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From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is a daily.
What we're learning about the Biden presidency from its handling of two early dilemmas, one foreign, the other domestic, today in part one, David Sanger, on Biden's approach to justice in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the government of Saudi Arabia.
It's Friday, March 5th. David, how did Joe Biden talk about Saudi Arabia and its leader before he was president? Well, Michael, in twenty nineteen, when Joe Biden was still one of many of the candidates.
MSNBC, Washington Post, Democratic presidential debate, there was a debate where he was asked about the Saudis, Mr. Vice President, President Trump is not punish senior Saudi leaders.
Would you? Yes.
And I said if the team was there, that he used really his harshest language.
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.
He said that the current leadership of Saudi Arabia, the leadership led by the de facto leader of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there's very little social redeeming value of the in the present government in Saudi Arabia had no redeeming social value.
That's pretty strong language, especially from somebody who is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had spent three decades learning how you talk in very diplomatic terms about partners or allies who also behave badly. Mm hmm.
And, of course, Michael, what led to those incredibly harsh words was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the former Saudi dissident, also columnist for The Washington Post. He had gone to Turkey, was getting ready to get married, and had gone to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get some paperwork to complete his marriage. He was told to come back in a week. He came back and was met by a kill team that murdered him, cut his body up.
And as news of that made its way out and American intelligence clearly knew what was going on, President Trump had fundamentally refused to recognize that many of the people involved had been closely linked to the crown prince. So to anybody who was listening to that debate that night, Michael, the message seemed clear that Biden was saying that he would put human rights and American values at the center of his foreign policy and that even American partners would pay a very severe price if they violated those values.
And that's why the Saudis made no secret of their desire that Donald Trump be re-elected.
And then, of course, as we know, Biden does become the nominee, does become the president. So what happens once he becomes president when it comes to Saudi Arabia or right out of the gate?
Michael, the president made Saudi Arabia the subject of his first big foreign policy speech.
Good afternoon, everyone. It's not a trip back to the State Department.
He went to the State Department, which itself was symbolic, that he was sort of returning America to diplomacy.
Today, I'm announcing additional steps to course correct our foreign policy and better unite our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership.
And in the course of his speech up on the top floor of the department, we're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.
He announces that he has ordered a cut off of all offensive arms to Saudi Arabia so that they could no longer pursue their war in Yemen, where American arms were being dropped with abandon and very little precision and killing kids and civilians.
We are a country that does big things. American diplomacy makes it happen, and our administration is ready to take up the mantle and lead once again.
So it looked like he was keeping up the very tough line he had taken during the campaign. And just two weeks after that speech, they published a report that said exactly what we all knew, which was that the CIA had determined fairly quickly after the murder that the crown prince was aware of and had likely directed the operation.
And the release of that report itself was a real blow to the Saudis because they had been denying all along that the crown prince had any advance knowledge, much less involvement in the murder. And because it would lead most Americans and most diplomats to conclude that under the law, the United States would have no choice but to put severe sanctions on the man who's about to become king of Saudi Arabia because there was strong evidence he was involved in a gross human rights violation.
Right. It's kind of a legal predicate being laid out by the Biden White House for even more severe. Action to be taken against the crown prince for what he has done. That's exactly right, Michael. And it's why you heard so many and particularly so many Democrats who had been critical of President Trump's ignoring the evidence, applaud the Biden administration for declassifying this information, letting the facts get laid out. And they said that this was finally bringing the crown prince to some form of justice because he had been embarrassed in front of the entire world.
They applauded because to them, the era of appeasement was over. And so then the question becomes, having made these promises during the campaign and having signaled strongly he would punish Mohammed bin Salman and now having taken the steps to prepare the world for that punishment.
What will the actual consequences be for Mohammed bin Salman? That was the big question. And so Biden had some options. At the most extreme, they could have referred the intelligence report to the Justice Department and the Justice Department could have taken up the question of whether or not to indict the crown prince for a conspiracy to murder an American resident. So you could always leave the Saudis with the thought that if the crown prince arrived in the United States, he could have the cuffs put on him.
