7/7 CFR Virtual Press Briefing: Previewing Biden's Trip to the Middle East
ROBBINS: Thanks so much. Hi. I’m Carla Robbins. I’m a senior fellow here at the Council, and I also run a master’s program at the City University of New York and I am a fallen journalist.
Anyway, today’s briefing is on President Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East. And you all know my colleagues. So my very brief introductions are not going to begin to do justice to their incredible expertise.
Martin Indyk is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and U.S. ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in the Clinton administration. His latest book is Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy.
Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at CFR and an expert on Arab and Turkish politics, as well as U.S. Middle East policy. He’s also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. And his next book, soon to be published, is The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East.
We share with you their new CFR special report, The Case for a New U.S.-Saudi Strategic Compact, as well as their very fine piece in Foreign Affairs, which I commend to you.
So our format is the usual one. Steven, Martin, and I will have a discussion for about 25 minutes or so, and then we’ll throw it open for your questions.
So Martin, Ambassador, if I might start with you, nearly all the attention so far about this trip has been focused on the Saudi leg and whether or not the president is going to—I’m going to have “leg” and “hand” in this sentence—(laughs)—will shake the hand of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man the U.S. intelligence community says ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Before he gets to Saudi, he’s going to Israel and the West Bank. So can we start there? What should we be looking for from that part of the trip? And can President Biden realistically, given that Israel is once again in a state of political limbo—has a caretaker prime minister, new elections coming up in November—can he get anything done on that trip?
INDYK: Thank you, Carla. And good afternoon, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
The original intention of this trip was to just do Israel. I don’t think Saudi Arabia was actually on the itinerary originally. That was before Ukraine, before the spike in oil prices. And it was essentially to show the flag, demonstrate the president’s pro-Israel credentials and that of his administration, in advance of the midterm elections in the United States.
It was a question of, if not now, when? That was before the Israeli government collapsed. That was before things turned sour over the killing of the Palestinian journalist. We’ve got a Palestinian journalist killed as well as a Saudi journalist killed. And so the environment has changed quite a bit now.
And to answer your question directly, it’s going to be hard for him to get much done. He will embrace, I think, very warmly the prime minister ad interim, the caretaker prime minister as he’s called, Yair Lapid, who is a centrist moderate, much like Joe Biden himself.
And it’s no secret that Joe Biden and his advisers have no love for Bibi Netanyahu and wouldn’t like to see him come in. But on the other hand, there’s a sorry history of presidents from Clinton to Trump intervening in Israeli politics to try to get their man elected, and that hasn’t gone well for any of them.
So I think that while Biden will want to show his friendship for Israel and his friendship for Prime Minister Lapid, it’s all going to be a little moderated.
ROBBINS: So he’s—also, before we get to that, he’s going to probably—he has to meet with Bibi, right? He’s the head of the opposition. Is Bibi going to diss him the way he dissed Barack Obama all the time?
INDYK: I don’t think so. I’m not exactly sure of the arrangement. As I understood a while ago, it was that they’d have a kind of pull-aside at the dinner that President Bougie Herzog will be hosting for President Biden. They’ll meet there. I warrant that there’ll be no photo op or Q&A. They’ll probably issue a photo afterwards.
It’s traditional and appropriate for the president to meet the leader of the opposition, as former Prime Minister Netanyahu is at the moment. So I think they’ll try to deal with it in as lowkey a manner as possible. And I think that Netanyahu is not interested in picking a fight with Joe Biden at this point. So my guess is it’ll go off fairly quietly.
ROBBINS: So Steven, President Biden has been talking about how Israel is the focus of this trip, probably as a way to avoid talking about Saudi Arabia as the focus. And we will get to Saudi Arabia. He’s going to go to the West Bank as well. But before we jump to the West Bank, he’s been talking a lot about how he wants to move the Abraham Accords forward and use this trip as a way of talking about improving even further Israeli security.
Is that, you know, a realistic thing to happen? You know, as Martin said, a caretaker government. But has the administration been actually making progress in this time that it hasn’t been going to the Middle East? And is that something that we can assess this trip on?
COOK: Yeah, it’s a great question, Carla. And thanks, everybody, for tuning in with us this afternoon.
I think that the administration certainly can push things forward with the Israelis in the region more broadly, even under a caretaker government. In many ways the legitimization of Israel as a security partner for Arab countries has been proceeding apace, regardless of what the United States diplomacy has.
The countries of the region—the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Bahrainis—the Bahrainis have an IDF officer in the Israeli embassy there, something that could not happen without Saudi permission. We know that the Israeli defense minister revealed a Middle East air defense network a number of weeks ago.
These are all kind of willing participants in security with the Israelis, which is, I think, a very, very important development. I think that the big case here is going to be what steps, if any, can the administration nudge the Saudis towards normalization with the Israelis. I think, you know, as Martin pointed out, this trip was originally an Israel-focused trip. Now there’s, you know, Saudi Arabia and the GCC plus three, and I2U2 meetings have been added on. I think symbolically—
ROBBINS: Is that an Irish rock group, the I2U2? (Laughs.)
