Biden Admin Janine Jackson Saudi Arabia

‘In the Middle East, We Are Hearing a New Set of Excuses to Justify the Same Old Policy’

CounterSpin interview with Raed Jarrar on Biden's Saudi trip.

By Janine Jackson / FAIR

Janine Jackson interviewed Raed Jarrar about Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia  for the June 24, 2022, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: During the 2020 campaign, the New York Times explained, Joe Biden pledged, if elected, to stop coddling Saudi Arabia, after the brutal murder of a prominent dissident and Washington Post contributor, Jamal Khashoggi. “We are not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them,” Biden said. “We’re going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” 

When officials said Biden would visit the kingdom in July and meet with Mohammed bin Salman, understood as the architect of Khashoggi’s murder, the New York Times explained, “It was just the latest sign that oil has again regained its centrality in geopolitics.”

New York Times (6/5/22)

NPR said it tighter, telling listeners, “Biden has changed his tune on Saudi Arabia,” and “oil is a big part of the reason.” Vox had a long, twisty piece about the visit as a sign of “tensions” in Biden’s foreign policy. He wants policy to benefit the middle class, like trying to lower gas prices, but he wants policy to center human rights, a “reflection,” the outlet assures us, “of Biden’s gut feeling about democracies delivering better for people.”

Pity the earnest soul trying to make sense of US foreign policy by way of news media, always being asked to believe in values that are nowhere in evidence, principles that are overthrown at the first turn—and, above all, something called “realism,” that always seems to afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable.

What would a humane, independent press corps be talking about when we talk about Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia? We’re joined now by Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at DAWN, Democracy for the Arab World Now, an organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Raed Jarrar. 

Vox (6/21/22)

Raed Jarrar: Thank you for having me again. 

JJ: Jamal Khashoggi comes up in virtually every piece about this visit. Bloomberg‘s editors say that “Biden isn’t likely to elicit any public contrition, but Saudi leaders should at least guarantee that no similar atrocity will take place again.”

You get the impression from coverage that Saudi leadership did one bad thing, so maybe we should all just try to get past it. It’s very strange, but given an absence of information, that might be what many people will come away with. 

RJ: And that is a very misguided analysis, obviously. The Saudi government, and many other governments in the Middle East—Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and others—have been committing human rights abuses on a daily basis.

And the Biden administration made big, grand promises before President Biden came into office. But regardless of these promises, what the administration is doing now is that it is breaching US and international law by continuing to support and aid these abusive and apartheid governments in the Middle East. And, unfortunately, we are just hearing a new set of excuses to justify the same old policy. 

JJ: Well, yeah, because people are going to read stories saying this visit is a bad idea, or it’s a good idea, or it’s a bad thing but we have to do it…. What we’re not seeing is discussion of what might be the real purposes or the likely outcomes of this trip. And I wonder what you make of that, and of this sort of scramble to present it as a necessary reset in terms of US/Saudi policy. 

RJ: I wish there was a reset in US/Saudi policy. It is more or less the same for the last decade. The US policy in the Middle East in general has been on autopilot for decades, and many think tanks and human rights organizations in Washington, DC, have been pleading that this administration should change the status quo, and should rethink US foreign policy in the Middle East, whether it’s the $3.8 billion that we give to Israel every year, whether it’s the $1.3 billion that we give to Egypt every year, whether it’s the hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and Emirates.

These are entrenched practices and policies that have been taking place for a long time. They are so deeply rooted in Washington, DC, protected by special interests and lobbyists, and all of the reasons why DC is broken.

So the fact that the administration is continuing the exact same policy now…. The administration is telling us that it’s for our own good, or it’s for the realpolitik, just to be reasonable and realistic, that we have to go down the path of funding apartheid in Israel and selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and doing all of these crimes, supporting all of these crimes in the region.

It’s not true. That’s actually not true. The United States does have an option to stop these policies, shift our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and start abiding by our own law. We have existing US law that prohibit the United States from funding and aiding and selling weapons to human rights abusers.