The next step down would have been to issue a travel ban on the crown prince and basically say he could never enter the United States. And that would be a pretty severe punishment in and of itself, because you're telling a man who currently serves as defense minister of Saudi Arabia and who is heir to the crown, that he could never come talk to his closest Western ally. He could never show up for a state dinner. He could never be taken to a presidential retreat.
That's basically telling the Saudis this man cannot be king. Right, so which option? Does Biden choose, you know, Michael? He chose a third option and that was the option, not to punish the crown prince at all, basically to let him walk home.
So no real consequences for Mohammed bin Salman himself, really, at all?
That's right, Michael. Other than being named in the intelligence report as being responsible for the murder, no sanction directed precisely at him. So how did that go over? Not well, particularly with Joe Biden's friends.
I would like to see the administration go beyond what it is announced in terms of repercussions to make sure that the repercussions directly to the crown prince, Adam Schiff, who is the chairman of the Intelligence Committee and thus had seen all of this intelligence and more said outright that there needed to be a direct consequence for the crown prince.
To me, it's discordant, to say the least, that you go after those who follow the orders to kill someone, but not the person who gave the orders.
In fact, most Democrats said we applaud the release of the intelligence. But where's the follow up? Where is the moment where we say to the Saudis, you cannot make a man who was complicit in a murder the king of your country and expect him to come visit American presidents? Mm hmm.
And Michael Tom Malinowski, a representative from New Jersey who used to be President Obama's assistant secretary of state for human rights, sent me a message and said the law requires that the secretary of state actually ban the travel of the crown prince or issue a waiver and a justification to Congress about why he's not doing so, which, by the way, the State Department has not yet done.
Hmm. Sounds like beyond expressing their deep disappointment with Biden's decision not to punish Mohammed bin Salman, some of these Democrats are saying that it may be illegal not to punish them.
That's right, Michael. So to summarize, David, it looks a lot like at the very last minute President Biden got cold feet, lost his will here, didn't do the thing we all expected him to do.
Well, that's what it looked like. But I'm not sure that that happened at the last minute, because as we've gone back to reconstruct the debate inside the White House, we discovered it got a lot more complicated. We'll be right back. New laws and regulations are changing by the day, ATP knows it's hard to stay on top of it all. That's why they're here to guide you with up to the minute compliance expertise to help you navigate these complex times so you can pay your people accurately and on time, regardless of changing legislation.
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I'm Bianca Jagger. I'm an audio producer at the New York Times. So shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, we talked to a 12 year old named Tili, whose grandfather had just died of coronavirus. She was so open and emotional about her grandfather, she wanted to remember him and tell the story of his life. The fact that it's part of my job to call children, to hear what they think about the news, to hear about how the news is affecting them is incredibly special.
And that episode is for anyone who's grieving or who's lost someone in this pandemic. We're able to make episodes like that one because of subscribers to The New York Times. So if you can please subscribe to The New York Times. The Daily is The New York Times. Thank you. So, David, what exactly happened here?
Why did President Biden choose not to deliver the kind of consequences to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that it felt had been telegraphed dating all the way back to the campaign, that Biden was going to approach this all very differently? I think the bottom line here, Michael, was that the price of bringing justice to the Khashoggi murder case and punishing the crown prince and future leader was simply too high.
Biden concluded that there was no way to directly punish the future king without bringing about a complete rupture in the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
And that was different than recalibrating your relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is what the White House kept saying they wanted to go do. OK, we'll explain that calculation that administering justice to the crown prince was. Simply too risky. Well, let's start with the first objective of the administration in the Middle East, which is trying to restore the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump scrapped, that Saudi Arabia is a mortal enemy of the Iranians.
They opposed the deal and they oppose getting back in the deal because they believe that sooner or later the Iranians will get the fuel to build a nuclear weapon and that the deal would ultimately allow them to produce as much nuclear fuel as they want in about 10 years.