COOK: Israel, India, United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
ROBBINS: Thank you. (Laughs.)
COOK: You know, this is great. We have MBS, I2U2, all kinds of acronyms coming out of this. But I think what’s—I think the idea that the president is going to fly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, the first such public flight, it’s sort of symbolic of Israel’s legitimization into the region. And particularly the beginning of that, the real—(audio break)—of that has been security.
It's somewhat awkward for the United States, though, because in ways the Israelis and its neighbors have developed a strategic consensus that the United States has kind of been on the outside of with regard to Iran and with regard to changes in the region that people had hoped for after the uprisings. But nevertheless, I think everybody agrees the United States is critical to advancing not just the circle of peace but a regional security architecture that everybody’s looking for.
ROBBINS: So Martin, Steven brought up Iran, which seems pretty central for this. They are within arm’s length of having enough fuel to make a nuclear weapon; not necessarily having the hardware for it, but—and the last meeting—you know, the EU facilitating the meeting in Qatar went nowhere. What’s the president’s message going to be when he’s in Israel and, as well, throughout talking to the GCC on the question of Iran? Is it: Chill, we still—we’re still working on this? Or is he going to begin to talk about plan B on this trip?
INDYK: The administration has a great aversion to talking about plan B in any circumstances, and that would include this trip as well. They’re still planning to play out the clock, and the clock is ticking as the sunset clause kicks in in 2025. And the administration has been warning in the past, you know, there’s only weeks to go before it becomes impossible to continue, and that weeks has turned into months. So I think they will continue to play out that game.
And frankly, and interestingly, the Israeli position is kind of wanting to have it both ways. They oppose the agreement. They say it’s a bad agreement. But, on the other hand, they are not pushing the administration to call it quits. And significant voices in the defense establishment in Israel are now saying, actually, you know, it wouldn’t be so bad to have an agreement, even at this late stage, that shipped out all of that partially enriched—60 percent enriched uranium, which is what’s putting the Iranians on the threshold of at least enough weapons-grade material to make a bomb. And that would at least—if it was shipped out under the agreement, it would at least give Israel some more time to prepare its plan B, which involves sanctions, and containment, and deterrence, and a potential military strike.
So I don’t think that there’s going to be a clash or disagreement here. There’ll be some statement by Lapid, you know, that doesn’t agree with it. And I expect that the focus, rather than on the issue of will Iran come back or not, will be on Iran’s problematic, threatening behavior in the region, because that is the glue that Steven referred to that brings Israel and the Sunni Arab states together. And that is the basis—the strategic basis upon which I think that President Biden wants to now build what I would call a new kind of strategic vision for the region, which I believe will unfold in Jeddah. I’ll get to that, but it’s essentially one in which Israel and the Sunni Arab states step up to counter Iran, and the United States is supporting them. The most obvious manifestation of that will be this integrated defense system against Iranian missiles, rockets, drones, et cetera, in which Israel has a vital role to play.
So that normalization process, which was fueled originally by a common perception of threat from Iran, is something that I think that President Biden is also going to embrace in a way in which President Obama, for example, did not. And that will be the underlying story of this trip, in my opinion.
ROBBINS: So much more about the conventional threat and the ability to take the responsibility themselves with the U.S. providing technology and backup. So—and then much more for the Jeddah part.
So I would be remiss if I left Israel and the West Bank without talking about the West Bank. So, Steven—
INDYK: You would, yes. (Laughs.)
ROBBINS: I know. We’re rewatching Fauda at home right now—(laughter)—and just really—it’s just—I just, when I think about—we were in Madrid. You know, we’re always like—it’s just never changing.
Nevertheless, back to talking about a two-state solution. Is there going to be— anything going to happen on that front? Is Biden, you know, just going to tip his hat and say I really care about it, or are they coming with any idea at all?
COOK: Well, you know, generally I would defer to Martin on this given how much time he has spent on it, but I think the answer is pretty straightforward.
ROBBINS: (Laughs.) Perhaps best not subjecting him now to that. (Laughs.)
COOK: Right. I’m going to save him. He’s a valued colleague.
You know, the Biden administration has done a number of things with regard to the Palestinians. They have reestablished relations with the Palestinians. Those are, you know, step forwards. You know, at least there is dialogue in which—where there wasn’t with the—with the Trump administration. But thus far, the president really hasn’t evinced any strong commitment or interest in pushing a two-state solution.
He's more than likely going to say it. But you know, the obstacles to progress remain as they have been, and once again he doesn’t seem like he’s terribly interested in moving this forward. And one can understand why, given the fact that you have a(n) Israeli government that is clearly in transition. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Mahmoud Abbas is in the seventeenth year of his four-year term. A deeply divided Palestinian political leadership. And what we know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what we’ve known for a long time, is that the minimum requirements for peace cannot be satisfied by either side. And no matter which way in which the United States has tried—and perhaps Martin—(laughs)—is a living example of this—it has been very, very hard to alter the interests and incentives of the parties, not for lack of American trying.
