Biden’s fist bump was a gut punch of reality

Official media there were quick to spread the image of US President Joe Biden greeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump stopping just short of the handshakes he had extended to Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
 US President Joe Biden greeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
US President Joe Biden greeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

CHENNAI: Will they shake hands or not? That was the big question as Air Force One approached Jeddah on its historic first direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

Official media there were quick to spread the image of US President Joe Biden greeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump — stopping just short of the handshakes he had extended to Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This three-second encounter meant “mission accomplished” for Saudis: the ultimate rehabilitation of their future king by the very US president who had vowed to make the country an “outcast” state during his campaign.

Candidate Biden had made this a point of principle after a US intelligence report found that Crown Prince Mohammed personally signed off on the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashogghi in 2018. Biden said he brought up the killing “at the top of the meeting” with Crown Prince Mohammed, who contests the details of his involvement. And now, Biden, and with him the US, are moving on. Instead of isolating Crown Prince Mohammed, MBS, the US president posed for a photo with him.

Biden scored some diplomatic successes on his trip to the Middle East: the extension of the truce in Yemen, a direct air link between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a host of commitments for regional stability by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. The president pledged $1 billion for food security in the region, as well as for the United States to guarantee free shipping routes through the region. These were all steps that prove to the Middle East that “America is back” — as Biden had announced to the world shortly after taking office in 2021.

But concrete outputs, like an increase in oil production to ease fuel prices back home, are something that Biden himself only expects during the coming “weeks.” Much of what Biden aimed to achieve is strategic and may only pay off in the longer term — increasing the likelihood that those successes will be lost on US voters. During Biden’s first stop in Israel, he had already made clear that the key aim of his Middle East trip was to avoid leaving a “vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”

And the White House sought to “recalibrate, not rupture,” relations with Saudi Arabia in order to prevent a further loss of American influence. This concern was fuelled further by the fear that Iran could gain a nuclear weapon. Containing Iran marks a rare alignment of interests for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States — but it also requires quite a bit of diplomatic juggling by Biden.

While Biden vowed in Israel to be willing to use “all” US capabilities to stop Iran from acquiring a bomb, he said a purely diplomacy-driven revival of the internationally negotiated Iran nuclear deal — which is opposed by Israel — remained his preferred option. Most of this is too far from home for Americans struggling with soaring prices. And that’s the real danger for a president engaging on the global stage. Many feel that he should rather be taking care of prices at the pump rather than the diplomatic cost of keeping the US in the global power game.

The bread-and-butter benefits of Biden’s Middle East trip will only become apparent in the medium term. That may prove too late for a US president struggling with the highest inflation rate in four decades, a 60% rise in petrol prices within 12 months and a nosedive in approval ratings. The deadline is November 8, when the midterm elections will decide whether Biden’s Democrats retain enough seats in Congress to be able to pass meaningful legislation during the second half of his presidential term.

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