And the Saudis would have all kinds of ways of blowing that up, including an incident with Iran that would suck the United States into direct confrontation at a moment that Biden is trying to get some diplomacy done. So the administration realized that if they're going to get a deal put together and to extend it, make it stronger and longer as they keep saying they want, they have to keep the Saudis onside. Hmm.
OK, so in the complicated calculus of Middle Eastern diplomacy, if you are the U.S. and you are about to re-enter a nuclear deal with Iran and essentially make nice with Iran, you cannot simultaneously offend Saudi Arabia, Iran's mortal enemy. That is just too risky.
That's right. And the Saudis believe and believe during the Obama administration that the United States was drifting toward a position of ultimately making Iran once again their central ally in the Middle East, the way the US and Iran had a very tight relationship in the days of the Shah. And so they would probably read a travel ban or prosecution of the crown prince as the fundamental end of the alliance.
That's fascinating. OK, what else was Biden thinking about or worried about? Well, the next big concern is China.
China is a big investor in the Middle East these days, they're building a lot of infrastructure, they're wiring the place for 5G networks. And the Saudis have been increasingly tempted to turn to the Chinese for more and more of the building of their infrastructure.
And you can understand why that is, because the Chinese are not exactly going to sit around and give the Saudis a bunch of lectures about the importance of free speech and allowing dissidents to flourish. That's not really the Chinese way.
So one of the big considerations they had in the White House was why make life easier for the Chinese? I mean, it's not like the Saudis could ditch their entire American alliance or their American made arms overnight. The Chinese don't make stuff to that quality, and it wouldn't work with what the Saudis already own. It take a long time for that shift to happen. But there's no question that the long term Chinese strategy here now is to wire up the Middle East with their five G networks, get their arms in and begin to use the technology to build these alliances.
And I don't think anyone really wanted to take that risk at this moment when the Biden administration's long term goal, its biggest goal, is dealing with the rise of China. So the fear here is go after the Saudis too hard to upset them and they will drift closer and closer to China, which is not in America's long term foreign policy interests.
That's absolutely right. You know, national security, Michael, is a series of vacuums. And if you blow up the relationship between close partnership like the United States and Saudi Arabia, you are creating a vacuum that someone will fill. And whether that's China or Russia or someone else. You've basically created an opening for your adversaries, and that's the three dimensional chess of national security, particularly in the Middle East.
And Michael, I didn't hear about this in relation to the Oval Office discussion, but you have to imagine that President Biden and some of his advisers did have a concern in the back of their minds about the management of the global oil and energy markets. After all, at least for the next few years, Saudi Arabia remains one of the biggest producers of oil, along with the United States. We have a common interest in keeping the Gulf open, keeping ships moving, despite the threats from Iran and from others.
And, you know, if you rupture that relationship with the Saudis, you may well be rupturing your ability to go monitor what's happening in the Gulf and not just about oil. Remember, we still keep a lot of intelligence assets in Saudi Arabia jointly watching for terror groups and the revival of threats to the United States. And that's still important to the military and to the CIA. David, based on what you're saying, it sounds like Biden essentially decided that the US alliance with Saudi Arabia was too big to fail, too important to disrupt.
It was too close a relationship to risk. And that at the end of the day, the president had to balance a textbook clash between American values and American interests.
Explain that. Well, it's not the first time we've seen this, Michael, but if you base your foreign policy on American values, you feel terrific because you're standing up for human rights, for liberty, for the right of dissidents to express their views, certainly for the right not to be murdered for those views.
But sometimes those come in direct conflict with American interests. And certainly there have been many times in history where the United States held its nose in dealing with dictators because it determined that those interests were too large. Mm hmm.
Now, when you talk to Biden's aides and I spoke earlier today with Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, their hope and their recommendation was that over the next few years, you could find a way to go work with the crown prince. But in this case, I think Biden simply decided after a lengthy debate that much as he despised the Saudi leadership and he made that pretty clear during the campaign, he didn't really have any choice here because the crown prince is 35 years old.