So, in addition, I think the Palestinians are in a particularly sour mood over the statement from the State Department with regard to the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. It was—I tweeted it was transparently weaselly. There was no real investigation. It was really kind of splitting the difference, and it made no one happy, particularly the Palestinians very unhappy. I thought the better way to go was to actually have an FBI investigation of her death. So I don’t expect much progress there.
ROBBINS: So final jeopardy just on this part of the trip, which is, Martin, if—you know, we journalists tend to want to assess whether a trip is successful or not. You know, what are the—what are the metrics you would be using for success or failure for this trip? What should we be watching for? What are you predicting? And do that all in forty seconds.
INDYK: On the first—I presume you’re talking about the leg because the second leg—
ROBBINS: On the first leg of the trip. On the first.
INDYK: Yes. So the first leg is basically get out there without a new settlement announcement, something that Vice President Biden experienced early on when he visited. Get out of there without a terrorist attack. You know, kind of get out of there without a major protest on the Palestinian side because, as Steven says, there’s a sour mood there. They’re disappointed. The president promised to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem for the Palestinians. He hasn’t done that.
He’s going to visit Abu Mazen, the Palestinian leader, in Bethlehem, and so that’s good. They appreciate that compared to the way they were—they were dealt with by President Trump. There will be some new aid announced to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, but it’s really small beer. And I think Steven’s right; the Palestinians are going to be quite disappointed.
The Israelis will be happy to have the president there. He’ll say some positive things and announce that, you know, the visa restrictions will be removed in a year’s time or something like that. But the visit is the message. And there will be a lot of that same old, basically tired rhetoric about how the United States and Israel are steadfast allies, and the United States wants to see a two-state solution with equal measures of freedom and dignity for both.
But the reality is the focus of the administration’s efforts is not Israeli-Palestinian peace, to state the obvious. It’s all about dealing with the strategic challenge that comes from Iran, both to Israel and to Saudi Arabia and the other Arabs that President Biden will be meeting in Jeddah.
ROBBINS: So, Steven, do you want to add to that or should we move onto the next—the next leg?
COOK: I think we should move on to the more interesting stop.
ROBBINS: OK. So not long ago President Biden was vowing to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state. Now he’s going there. The White House is trying to lower expectations that the visit is going to bring down gas prices. But if it’s not all about gas, gas, gas—and I’m skeptical—what’s going on?
And I might add that the president seemed less than enthusiastic about the visit when asked about it in Madrid. He said, yeah, maybe I’ll meet with the king, maybe I’ll meet with the crown price; you know, I’m sort of going to be in Saudi Arabia, but I’m not, like, really going to Saudi Arabia.
So, what’s going on with this trip? Why is he going? And what is he really going to try and accomplish?
COOK: Well, I’ll start, and then I’m sure Martin has his own thoughts on this.
I think there’s a number of issues on President Biden’s mind. And you’re quite right; you know, this is the pariah who’s not the pariah, and the Saudis have proven themselves right that the president would need them at some point. And certainly, I think the story about oil and gas is part of it. If you look at what the administration has been doing, they want to be seen as trying to do everything that they possibly can to relieve pain at the pump for Americans, and one of those things is, obviously, getting the Saudis to pump more, something that they haven’t been willing to do; they’re not willing to break their agreement with OPEC+, which means their agreement with the Russians. And there’s, I think, an important question whether the Saudis actually have the capacity to produce more.
But I’m not sure it’s necessarily whether the president is going to fly with some agreement in hand that the Saudis are going to start pumping more oil tomorrow. I think the bigger issue—and this is something that Martin and I raised in our Council special report, which is that there be some steps towards an understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States about how the Saudis would be helpful going forward in balancing the energy market so that we don’t find ourselves in this situation once again, to the extent that they can, because they still are the biggest low-cost producer out there that can make a difference.
I think, obviously, there’s a number of other issues on the president’s mind and that’s, you know, obviously a question of human rights, and connected to that is Yemen, pushing some public step on normalization, and the topic we haven’t spoken about which is the great-power competition in the region, as well as Iran, and those are all kind of all folded in together in security. And we’ve seen how some of our partners have drifted away or tried to play both ends of the stick on Russia and deeply involved with the Chinese, and I think that in part the president going to a GCC+3 meeting and sort of leading—you know, reasserting American leadership there is something, symbolically, that they want to do.
What the Saudis in particular and others are going to want in response from the United States is an enhanced commitment to security and stability in the region, and what form that they may take we’re starting to see with the, you know, air defense security architecture. I mean, Saudi’s opening bid was for a NATO-like commitment, which is not likely to happen, but there’s room for negotiation, as Martin and I lay out in this report, for things about, you know, ranging from a strategic framework agreement all the way up to something akin to what the United States has with regard to Taiwan.
So I think the agenda in Saudi Arabia is actually fuller. It has a number of risks for the president. Meeting the crown prince is certainly a risk. If you just look at the pictures of the crown prince and President Erdoğan, certainly President Biden does not want to be in a similar type of situation, but it is a fuller, richer—an agenda that has some significant opportunity, I think more so than the Israel-Palestine leg of it.
