The Doorstep: Biden's Middle East Reset with NYU's Dr. Carolyn Kissane

Jul 13, 2022 40 min listen

In the midst of declining domestic approval ratings and skyrocketing inflation, President Biden heads to the Middle East to re-imagine U.S. regional relationships and counter China's and Russia's growing influence.

NYU's SPS Center for Global Affairs Assistant Dean Carolyn Kissane returns to speak with Doorstep co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin about the trade-offs Biden must make in energy, climate, and human rights discussions. How will Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and "countries to watch" Israel and UAE affect U.S. policy in the short and long-term? Will this trip be a win or loss for Biden?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I'm your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, senior fellow at Carnegie Council.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, looking at what is going on in the world today and bringing back Carolyn Kissane from New York University's Center for Global Affairs to help us understand Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia.

But before we go there and before we welcome her to the podcast today, Nick, we look at doorstep concerns every day here, we are obsessed with it, and today, this morning as we are taping, the inflation numbers came out, which are way higher than people wanted them to be.

I am wondering, what is your gut reaction to these numbers? Biden has already landed in Israel. They tried to tamp the flames by putting out a press statement saying, "Oh, yes, it's actually going down," but these numbers I think are going to stoke some fears and put a lot of pressure on him as he is in the Middle East. What is your reaction to these numbers?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I had a chance also to look at some of the German polling data about economic concerns and how it relates to foreign policy. I think what this is telling us all is it is telling democratically elected politicians in the West, in Asia, and elsewhere there are ceilings to what you can do and there is only so much freedom of movement you have in global affairs before you start hitting up against these doorstep considerations. That has to do with the willingness to continue to impose sanctions on Russia and the willingness to continue to provide economic assistance to Ukraine just as two of the examples.

But I think what we are seeing is we are moving into a summer where the doorstep concerns that you and I have been monitoring and warning about all spring are now coming to roost.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I will be looking also at how markets respond today. I saw a couple of Wall Street analyst reports that are really getting concerned about equities, and certainly when the markets are down I think everything is down. They are very forward-looking, putting together a lot of events, so I think that is indeed going to put a lot of pressure on Biden not only for today's summit but also ahead for the midterms and the U.S. presence in the world.

We talked a moment ago offline about a "summer of discontent." Biden is going with very low approval ratings out into a world that is very unstable: Boris Johnson just got kicked out; we had the terrible assassination of a very popular leader in Japan; Sri Lanka is a mess, the president ran away, the prime minister can't be found.

What is your sense as you look around the world? Are people because of doorstep issues just getting fed up and kicking people out? Can the same thing happen here? Is that why we are seeing some of these low approval ratings? And how does that tie into how can Biden exude gravitas when he doesn't have the support at home?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: This goes back to when we had Nahal Toosi from Politico on The Doorstep [last year] talking about "omnipolicy," that you have to think about all of these issues being interconnected.

I think the problem that the Biden administration has is that they had the slogan, but too many people I think were still thinking of foreign policy as something that the president goes out and does and that these domestic issues are something else, and we are seeing how closely integrated these are not just in the United States but around the world. We are having the meetings in Istanbul again in an effort to try to get Russia to un-blockade food exports from Ukraine—grain and sunflower oil—because the world is realizing that this conflict touches them directly—energy prices, commodity shortages, supply chain issues—and we had Peter Sand on a few weeks ago talking about how all of these networks are interconnected and how they impact people at home, and that people are holding political leaders accountable.

You remember last year President Biden made a push about how democracies have to show that they can deliver in dealing with the challenge of authoritarian and autocratic systems, and this is showing some of the problems with that, that democracies around the world are under stress.

And of course the president is going as part of this visit to Saudi Arabia to interact with a major partner that is very clearly a non-democratic state and where the administration has had to walk back some of its rhetoric about human rights, precisely because they want to get energy moving, to see prices come down, and because they realize that the legitimacy of democratic governments around the world is intimately tied to these doorstep issues that we have been looking at.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We are going to welcome Carolyn Kissane in just a moment to talk about those energy issues and her recent article, which started with for Biden, "You can't always get what you want."

Welcome back to The Doorstep, Carolyn. We are so excited to have you here during this momentous week in the middle of the summer when a lot of people are away, and yet their vacation depends on maybe what happens during this summit of Biden's in Saudi Arabia in terms of gas prices and the like—or maybe not.