We could be dealing with this man as the leader of Saudi Arabia for half a century. And all the evidence is that Biden simply concluded that the rupture in the relationship was too high a price to pay for a single murder. Even though that's a pretty hard decision to swallow, and if the U.S. wants to have any influence over the future of Saudi Arabia, this hugely important nation in the Middle East, it has to find a way to work with this guy, even if he has blood on his hands.
So, David, this concept of moral authority and moral leadership, which Joe Biden ran on and said explicitly, I want to restore this in American foreign policy, it's at the end of the day an intangible. It has to be earned through lots of decision making, tough decision making. And in this case, as you just said, President Biden decided not to take the tough course because it seemed too risky. So do the people that you talked to in the world of diplomacy believe that the president has squandered a chance at establishing moral authority at an important moment in his new presidency?
Certainly some do. The publisher of The Washington Post published an op ed the other day in which he said the message of Biden's decision is that if you run a big enough country, you get one free murder pass. You know, that's pretty brutal assessment if you're Joe Biden. But the essential argument that was made to me by Biden's aides came down to this, that while the United States has punished foreign leaders before, they were always rogues, outsiders, adversaries.
They were Mugabi, right. They were Castro. And that the United States has never directly sanctioned the leader of a close partner and that it couldn't start now. Then again, the leader of a close ally has never before, according to our intelligence agencies, authorized the butchering of a journalist and dissident and resident of the United States. That's absolutely right, Michael.
You know, the battle between American idealism and the realpolitik of preserving the country's interests is a very old story.
You know, I keep in my office up here an old globe dates back to the eighteen fifties that I look at every once in a while to remind myself how much American interests and influence in the world have changed in just a century and a half.
And that happened with a series of moral compromises along the way. We've had countries that we've done deals with from the Philippines to Iran under different leadership where we had to go avert our eyes from really terrible human rights abuses. Certainly, Joe Biden is hardly the first president to have to make such a compromise. He just had to make it very, very early. He had to make it early and it won't be his last one. Thank you, David.
We appreciate it. Thank you. During an interview with PBS, President Biden's secretary of state, Tony Blinken, defended the decision not to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. We deal, unfortunately, every single day with leaders of countries who are responsible for actions we find either objectionable or abhorrent, whether it's Vladimir Putin, whether it's Xi Jinping, whether it's any others on a long list of people I can name. But we find ways to deal with them.
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Consult a tax professional regarding your specific situation. Fidelity Brokerage Services Member NYSE as IPC. Here's what else you need to know for the first time. The average daily number of covid-19 vaccines being administered across the United States has exceeded two million doses in a sign that the pace of vaccinations is quickly speeding up. Officials are crediting the faster vaccinations to mass vaccination sites, which are being rolled out in dozens of states. In New York on Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced three new mass vaccination sites.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp announced five new sites. So far, 54 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, including about 28 million people who have been fully vaccinated.
Today's episode was produced by Rochelle banjar Robert Jimmerson and Alexandra Young. It was edited by Page Kowit and Larissa Anderson and engineered by Brad Fisher. The Daily is made by Theo Belka, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lindsey Garrison, Annie Brown, Claire Tennis Editor Page Kowit, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dor, Chris Wood. Jessica Chup. Stella Taylor, Alexandra Lisa. Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Mark George Luke Vandersloot Sindhu.
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That's it for The Daily. I'm Michael Barberot. See you on Monday. MTV Documentary Films presents the award winning documentary 76 Days, an emotional and riveting look at life in the earliest days of the covid-19 crisis in Wuhan, China, focusing on frontline hospital workers and their patients. Winner of the audience award at AFI Fest and named one of the best films of the year by The Washington Post, Austin Chronicle and The Hollywood Reporter for your consideration. Best documentary feature 76 Days.