden administration released a report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and a journalist who wrote for The WashingtonPost. What does the report tell us that wasn't already publicly known?
Nahal Toosi: Well, a lot of the report was publicly known. I think this was more a matter of just getting it out there, making the move to fulfill the law, and getting it public. The basic thing is that the intelligence community determined that because Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's de facto control over the country has extensive control, that he was the one who must have ordered the operation that led to the death of Jamal Khashoggi. They put the responsibility on him and it's the clearest indication, the most visible one of the US putting the blame on Mohammed bin Salman. The Trump administration did not want to release this report, largely because they didn't want to affect the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Rebeca: In 2019, during a debate, Biden was asked if he would punish senior Saudi leaders for Khashoggi's death, and this is what he said.
President Biden: Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered and I believe in the order of the Crown Prince, and I would make it very clear, we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are. There's very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.
Rebeca: How is that rhetoric different from what we're hearing from the White House today?
Nahal Toosi: When it comes to the Crown Prince himself, the White House has not put any sanctions on him or taken any moves that directly target the Crown Prince, but the Biden administration will argue that they are punishing Saudi Arabia as a whole and that the Crown Prince is being named and shamed to a certain degree. They are reducing our cooperation with the Saudis in places like Yemen. They have put dozens of Saudis on visa restrictions lists as a result of this, but the critics will say, look, it's not enough to go for underlings and make moves that down the line can easily be reversed.
You have to go after bin Salman himself to set a standard and to make the point. The Crown Prince is in his mid-30s, he could rule the kingdom for decades when his father dies so people really want to send a message to him now.
Rebeca: Members of Congress say they're concerned over the lack of accountability for members of the Saudi government, is there space for Congress to take action if they find Biden's approach to be inadequate?
Nahal Toosi: Sure. We're already seeing some legislation introduced to try to ban Mohammed bin Salman from coming to the United States and take other moves against him and there is a lot of antipathy toward the Crown Prince and the Saudi government on the hill right now and it crosses both parties. There is space for some legislation to perhaps possibly make it to Biden's desk. Now, there's no guarantee of that and he could veto it and if he does, there might not be enough support to override that veto. At the end of the day though, with so many different foreign crises, it's questionable how quickly people in Congress are going to want to take this up.
Rebeca: Nahal, has Mohammed bin Salman or other members of the Saudi government attempted to address this tension?
Nahal Toosi: I have not seen anything from the Crown Prince himself. The Saudi Government has rejected the report that was released the other day. They have claimed that this was a rogue operation and there's no indication that the Crown Prince himself is going to take responsibility. I doubt that will ever happen. Certainly not anytime soon.
Rebeca: Last month, President Biden did announce that the US would stop providing offensive support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but what do we know about how the Biden administration is thinking about arms sales to the kingdom more generally?
Nahal Toosi: I think you're going to see stricter scrutiny; they are reviewing some of these arms sales, and I think there is definitely going to be some efforts to reduce the possibility that the US would sell offensive weapons to the Saudis, but the possibility that they might sell defensive weapons like anti-missile batteries or whatever, that exists. The problem is that a lot of arms experts will tell you that, there are a lot of weapons where you're not really sure whether they're offensive or defensive so it could come down to definitions.
Rebeca: Then just this week, the Biden administration announced sanctions on senior members of the Russian government related to the poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny leader of the opposition. Why is it that President Biden is willing to penalize senior members of the Russian government over Saudi Arabian officials?
Nahal Toosi: Russia is a US adversary, and Saudi Arabia is a US partner, and that's what it comes down to. We know the Russians are going to work against us on virtually every level, not every level, but a lot of levels. In theory, the Saudis are supposed to be our partners, and they're helping us in things like fighting terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and there are efforts to lower tensions between Arab States and Israel that the Saudi Arabia is a key part of as well. That's what it comes down to, it's easier to beat up on somebody who's your avowed adversary than your partner.
Rebeca: Tell us more about Iran?
Nahal Toosi: The rise of Iran and its activities in the Middle East are of great concern to the United States and Israel, as well as America's Arab allies. Even the Biden administration views Iran as a major threat, just as the Trump administration did, and they want to cooperate with the Saudis and others in trying to contain Iran not simply for its nuclear program, but also for its use of proxy forces, its ballistic missile program. It's all sorts of things that the US sees Iran as being culpable for.
Rebeca: Lastly, Nahal, what will you be looking out for when it comes to President Biden's approach to diplomacy?
Nahal Toosi: I'm actually really interested in seeing how much of what he does actually changes behavior on the world stage. So far, they're making statements, they're issuing sanctions, they're doing all sorts of things, but I haven't seen a lot of behavior change. Someone was telling me, well, that might be too high a bar and I was just like, "Well, then what's the point if we can't change behavior on the world stage?" That's one of those things that I'm going to keep a close eye on. I think Mohammed bin Salman is actually one of the examples I want to see, are these actions against the Saudi government, if not him himself, going to actually change his behavior? I think that remains to be seen.
Rebeca: We have to leave it there. Nahal, thank you for joining us.
Nahal Toosi: Thanks for having me.
Rebeca: Nahal Toosi is a foreign affairs reporter at POLITICO.
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