We are so interested [that you referenced] "You Can't Always Get What You Want," in your recent piece in Barron's, because I think it's true. Biden is out there doing a heck of a lot. I think he is meeting with 11 leaders in total over four days, which is quite an agenda.

What do you expect to come out of this whirlwind trip—to your point, he "can't always get what he wants"—and what does America want him to get? Can you set the frame for us and expectations of what we should be listening for over these next couple of days?

CAROLYN KISSANE: First of all, I just want to say thank you, Tatiana, thank you, Nikolas, so much for having me back again. I am a big fan of The Doorstep podcast, and it really is a delight to be here again with you, so thank you for the invitation.

I think there is a lot on the agenda, and it is going to be hard to get everything that the United States wants because in some of what the United States at least claims that it is going in to get there is some contradictory messaging, at least the way that I see it and I think the way that many people seem to be seeing it. The Economist yesterday came out with a pretty scathing piece, basically suggesting that this trip was a waste of time.

I am not that pessimistic, but I think this idea—again, this is where I see some of the very blatant contradictions because of Biden in his Washington Post op-ed over the weekend saying that this is not about getting Saudi Arabia to pump more oil, that this is a Gulf meeting, this is going to Israel, this is talking to Palestinians—again, there is a lot on the agenda, a lot of leaders who will be met.

But I think for the U.S. consumer who is feeling the pain at the pump, which we also know is very challenging both politically as well as economically, and with today's inflation numbers coming out at 9.1 percent—which, once you cross that, you have gone from the 8 to the 9, it doesn't sit well.

I don't think we are going to see dramatic change with regards to Saudi production only because of their own constraints. I think we will see a bit more coming from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), but again they are limited; they don't have a lot of extra supply that they can add. As much as I think the U.S. administration may in fact want more OPEC oil, and specifically more oil from Saudi Arabia, there are just some physical realities around their extra capacity that they can bring to the market.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That brings in a whole set of issues that actually you have been working on for a number of years—which is the energy question, the climate question, and the human rights and social justice question—which is that the Biden administration came into office, they talked a lot about putting human rights back at the center of U.S. foreign policy, that even U.S. partners would not be getting passes on egregious violations; there was a lot of talk that we needed to make the jump to the green transition, we did not want to see new investment in hydrocarbons; and now it seems that the Biden administration essentially is, if not publicly, quietly backtracking on both.

Apparently there will be a formal meeting with the Crown Prince, not one of these Washington-generated "Oh, we just happened to run into each other in the hall" type of things, and of course the emphasis on hydrocarbons, on "dirty" energy so to speak, at least for the short term. Does that undermine Biden in these meetings that the Saudis in particular will say, "A lot of talk for the first two years of your administration, Mr. President, but now the mask has slipped and you need us and therefore we can dictate to you the terms of U.S.–Saudi engagement moving forward?"

CAROLYN KISSANE: Nick, I would say that in my opinion that is a perfect summary, and I think that is one of the big challenges of the entire trip.

I think maybe too much was said early on on the campaign trail and early into the Biden presidency, making Saudi Arabia a pariah state and being very explicit about not having a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), and yet at the same time last summer we had the United States calling upon Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, and this was before Russia's re-invasion of Ukraine.

Then we had, I think a week before the Conference of the Parties 26 (COP-26) in Glasgow, Scotland, where the United States—I think it was Jake Sullivan—also called upon Saudi Arabia to increase production because they needed to do it.

Then, of course, we have the events that take us to today, Russia's re-invasion on February 24, that has just completely disrupted global energy markets on all fronts.

So again I think the Biden administration has had to make a very public U-turn on many of the pledges that they had made. The fact that Biden is deep into his presidency, almost at the halfway mark, and this is his first Middle East visit is also somewhat hard to understand.

I think Saudi Arabia knows that they are in a very good position. This is one of the things that I tried to emphasize in the piece, that there are the optics of the United States traveling to the Middle East, going to Jeddah, where there will be of course a meeting with Saudi's King Salman as well as with MBS. For MBS I imagine that is like "I win here, I am the winner here, I have the United States in a difficult position." It is not that he has the United States, but he knows that Saudi Arabia is too important for the United States both for its energy as well as for kind of being a regional source of stability against Iran.

