On the menu today: Joe Biden rebukes the Saudi regime, but it’s a much gentler pushback than he promised on the campaign trail more than a year ago; the Senate parliamentarian tosses out the $15 per hour federal minimum wage from the relief bill; congressional Democrats start complaining about unelected officials making rules; and a long, long-delayed return of the pop-culture podcast.
Joe Biden Sort of, Kind of Punishes the Saudi Prince
Every problem facing the American government looks easier from the perspective of the presidential campaign trail. Recent history is full of presidential candidates who pledged bold foreign-policy moves, and then once they stepped into the Oval Office and received the full briefings on the likely consequences of their actions, either quietly walked away from their promises or watered them down considerably.
Bill Clinton pledged to get tough on China over human rights, both Clinton and George W. Bush kept promising to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and Barack Obama pledged to recognize the Armenian Genocide — even if it antagonized the Turks. Donald Trump promised to end the “forever wars,” and he came pretty close — the U.S. was down to about 5,900 troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria by the end of his presidency — but it turns out complete withdrawals can have bad consequences for American interests. Hey, who knew, right?
In the November 2019 Democratic presidential-primary debate, Joe Biden made it sound as if it was time to completely upend the existing U.S.-Saudi relationship:
Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on 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 of the — in the present government in Saudi Arabia.
And I would also, as pointed out, I would end — end subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children, and they’re murdering innocent people. And so, they have to be held accountable.
Back in 2018, I wrote in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death that the U.S needed a carefully calibrated response — tough enough that it couldn’t be ignored, not so tough that it would end this alliance of convenience: “We don’t want to blow up the whole relationship; we just need to send a signal that they’ve done something unacceptable, that they need to make restitution and need to resist the temptation to take similar actions in the future.” Keep in mind that at the time, Lindsey Graham was appearing on Fox & Friends contending that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “has got to go,” which seemed like a particularly unrealistic demand. There was also the complicating factor that Khashoggi’s secret ties to the Qatari government made him not quite the crusading, independent journalist that the Washington Post editorial page painted him as. (This doesn’t mean it was okay to murder and dismember him, obviously.)
So far, the Biden administration is ending U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia related to their offensive military operations in Yemen, but not all arms sales, as Biden pledged in that debate. “At the same time Thursday, Biden also reaffirmed that the United States was committed to cooperating in the kingdom’s defense.” And in his recent phone call with the Saudi King, Biden “told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible. The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest.”
Sometime soon, the Biden administration will acknowledge what has become more or less an open secret: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of Khashoggi.
A U.S. intelligence report expected to be declassified as soon as Friday implicates Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in approving the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a person familiar with the findings.
The report builds on classified intelligence from the CIA and other agencies after Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report hasn’t yet been released. It wasn’t immediately clear how much detail the declassified version of the report will provide on Prince Mohammed’s role.
Prince Mohammed has denied any involvement in the killing, while saying he accepts symbolic responsibility as the country’s de facto ruler. Saudi officials have said the murder was carried out by rogue agents who have since been prosecuted.
The administration appears likely to thread a needle on that question — publicly blaming MBS, as he’s known, but leaving intact the basic U.S. relationship with him and the kingdom he controls. The goal seems to be to recalibrate the relationship without rupturing it. It’s an understandable, pragmatic goal, but it won’t leave anyone happy, on either side.
Separately, the Washington, D.C. City Council may rename the street in front of the Saudi Embassy, on New Hampshire Avenue between Virginia Avenue and F Street in Northwest, as “Jamal Khashoggi Way.”
Still, I can’t help but be frustrated at the wildly oversimplistic and unrealistic way that foreign policy gets discussed in our political debates, particularly presidential debates, and particularly Democratic presidential debates — when it gets discussed at all. During that Democratic debate in November 2019, the candidates competed to see who could sound toughest on Saudi Arabia, as if we had developed this complicated relationship with that regime over 70 years by accident. That evening, Bernie Sanders argued, “We have got to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room under American leadership and say we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts.” Yeah, Bernie, that will straighten it all out. These guys have been fighting a bloody proxy war all over the region over sectarian religious differences, lust for power and regional dominance, and fear of the ruthlessness of the opposition. It’s not two neighbors squabbling over a maple-syrup-orchard boundary.
Maybe Americans have unrealistic expectations about what U.S. foreign policy can achieve, but it’s hard to blame them when so few of their aspiring leaders are willing to contradict those expectations. Presidents keep having to backtrack on their foreign-policy promises because they either didn’t do their homework and understand the consequences of those promises, or they did know them and chose to ignore them during the campaign.
Three Cheers for the Senate Parliamentarian
POOF! Just like that, the Senate parliamentarian makes the $15 per hour federal minimum wage disappear from the COVID-relief bill, concluding that it is not sufficiently connected to the federal budget to be included in a bill that is expected to pass through reconciliation.
But Democrats in both chambers acknowledge that the policy will be stripped out in the final version of the bill — a setback for the left wing of the party, which has pushed for the policy for a decade.
“We are deeply disappointed in this decision,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families. The American people deserve it, and we are committed to making it a reality.”
Biden, who had proposed the wage hike as a key plank of his $1.9 trillion package, said through a spokeswoman that he was also “disappointed in this outcome,” but added that he “respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that our Robert VerBruggen can still find an awful lot of unrelated or unneeded spending in this so-called “COVID-relief bill.” What’s the point of sending schools $130 billion if only 10 percent could be spent this school year?
By the way, take a moment to salute Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough for having the courage to tell progressives they can’t get what they want, and that they can’t just ignore the rules about reconciliation procedure. In a development that will spur many readers to sigh “Oh, brother,” Representative Ilhan Omar is already calling for McDonough to be replaced.
Elsewhere, Representative Ro Khanna writes, “an unelected parliamentarian does not get to deprive 32 million Americans the raise they deserve. This is an advisory, not a ruling. VP Harris needs to disregard and rule a $15 minimum wage in order.”
Wait, I’m pretty sure last month we were all in agreement that we really, really, really didn’t want the vice president ignoring the assessment of other government officials on a matter of law and precedent and just deciding, unilaterally and willy-nilly, to institute the result that she wants.
But I’m glad to see Democrats finally denouncing sweeping rules issued by unelected officials. Buddy, if you’re annoyed about an unelected Senate parliamentarian making a sweeping decision, let me tell you about the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Food and Drug Administration . . .
ADDENDUM: Yes, Mickey and I still record the pop-culture podcast, but it’s been a while — until now! In the latest episode we discuss Disney Plus’s WandaVision, Flora and Ulysses, Gina Carano, cancel culture, The Mandalorian, whether the NFL even has an offseason anymore, Netflix’s The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, and more.