ROBBINS: So, Martin, the new report and piece that you wrote with Steven is very ambitious. It asks a lot of the United States and, you know, commitments—a range of commitments, as Steven noted, potentially militarily, but it also asks a lot of the Saudis. I suppose two questions I have is—one is, do you have a sense that the administration is thinking that way? And, two, do you think the Saudis are really willing to make the sort of changes—they always talk about reforms and very little follow-through from them.
INDYK: Yeah. I don’t think that Steven and I ever intended that this ambitious idea should be something—or would be something—that could be achieved on the president’s trip; rather, we argue that it would be wise to try to establish a roadmap for an updated relationship which takes into account the problems that have plagued the relationship in the last decade, particularly once Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, came into control there. And this—we think that this should be the first step on the road to a renovated relationship. And the alternative, which is essentially a return to the old realist deal—you, Saudi Arabia, provide the oil, we’ll provide the security and we’ll sweep everything else under the rug—is a recipe for a return to the screwed up relationship which we now have with Saudi Arabia.
So I think, on the one hand, there is a pragmatic deal that does need to be done on this trip, which is, basically, MBS, the crown prince, agrees to pump more oil and President Biden agrees to take him out of the penalty box. And I think that the president is making a mistake by making it look as if he’s holding his nose as he goes into this, you know, really doesn’t want to shake his hand, because the American people want to see the price of their gas come down, you know, I would say almost universally, with the exception of a few people who legitimately are concerned about MBS’s human rights record, not just in terms of his ordering the killing and dismembering of the Saudi journalist, Khashoggi, but more generally, you know, human rights record in Saudi Arabia. That’s an issue which I hope that the president will raise with them. I expect that he will do that. But the issue of the moment is to get the Saudis to pump more oil, and that’s just the reality. Unfortunately, the sense of arrogance—I was just in Riyadh last week—the sense of arrogance coming out of there, well, yeah, now the president’s going to have to eat crow and kiss the ring and we always knew that would be the case because we’re too important, versus, on the president’s side, this kind of, well, I’m not really going there to shake the hand is, I think—it’s a recipe now for a suboptimal outcome, and I think that that’s a mistake, that basically should understand—both sides should understand that they need to find a way to work with each other and set the direction in the future for a better relationship, which includes ending the war in Yemen, which includes bringing the people to account who actually dismembered Khashoggi, and a commitment to better behavior on the part of the crown prince towards his own people. But without that broader roadmap, I think that the opportunity here is going to be missed, unfortunately.
ROBBINS: So I want to turn it over to the group that’s here and I’m going to give you the last word for your Final Jeopardy for this: How do we assess success, failure on this leg of the trip? Are there deliverables for the GCC meeting or are you going to be keeping your eye mainly on sword dances with the Saudis or—(laughs)—what’s your—what are your metrics of deliverables for this part of it?
COOK: I’m not a sword dance or orb kind of guy. I think that we have to look at what—where they start on reweaving the relationship, and that’s the—I think that’s the important thing and that’s what Martin and I have emphasized. But in the immediate sense, can the president get some sort of commitment from the Saudis on energy or at least look to be doing that? What does—what steps does the GCC+3 with the United States take towards further developing regional security architecture, and how does that include Israel? As I said before, we see the legitimization of Israel as a security partner; what steps are they publicly willing to take?
There are certain members within the GCC who are willing to take it, but there are holdouts. The Kuwaitis. The Qataris are ambivalent. The Omanis have hosted an Israeli prime minister but remain ambivalent. You have others, the Iraqis, who are going to be there, who don’t want to do it. But how can we—how can they finesse those issues? And I think those are really the important pieces that we’ll be looking for. I don’t think—you know, the administration is, you know, lowering expectations. I think that that’s entirely appropriate. The president is going a long way, but this is going to be a long process. The changes in the Middle East are very, very new and they are reversible.
So those few discrete issues, I think, are going to be the most important. Whether the president—I know people are going to be fixated on the president and the crown prince, and that is obviously an important thing, and people are legitimately concerned about human rights, but there’s a broader strategic relationship and concerns for the United States in the region.
INDYK: Could I just add, Carla, that one thing that is likely to come out of it is going to be some small steps towards normalization with Israel. I think that is going to happen. The Israelis have very high expectations that something dramatic will happen. I suspect that that’s not going to happen because we’re dealing with Saudi Arabia and they’re reluctant. They want to see progress on the Palestinians and so on.
But beyond the strategic level, there will be, it appears, some agreement that Israeli commercial airlines can fly out of Saudi Arabia en route to Asia, perhaps, direct flights for Israeli and Palestinian Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca directly from Israeli airports and these kinds of things, which indicate the direction that, I think, the crown prince, clearly, wants to go.
But it also signals that it’s going to be a slow process as long as there’s no progress on the Palestinian front that they can point to that would provide them with a cover.
And just one other point to stress here is that there is, as part of this process that Steven is describing of Israeli-Sunni Arab integration, on the strategic level there is also what’s called the Negev process, which brings together the countries that have normalized with Israel, countries that have made peace with Israel—the Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan—in a regional framework that is addressing regional challenges to do with climate change and economic development and these kinds of things, and that process is something that the Biden administration has nurtured and is beginning to take off as well.