I am a bit challenged, honestly, because it was just last weekend also that Biden said that he and the administration are still committed to making the Iran deal work. I don't think that is necessarily the best messaging right before this visit and this set of visits because for Saudi Arabia that has been a point of contention since the Iran deal was first raised under the Obama administration.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting to hear you frame it in the MBS "I win" because I am thinking: What does that tell Putin? "Oh, if I just hold out and you need my oil, I can win too."

It's always difficult to make these tradeoffs. We talk a lot about ethics here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. So we are not going to press further on Khashoggi — MBS has taken responsibility, people have been punished even though it led up to him, yet this idea of a figure like MBS, who has had a lot of press for his crackdown on human rights violations, "winning"—what does that tell other leaders? That is what concerns me in these choices that we are making and taking out broadly over the region.

To your point on the op-ed that Biden wrote in The Washington Post—I thought it was really interesting that he placed it in The Post where only liberals are going to read it; so who are you really trying to target?

He is saying that the Middle East is the most stable it has been in a long time and this area is actually thriving—it was such a positive marketing spin on this situation—and yet I am looking at it as: "What are you telling rulers that do crack down on human rights and women's rights? What is that messaging? Is the world going to be confused by America's global messaging?"

CAROLYN KISSANE: That is a fantastic question, Tatiana. Going back to the ethics and the great work that the Carnegie Council does on raising these issues in the context of international affairs and the global landscape ecosystem that we live in, I am very bothered by it on many fronts. In some ways it is pushing it like, "Of course that was important and we tried to make it a big issue and we are standing our ground"—but standing our ground only up to a point and then when that point crossed that threshold of "Wait a second, we can't keep this stance," this pragmatism around the role that Saudi Arabia plays.

One of the things I think a lot about with this visit is that MBS has a lot of enemies within Saudi Arabia. You don't have to go back that many years where he went through his own internal purging, even amongst family members. There are people who are not that excited to see him rise to be king, but in fact I think this trip validates his position as the de facto king. At least that is how I see it.

I do think there is probably an opportunity, and Steven Cook and Martin Indyk did a Council on Foreign Relations special report on this idea of the possibility of a new U.S.–Saudi security compact. Again, I think it is possible, but I do think that Saudi Arabia has a significant hand because we are not going back to 1945, where the United States was the only big player on the block. Now you have China, which Saudi Arabia does a lot of business with, and China buys a lot of Saudi oil, much more than we do in the United States.

I think, Tatiana—going back to part of your question that I don't want to not answer—a lot of countries have decided on a position of nonalignment, where they are not aligning with the United States and with Europe on their position toward Russia. They are not criticizing Russia, they are not saying that they take the side of Russia, but in effect some of their silence suggests that the nonalignment policy that the Gulf States have taken—I think Saudi is a great example—I would imagine, if you are sitting with Putin and he is looking out at the world and saying, "Listen, if there was any idea that this was going to end quickly and that the West's sanctions and economic statecraft and this idea of making Russia a pariah, excluding Russia from the global economy"—I think we are seeing some of the weak links in that idea.

Countries like India, China, and Saudi Arabia, that are taking this nonalignment stance in some ways could bolster Russia's position, and I think Russia is planning for a long, protracted, grinding conflict.

My hope—if I were more religious, I would say my prayers—would be that the West does not lose attention and focus and does not stop prioritizing Ukraine and the need for greater assistance, and that we don't move into deep fatigue and stop looking at it as a real global threat.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Before we leave that theme on Russia and the Middle East, we should mention the United Arab Emirates. So it is not all about Saudi Arabia; there are a bunch of other countries that Biden is meeting with.

My concern, to your point, is that we have millions of Russians moving to the United Arab Emirates, millionaire and billionaire Russians—I think Abramovich's yacht is stuck there and he is looking at property there.

Here is a story line that nobody is talking about on this trip: Dubai has been absolutely vilified as a dirty money haven. Kremlin critic Bill Browder, with whom we will be talking to in the fall—we have a Book Talk with him—has called for the Emirates to be put on a financial blacklist. Everybody has accused the United Arab Emirates of facilitating money laundering at a grand scale, and there is no thread there.

What do you think is going on with Biden in his thinking? We are putting aside human rights, we are putting aside the green energy conversation, and we are also now putting aside financial laundering accusations? What are your feelings on that?