We have other options when it comes to energy; we don’t have to actually have all presidents fly and shake the hand of the mastermind of the murder of Jamal Kashoggi to bring us oil. That’s not true. There are so many other options for energy independence. There are many other options for the reduction of use of energy in the US. There are options for getting other types of energy. There are options of getting oil from other places. 

These narratives that we’re dealing with now are fake narratives, lazy narratives to justify the status quo, because changing the status quo in DC is not easy. 

JJ: Absolutely. And part of what presents an obstacle is this kind of misinformation or even disinformation that comes from the media—and from politicians. I’m just looking at media credulously repeating Biden’s quote: “Look, I’m not gonna change my view on human rights. But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can…. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.” 

Going back to the Bloomberg editors, they say, “Healthy US/Saudi ties are critical to calming a volatile part of the world.” So I think even well-meaning folks are reading that and thinking, “Okay, well, shaking hands with someone, if that’s going to calm volatility, and if that’s going to bring peace, well, then I’m for that.”

Bloomberg (6/21/22)

And yet distinguishing that from actual diplomacy is something else again. 

RJ: That’s right. And listen, I grew up in the Arab world. I am half Palestinian and half Iraqi. I grew up in different parts of the Arab world, in Iraq and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and other countries. And I’m very familiar with the narrative of trying to use Israel/Palestine, and peace for Israel/Palestine, as a justification to continue abusive government policy. 

This is how we grew up. Saddam Hussein always told us that we have to not criticize the Iraqi government, because he’s working to bring peace and end the occupation of Palestine, right? Assad says the same and Mubarak said the same, and all of these other dictators.

And now we are hearing, ironically, a similar narrative coming from the United States. So President Biden is telling us that to bring “peace” to Israel/Palestine, he needs to travel to the region and normalize relationships with dictators, normalize relationships with apartheid regimes. That is not true.

The United States’ role in Israel/Palestine is a part of the problem, and there is no war between Saudi Arabia and Israel that President Biden has to go there and negotiate an end or peace treaty for. What President Biden is doing is, he’s continuing a negative US role in the region, a negative US role that has contributed, along with apartheid Israel, to additional human rights abuse in Saudi Arabia.

And his visit will not help peace. It will not help human rights. It will not help US interests in the region. It will help maintain the very narrowly defined special interests that we have here in Washington, DC, whether they are the oil lobbyists or the weapon lobbyists or Israel lobbyists or Saudi Arabia lobbyists, the very, very narrowly defined interests that come from very, very, very small groups. Those are the people who are benefiting from this. 

The United States as a country is not, the US people are not, and people in the Middle East region are not. 

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: While many in elite media are trying to hurry us past the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and see that as something to put behind us in order to move forward, lots of folks are not supporting that and, in fact, have put in place, a symbol to say that this is not something we’re going to forget. Let me just ask you to end with that street renaming in DC, which I understand is in front of the Saudi embassy. Is that right? 

RJ: That is right. Last week, we finally officially changed the name of the street outside of the Saudi embassy to Jamal Khashoggi Way.

(CC photo: Joe Flood)

We placed official street signs, after the DC council voted to change the name of the street, and after the DC Department of Transportation worked with us to unveil these signs. We have four signs right outside of the Saudi embassy. One of them is immediately outside the door of the embassy. So everyone who’s going to the embassy will see that. 

But not only this, if you look at Google Maps today, at the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, the name of the streets right outside that has been changed also on Google Maps to Jamal Kashoggi Way. And this is a daily reminder to anyone who is going to the embassy, whether they work there or visiting, that Jamal Kashoggi has not been forgotten, and we will continue to fight for justice for Jamal.

We will also try to work on other streets around the United States, around the US consulates, maybe in Los Angeles and Boston and New York, to also change the names of the streets there to Jamal Kashoggi Way, so that will serve as a permanent reminder to everyone who passes there every day about the crime that took place in 2018.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at DAWN, Democracy for the Arab World Now. They are online at Raed Jarrar, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin

RJ: Thanks again for having me.

Janine Jackson
Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and producer/host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC‘s Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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