So the overall picture is going to be one in which, I think, that we’re going to see that the Saudis will step up, over time, their oil production. The Emiratis will as well. Hopefully, there’ll be something that signals the market that that is going to be the case from September on when the OPEC+ quota agreement runs out, and beyond that, this strategic—the emergence of this strategic alliance—the Abraham Accords axis, if you’d like to call it that—with American support, and I think the president will lay out that kind of strategic vision in his presentation to the GCC+—Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq—the meeting that he will be addressing—participating in at the end of this trip.
ROBBINS: Thanks. So I want to open it up. I’m going to turn it back for the directions to everyone about how to ask questions, and I’m sure there’s lots of questions. So please remind everyone how to ask a question.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Back to you, Carla.
ROBBINS: Great. Thanks so much.
We have a question from—is it Ching-Yi Chang, who’s—identify yourself and share your question.
Q: Hi. I’m Ching-Yi Chang with Shanghai Media Group.
I have a question on this I2U2. Will this become a security alliance?
And the other question is actually on Jordanian king, Abdullah II. The other day he said he’d support the forming of a Middle East NATO. Is there any possibility and do you think that President Biden will discuss this issue with the Middle East leaders?
ROBBINS: Jump in.
COOK: Well, since I brought up I2U2, I guess I will answer that piece of the question and leave the question of the Middle East NATO to Martin.
You know, it’s no secret that the Indian government has been keenly interested in participating in and benefiting from the Abraham Accords, and there’s going to be an American-Israeli-Indian-Emirati research center that’s set up in Dubai to do kind of basic research.
You know, the Israelis already have a robust security relationship with the Indians, and as they have a robust—developing robust relationship with the Emiratis, I think that there’s an opportunity here for all of those countries to get together.
I think the focus is mostly going to be with regard to counterterrorism and extremism, and all of those three countries can, you know, bring their expertise to bear on that issue. And I think it’s something that—you know, quite obviously, all three countries as well as the United States, and United States for its own interests in terms of what it sees is its future in the Indo-Pacific and, I think, have a real interest in nurturing these relationships.
So I expect that, you know, we’re going to start at a kind of low level but that, certainly, counterterrorism cooperation, which already exists among these three countries, will be on that agenda as well.
INDYK: If the question, given that’s the Shanghai Post—that’s what the name of the journal is—is wondering whether this I2U2 format is directed at China, I don’t believe that that is the case in terms of its purpose.
But there is a broader strategic context, which is that the United States is placing a priority on dealing with China’s assertiveness in Asia and, of course, Russia’s aggression in Europe. And that has been portrayed as America turning its back on the Middle East, particularly by our allies and partners in the Middle East. And I think the message that the president wants to send by this visit and by this I2U2 meeting—well, it’ll be a virtual one in Israel, but that’s part of this symbolism. It is that we’re not—the United States is not leaving the Middle East. It’s shifting the way that it’s dealing with its interests in the Middle East because it necessarily has to make Asia and Europe its priorities. It’s going to be looking to its partners, Israel and the Sunni Arab states the president will be meeting with in Jeddah, to step up and the United States will shift from being the dominant player in the region to be the supporting of this new architectural framework for protecting America’s strategic interests in the region and the strategic interests of our allies and partners there.
ROBBINS: So I have a follow-up question while I’m waiting for more questions to come in. There are—come on, you guys. You’ve got questions or you wouldn’t have—we wouldn’t have both taken the time to do this.
So can you talk—either or both of you talk a little bit more about how much there-there there is in this new security architecture? Because we’ve heard from the Obama—I’m sorry, the Biden—which administration are we in?—the Biden administration a lot about, you know, IPEF and, you know, they’ve got this new thing for Latin America. There’s a lot of acronym-y stuff going on out there. But they haven’t put any real structure to any of these relationships. But it seems as if there’s something substantive there.
The Israelis are now talking about how there’s really some air defense agreements. We know behind the scenes for a long time there have been security dialogues. And it’s something that the Israelis can, certainly, add to the region because they’re very good at that.
Can you talk a little bit more about what we’ve learned and what role the United States can play in facilitating this integration—the security integration, which is, as you said, all about Iran?
COOK: Martin, you want to go ahead and take that?
INDYK: No. Go ahead, Steve.
COOK: (Laughs.) Well—
INDYK: I’ll be happy to. (Laughs.)
COOK: No. No. I just—bounce back and forth here.
Look, I think that the—I think that there is more to this than just talk. I think, clearly, the United States wants to provide the tools to its regional partners to establish a regional imbalance that allows the United States to attend to its interests in Asia and Europe.
You know, political scientists like myself have some—we call that something. It’s called offshore balancing. It doesn’t have a great track record in reality but, nevertheless, this is what it’s clear that the administration is seeking to do. It doesn’t indicate an American withdrawal from the region. The United States can be in the region in a different kind of way.
But it’s not just acronyms, and I think that the president’s meetings, particularly the GCC+3 meeting, is part of the effort to kind of grow what it is that we’ve begun there. That is, clearly, about the Iranian challenge. I think that the administration did not calculate that getting back into the JCPOA would be as arduous as it has been and I think that they also are responding to what we all call great power competition now—the Russian malevolent activity not just in Europe but also throughout the Middle East and the Chinese presence there that is, clearly, unnerving to the United States if not necessarily our partners in the region.