CAROLYN KISSANE: Wow! Well, I am going to be definitely tuning in for your conversation with Bill Browder. That will be a fascinating one. I read his last book.

You imagine that for the president of the United States there have to be priorities. You can't put everything on the agenda because you put too many priorities and then nothing is prioritized. So I think there are some choices that are being made around what should we really put our focus on.

I think there is a fascinating story around Israel and Israel's new relationships in the Middle East both with the United Arab Emirates and with Saudi Arabia—not as explicitly—which would have been hard to have imagined even ten years ago. But today you have the semblance of some normalization and some potential new alliances that would offer the opportunity for a new lens in terms of how we look at the Middle East if you have Israel playing a greater role and you have some sort of normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which some people expect to happen, not immediately, but it is already happening behind the scenes.

I think that is being catapulted more than "What are you doing to support and protect the Russians oligarchs that the Western sanctions have meant to cause pain, so that their ability to do business, their ability to have these yachts and homes and these kinds of things, but they also have the ability to transfer money to places that will welcome that money. I think Dubai has historically been a place—

I used to do a lot of work and lived in Kazakhstan, and for wealthy Kazakhs Dubai was their haven, Dubai was their place to go. It was "open for business," like, "We won't ask a lot of questions." It is not my area of expertise, but I don't see that the United States is seeing that as a priority for this trip.

It goes back to many of the contradictions that I think are just so present. On one side you are trying to limit Russia's ability to continue this war in Ukraine, and at the same time you are not seeing what is going on in terms of how they are able to continue to move wealth.

On the energy front you have a big issue. China is continuing to buy Russian oil and it is buying it at a discount. India is continuing to buy it. I was on a call last week, and someone who was talking about India—and it absolutely makes sense—if you have this super-high energy inflation in India, that could be extraordinarily disruptive, not just largely across the economy but politically disruptive.

So I think some countries are making these national-interest decisions to say: "You know what? It's not ideal, but this is the situation as it is. We need oil. We would prefer it at a lower price than it currently is in terms of the global market price, and here is a way to get it, and it is $30 less than the price spread." You start to think about rational choice theory and why some countries may choose to participate in that way.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that goes back to your point. It is striking that from Israel to India, the Middle East and South Asia have been the parts of the world that have been "We want to be nonaligned on this. We don't support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but we also don't want to stop doing business."

As Tatiana was remarking about the "summer of discontent," you have politicians—I think you are right about in India—who look at Sri Lanka or Ecuador and say, "We don't want this level of unrest with high energy prices." And, of course, if China is getting discounted energy from Russia, India better be on the same page or India loses out.

Also, I think your point too about Russia's relationships in the region—this goes back to Tatiana's point earlier about how we reintegrate MBS into, if not good standing, at least taking him off the pariah list. When you were talking about that I was playing in my mind the mental clip of the G20 in Buenos Aires in 2018 with Putin and MBS high-fiving each other, the hearty handshakes, the laughs, and all of that.

And narratives. So do you expect, watching MBS's coverage in the United States, are we going to go back to what we were hearing about "Well, he's an authoritarian and he maybe cuts corners and does some bad things, but on the whole he is moving Saudi Arabia in the right direction, he is a modernizer, and we had better work with him because the alternatives would be worse?"

Do you think we are going to start to see an emergence of a narrative, even from the readout of this trip, that tries to "square the circles," as they were: "Well, we want more oil, but Saudi Arabia is also committed to green transition; and we want human rights, but MBS is still moving the needle slowly in the right direction." Do you think any of this is going to work and stick?

CAROLYN KISSANE: I 100 percent think that kind of framing of the narrative will in fact be the predominant one because there is this acknowledgement that I would say that there is a high likelihood that MBS will be the king of Saudi Arabia, and as such the United States will have to work with him.

It is interesting—going back to The Washington Post piece and, Tatiana, to your point—Biden knows that there are many Democrats who are not very happy about this trip because they do see it as backtracking from those commitments to putting human rights first, backtracking on the climate change commitments—what does this mean if the United States is in effect asking for more oil? This has been part of a year's trend.

