President Joe Biden on Thursday defended his upcoming controversial trip to Saudi Arabia as a broader effort to promote American security interests in the Middle East, deflecting criticism that his visit rewards the Saudi regime, diminishes efforts to advance human rights, and ignores the Saudi leader’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I have never been quiet about talking about human rights. The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is much broader, it’s to promote U.S. interests,” Biden said at a press conference in Israel, echoing how several senior administration officials have defended the presidential trip for several weeks. “We have an opportunity to reassert what I think we made a mistake of walking away from – our influence in the Middle East.”
Biden is scheduled to fly to Jeddah on Friday night, where he is expected to meet with King Salman and other Saudi leaders, including his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. intelligence officials allege approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
When asked what he plans to say to the crown prince about Khashoggi, Biden said he has already been clear in condemning the murder of the journalist and highlighted his history of supporting human rights. He immediately pivoted to talk about his scheduled attendance at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, where he will meet with leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan in addition to Saudi officials.
“I’m meeting with nine other heads of state. It just happens to be in Saudi Arabia,” Biden said. “There are so many issues at stake that I want to make clear that we can continue to lead in the region and not create a vacuum…that is filled by China and or Russia, against the interests of both Israel and the United States.”
“The purpose of the visit is to coordinate with nine heads of state [on] what [is] in U.S. interests,” he continued.
Biden did not say why he believes the United States “walked away from” the region. Biden was vice president when President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, after Iraq leaders failed to reauthorize the American troop presence there. While President Donald Trump was criticized for later pulling U.S. troops from Syria and using a heavy hand with Middle East partners, arguably the Trump administration gave significant attention to the region. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was point-man for negotiations that led to the Abraham Accords, which established groundbreaking cooperation between traditional enemies with Israel. In addition, Trump officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo frequented the region and gave several policy speeches asserting U.S. goals.
In Washington, Biden is taking fire from all sides over the trip. Republicans are slamming the president’s visit as a desperate plea for more oil when they argue the administration could invest in American energy producers instead.
“Saudi [Arabia] is a cartel. They’re a member of OPEC,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said Wednesday at a press conference. “He’s going to be begging Iran and other tyrannical dictators for more oil when we have everything we need here.”
Nearly 70 House Republicans also sent a letter to Biden on Tuesday urging him to prioritize American energy sources, calling the trip to Saudi Arabia “a confusing display of weakness.”
Democrats also have criticized the president. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, of Illinois, said that while Saudi Arabia is a “major player” in the energy sector, the nation’s human rights record is “an outrage.”
“I have mixed feelings on this, and if the president called me, I would say, ‘Mr. President, you can’t trust these people. Their standards are not our standards. Their values are not ours.,’” Durbin said last month on CNN when the White House announced the trip.
Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in June that they shared their colleagues “grave misgivings” about Biden meeting with the crown prince, especially after the president promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” on the campaign trail.
“President Biden made a commitment ‘that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons’ and would ‘end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen,’” the lawmakers said.