But it is, as Martin said, a way in which the United States is going to be doing business in securing its interests in the region in a way that is different from, let’s say, arguably, the period of 1991 up through the invasion of Iraq because suddenly the global order is quite different.
But just to get to the core of your question, there is something there and there is clearly an interest on the part of our partners on working together under the auspices of the United States.
INDYK: Let me jump in on the question about NATO that was also raised.
You know, labeling it in that way, I think, would be counterproductive for two reasons. The region has bad history with that kind of labeling, from the Baghdad Pact back in the 1950s onwards.
But secondly, I don’t think the administration is yet in a position to make a kind of NATO-like Article 5 commitment to the defense of our allies and partners there. But it’s—this is laying the foundations. And that is the direction that you’ll end up going, even though I think that there will be real hesitation about making that kind of commitment.
I say that because, as Iran approaches the threshold of nuclear-weapons capability and over time we prove unable to prevent it from at least being kind of a screwdriver turn away from having nuclear weapons, there is going to be real pressure on the other Arab states to engage in a nuclear-arms race, acquire their own capabilities, and a lot of pressure on Israel to take preemptive action or bring its own capabilities, rumored capabilities, out of the basement. And then we have a deeply destabilizing situation.
So eventually I think the framework that we see being laid now by the Biden administration will emerge into a kind of deterrent commitment, including at the nuclear level, nuclear deterrence provided for by the United States as a way of short-circuiting a nuclear-arms race, at least. But I think that’s off in the future.
ROBBINS: So we have several questions in the chat. From a corporate member, Amy Conroy, who asks—says she can’t go on audio: Several analysts argue that the price of oil is likely related more to limited refining capacity and not just the quant of crude production, especially since KSA, meaning the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, can’t greatly increase production. If this is true, isn’t Biden’s visit a loss re energy and public image if it doesn’t bring the price down?
COOK: Well, I think it’s clear that there is a lack of refining capacity. This is what—the Saudis have said that’s the problem. There’s been this massive underinvestment in refining capacity.
ROBBINS: Well, it says that Amy Conroy works with Shell. I just wanted to add that. I just had that texted me—texted to me.
COOK: Well, Amy probably would know better than I would, but I’m more than happy to offer you what I know.
The Saudis have said it over and over, along with the Emiratis, that the problem is really refining capacity and that they, you know, do not want to break their agreement with OPEC Plus. As I said at the opening, I think that the real issue here is for perception case and that the administration has been looking for every possible way to demonstrate to the American public, especially as we get closer to November, that it is doing everything it possibly can to bring the price of gas down from the, you know, whatever it is, close to five dollars where I live and close to seven dollars where, you know, people on the West Coast.
I think it’s likely the case that the Saudis don’t have the ability to bring down the price of oil as quickly as they can or as quickly as many people would like to believe. Again, that doesn’t mean that that is a marker of success or failure of the trip. I think overall, yes, the administration obviously, for political reasons, would like the price of gas to come down. It does seem like it’s drifting down anyway. But in a broader way, this is about reweaving a relationship with a very, very important country. And this is the beginning of that.
So I think, you know, kind of short term, what do we get out of this and what’s going to have—yes, that is certainly an issue. But what we’ve been most interested in is how to set up this relationship in the long term so that it—some of these problems that have been plaguing it can be resolved without there being and avoiding a breach in the relationship, which is neither good for the United States nor Saudi Arabia.
ROBBINS: So Rosiland Jordan from, I believe, Al Jazeera asks, has the White House made a strong enough case for engaging with Saudi Arabia, given its human-rights record? What does it need to change in its messaging? I assume meaning the White House’s messaging.
And then also there’s a question from Darren Mitchell (sp) about Congress’s role in this and whether the White House has been managing this. Certainly some of the harshest criticisms, when the White House announced the trip, certainly the stop in Jeddah, came from members of the president’s own party and some rather outspoken members, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So are we going to see that, or did they sort of just shoot off their (role ?) and now it’s they’re all—they’re all going to be calm? Do you think they’re going to be able to handle the human-rights issue well, Martin?
INDYK: I think it’s going to be—
ROBBINS: You’ve been inside when they—when they plan these things.
INDYK: Yeah, I haven’t had to deal with this one. And I think that it’s going to be hard to manage, very hard to manage, partly because, as I said before, the president is just not comfortable in this situation dealing with the crown prince. I don’t think yet he’s figured out a way to handle that that is convincing.
We always talk about human-rights issues. The president always talks about human-rights issues when he goes to countries where there are problems. And I’m quite sure he’s going to do that again. And he needs to do that.
As for Congress, it’s a bigger problem than just criticism to him going there. You know, as I said, I don’t think the criticism is worth him worrying about. I think he’s overdoing it, because the American people understand he’s trying to get the price of gas down. And most people will applaud that effort, even though it may take a little time to play itself out.