But I do think, because the trip has also been stated as "not about more oil," that the outcome will be: "Wow, Saudi Arabia is doing a lot on the technology front. They have one of the largest investments in the world in solar. They are sharing their technology. MBS' Vision 2030. We have seen more openings for women in Saudi Arabia, more girls are getting educated all the way through graduate school." There is that modernization narrative that MBS has launched and made happen in Saudi Arabia.

Then there is what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, and I think what we are going to choose to forget is Khashoggi. I think that will not be part of the conversations, and that would be very intentional for the United States to not—I think they will say that they are putting human rights on the agenda for this trip—it starts today with Biden in Israel—but I think you have a lot of priorities where human rights may be part of a frame, but the larger narrative will be one of: "This will be a successful trip. This will have been one where the United States has reinstated its position in the Middle East, that it remains an important player, that it has not been sidelined by China, that their relationships remain strong, that there remains a commitment."

Again, you may even have a military security pact, some kind of cooperation, that the United States will reinvest in that historic relationship around U.S. military security in the region against Iran, Iran being now the pariah. I think that will maybe be some part of Biden's narrative, that we have to worry about Iran.

That will be what MBS and Saudi Arabia will also want, to make the point that Iran can't be trusted, that the United States cannot take its attention, and I think there will be some discussion around maybe that the reengagement with Iran around the Iran deal is not great for U.S.–Saudi interests.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You are absolutely right. I think he is there to create this regional "I'm here, I'm back," after the Summit of the Americas went kaput, nothing happened. Or things happened, but there were no major announcements and it was kind of a dud. I think this is Biden's opportunity to say: "We're here. This is a successful region. We're reorienting strategy."

What I find fascinating and want to bring up in our few moments together at the end here is his idea of putting together countries in different combinations to announce this shift. Nick and I were talking before about the I2U2 summit—India, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel—as a first time ever grouping. We thought: How do you sell this new grouping? But somehow it's meaningful to somebody—India, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and the United States.

What do you think of that combination as related to what Biden hopes to achieve versus the non-success of the Summit of the Americas? Will there be more successful policy pronouncements and more combinations like this I2U2?

CAROLYN KISSANE: I am with you on the confusion about I2U2. It is an interesting combination.

I do think the United Arab Emirates and Israel have been forging a closer relationship. I think that is very interesting—two countries to watch. I think historically there has been a lot on the business side, but there is much more political closeness as well.

I think the United States has always tried to use India as a buffer against China's power. India population-wise is one of the biggest countries; it is going to overtake China in terms of number of people next year. It is a big power in Asia. So let's put India there. I do think the India part is calculated. I saw it in Central Asia when they tried to bring India into Central Asia to take some of that power away from China. I don't think it was very effective, but nonetheless I think that could be part of this configuration.

I would like to be more optimistic, but I was very disappointed in the Summit of the Americas. I thought there were so many missed opportunities there.

I would hope that this visit of the president of the United States going to the Middle East could come out with more positive outcomes. I guess I remain a little wary. I don't think it is going to sit very well if there aren't some wins that the United States can—otherwise I think there is going to be a feeling of: "Why can't the United States get their foreign policy together enough?"

Maybe this is also part of the problem. I commented on the Summit of the Americas that there was no real agenda. What were they really aiming to do? Maybe there is a parallel. There is a lot that the United States is saying that it wants to do during Biden's visit, but some of them I see as being contradictions, which in effect may weaken everything that they are trying to do. I wish I had a better, "Okay, this is my answer," but it is a little bit of a wait and see.

It's hard. It's a different region. That's why I find Saudi Arabia so interesting. I know we have talked about climate statecraft and everything, but even as the world moves off of oil—we are not seeing it now, but Saudi will be the last oil country standing in my books. Saudi just knows that it has a power play that it can use.

It is also a very wealthy country right now. You look at $100+/barrel oil and you see what it has done to Saudi reserves, the Sovereign Wealth Fund, this is a country that has money to invest. It is not just about the oil. It is about a lot of other things. Saudi now has chips that they didn't have when the U.S.–Saudi relationship was originally forged.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And we will be looking forward to seeing what is going to be going on and hope to have you back for more analysis post this meeting.

Thank you so much, Carolyn.

CAROLYN KISSANE: Thank you so much for having me. It is always such a pleasure to be with you both. Thank you always for asking really fantastic questions, and with your own analysis I am always like, "No, that's it, that's my answer too."

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