But Congress presents a problem to this broader strategic effort that we’ve been describing here, because they’re holding up arms sales. They have a kind of scleretic—sclerotic, excuse me—system there that is really impeding efforts to try to create this supportive role for the United States.
It’s not just Saudi Arabia’s arms sales that are being held up. It’s other countries like the Emirates as well, even though there’s overall support for those kinds of sales. And I think the administration is going to have to spend more time working the Hill and trying to get the Hill to embrace this broader strategic vision as well. Otherwise it’s just going to be very difficult to fulfill the expectations that the president is going to create.
ROBBINS: So I—
COOK: Let me—
ROBBINS: Please, Steven.
COOK: I just wanted to add quickly on this question of human rights is that I think that, you know, at the outset I can understand why President Biden wanted to make a very big deal about adding values and making values an important part of American foreign policy, given the previous four years in the administration and that administration’s kind of, you know, willful disregard of those issues.
But I’m afraid, when it came to Saudi Arabia and with other countries, quite honestly, the administration did not give itself enough room for maneuver. This is not just a problem with Saudi Arabia. The president was forced to deal with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt, who he’s also going to see when he goes to the GCC plus three. You know, Sisi presides over a profoundly repressive regime. And there was a way to register our concern about human rights without putting the president in a situation where he looks as if he’s going hat in hand now, something the Saudis saw as, you know, entirely foreseeable.
I do want to point out, though, and, you know, with reference to Martin, his vast experience in the U.S. government, when it has come to making these choices between, you know, values and what our strategic interests are or gas prices for the average American driving around in, you know, their giant SUV, those strategic interests and the well-being of, you know, someone driving around in a Ford Expedition have always come first, at the expense of brave activists in the region who want to live in more open and democratic systems.
ROBBINS: So cynical for one so young, Steven Cook.
COOK: I’m older than I look. I’m glad the question, though, from Al Jazeera, given my Tamim scarf just over my shoulder here. So you should get good coverage, Martin.
ROBBINS: Martin, can I go back—and I do want to then go on on that question because human rights is not the only tradeoff. There’s a climate tradeoff, and there’s a good question about that in the chat. But before we go to that, Martin, I want to—I want to go back, drawing on your vast experience—Steven’s emphasizing your age here—(laughs)—
COOK: Yeah, at a painfully young age Martin’s vast experience, I should have said.
ROBBINS: So you made a very good point about Biden’s ambivalence as well as—you know, you were just in Riyadh and you’re worried about—that they’re not preparing the president to handle this well. He’s quite an experienced diplomat. He’s got a lot of experience traveling around the world and he tends to shine better out of the country than in the country, where everybody’s talking about how weakened he is and the Dems are jumping on him right now because they’re afraid about what’s going to happen in the midterms. So if they were to bring you in as an expert adviser and as someone who just came back from Riyadh, what would you tell them about how he handles that potential face to face with MBS? How does he handle it?
INDYK: Actually, I think Brett McGurk, his Middle East adviser at the National Security Council, has just been out there trying to massage this. First of all, just before I give you my opinion what to do, the way it’s set up now, people may not be aware, it is not what the president described, as just going to a regional meeting and he’ll see MBS there—you know, maybe there will be a pull-aside or something. There is a day on which they’re going to be dealing with Saudi Arabia and the next day they’ll have the GCC+3 meeting.
So this is going to—there is going to be an engagement. I think it will be with the king present so there will be three of them rather than two, and that will probably be the photo op. That’s maybe some way of ameliorating the tension. But the tension’s going to be there. The president is not going to want to be seen shaking his hand and smiling with the crown prince, and that’s exactly what the crown prince is going to be wanting. So how they handle that choreography of that particular handshake is something that I would be trying to work the president on, trying to work the crown prince on as well. You do not want to leave that one to chance. There should be no kissing, for example. (Laughter.)
ROBBINS: So but what would you be telling President Biden? And what should McGurk be telling the Saudis right now? Since it’s, obviously, in the interest of both of these countries to not have this come out looking like a disaster.
INDYK: Yeah, right. I mean, I think the president’s mature enough and has had enough experience, even though I think his dislike for the crown prince is palpable, that he’s going to have to, you know, suck it up and be nice. Doesn’t have to embrace him. Certainly, you know, doesn’t have to kiss him. But just be civilized, and I’m sure he will be in that regard.
ROBBINS: You seem to be suggesting—
INDYK: And on the other hand, McGurk has to—sorry.
ROBBINS: You seem to be suggesting we needed to be more arrogant with the Saudis than we were being.
INDYK: More arrogant? No. Less arrogant.
INDYK: We need to be—they need to be less arrogant. The Saudis need to be less arrogant. And that’s what I hope McGurk is telling them, is, guys, if you want this to go well, just cool it; we don’t need you crying about this because that won’t be in your longer-term interest. So I think, you know, this is stuff of pride and diplomacy, of working out the choreography, and those details matter.
And by the way, we got to get the—(laughs)—White House press spokesman onboard, too. She hasn’t exactly been following the talking points. So, you know, everything’s going to—nothing can be left to chance here because it could go badly awry, and then that will rebound badly for the president.
ROBBINS: One does wonder, I mean, they’ve been handling Ukraine really well after blowing Afghanistan really badly. So wondering why they’re sort of running around like, you know, the robot in “Lost in Space.” I’m not exactly sure.
INDYK: Well, it’s simple. It’s simple: The president doesn’t like doing this. Pure and simple, he doesn’t like MBS and that’s what shows in his body language. But, as I said over and over again, there’s a—there’s a priority here that, as president of the United States, he just needs to do this.
ROBBINS: We have a question from Sara Schonhardt from E&E News: What message does it send about Biden’s climate commitments if he does appeal to Saudi Arabia for oil? I mean, I gather there’s going to be a—you know, a climate component to this trip as well to try to offset some of that, Steven.
COOK: Well, yeah. I think the administration is talking generally about, you know, cooperation in a variety of fields, not just security. And of course, the Negev Summit, which is now going to be an annual thing, does have a climate component to it. A lot of these countries have embarked upon doing things that will lead to adaptation in climate.
I think what we need to keep in mind is, yes, the president’s emphasis on putting more oil on the market does compromise his climate commitments, but not fatally. You know, I think if we look at the climate crisis and the coming energy transition there are going to be periods of time where, you know, countries that are fossil-fuel producers are going to be more important for a short period of time and then less important over a period of time. As our colleagues—colleague Meghan O’Sullivan and co-author wrote in Foreign Affairs, the transition is going to be jagged so that Saudi Arabia will, at moments of geopolitical shocks, take on importance beyond what we know is necessary in order to decarbonize the economy and begin that energy transition.
But there’s no way, really, of getting around it. The president’s politics, as Martin has emphasized and I’ve mentioned a number of times, dictates that he at least be seen to be doing something to moderate the price at the pump for Americans. He clearly believes—and I think he’s not wrong—that, you know, the fate of the Democratic Party in the midterm elections and his potential run for office again in 2024 are going to be dependent upon the way in which Americans are feeling about the economy. And gas prices are, you know, very, very high, and people are having a hard time making ends meet as a result.
ROBBINS: So we are almost done. Martin, give us some summary thoughts about what you’re watching for on this—on this trip and what we should—we should all be watching for.
INDYK: Yeah. Just let me end upon a quick point about the climate issue. Saudi is actually one of the champions on climate change and making big investments in it as well, all the while running to the bank with their windfall profits from the high price of oil. But nevertheless, there will be some receptivity to the climate message and the Saudis are likely to embrace that.
Overall, I think, as I’ve said before, what we should be looking for beyond, you know, the choreography of the handshake and so on, which is kind of fluff, is the substance of the formation of a new strategic vision for the region which brings Israel and our Arab allies and partners together in a combined effort to deal with threats to peace and stability, primarily coming from Iran; and the commitment of the United States to be there to support that effort and to, in that way, reverse the signal that the region has taken from—particularly from the shambolic end of our engagement in Afghanistan, that we are turning out backs on the region and they, therefore, had better find a way to get into bed with China or, God forbid, Russia.
So I think they don’t want to go that way anymore. They’ve checked that out and seen that it’s problematic—that is to say, to hedge with the other powers, external powers. They’re looking to come back in and work with the United States. The United States is going to signal that that’s what we’re prepared to do as well, and I think that that’s the most important—that will be the lasting achievement of this trip.
ROBBINS: Steven, final word. Over to you.
COOK: Well, thanks very much. Just two thoughts.
One, on the Israel-Palestine leg of the trip, the president has to get out of Bethlehem and the West Bank without having too much trouble on that in order for—you know, to get away cleanly from that given all the problems associated with the Palestinian Authority and events there.
And as I said before, the more interesting thing is the trip to Saudi Arabia. And I think what’s important is something that Martin hit upon, and that is the beginning of the building of a kind of deterrence and containment of Iran, which was probably the more rational way to deal with the Iranians from the beginning rather than some complex agreement which half the region was opposed to anyway. So, to the extent that we’re demonstrating some leadership in reentering a regional consensus that has existed is going to be important, and how receptive those countries are.
One area where I’ll differ just a little bit with Martin on this is that I don’t think there’s going to be too much of an unwinding of the region’s relationship with the Chinese. The Chinese are the single largest investment in the region, as they are in many, many other regions. And I think that as our Arab interlocutors see what happens here in the United States and the political dysfunction here in the United States, China and Chinese investment become more and more important to them.
But I think overall the idea that we are going to be knitting together a regional security architecture—which is something that I think that they want, but they want to know that it’s not just going to be words—will be—will be important.
ROBBINS: I want to thank Steven Cook and Martin Indyk from the Council on Foreign Relations. I heartily recommend their report and their—and their article in Foreign Affairs. It’s been a great conversation. And we will test you to see whether your predictions come true.
Thank you all for coming and—
COOK: (Laughs.) I’ll be—I’ll be away, so.
INDYK: Thank you.
ROBBINS: I’m sure you’re great.
INDYK: And thanks to you, Carla.
ROBBINS: OK. Thank you.
COOK: Thank you very much, Carla.
INDYK: Thank you very much.
COOK: Have a good one.