From the Left: Saudi Arabia and the First Bump Heard Around the World
by Lance Simmens
For one who resolutely views and comments about current world affairs From the Left, this article will be particularly difficult for me to write. President Biden’s recent diplomatic journey to the Middle East, and more specifically to Saudi Arabia, has fostered criticism and consternation across the corners of the world not because of anything he said but rather for the symbolic gesture that is now being referred to as the “fist bump heard ’round the world.”
I find myself continuing to harken back to a quotation that is often used yet unclear to whom it is attributed that goes like this: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” The world of international affairs is notoriously riven with a degree of give-and-take that oftentimes seriously tests one’s values, whether from a personal, religious, governmental, or ideological perspective.
Upon the president’s arrival in Jeddah, he was greeted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader, and unlike the previous day’s visit to Israel, where the participants exchanged handshakes, this greeting was welcomed by what can only be assumed is a less diplomatic fist bump. It will be interesting for posterity if it turns out that innumerable hours of debate and discussion paved the way for such an accommodation, but suffice it to say that it was determined that this is how the world would view two men who represent dramatically different cultures and societies.
The Crown Prince, whom we shall identify as MbS, has been implicated in the brutal murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Biden has publicly accused MbS for ordering the assassination of the Washington Post columnist who was living in the U.S., and labeled Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state. Yet, though nothing has changed, no evidence has been offered, and no apologies on behalf of the Prince or the Saudi government to address this brutal offense to human rights have been made, we are now witnessing what can only be described as a signal that more important matters need to be discussed.
I am not an expert in international relations, but I have spent a career in senior public policy, held political and governmental positions, and served in an array of campaigns where optics, communications, and public relations skills are essential towards formulating a message that can dramatically determine the course of the election. I accept that international affairs requires diplomatic gymnastics that can either resolve or prevent serious confrontation.
I do not want to wander into the diplomatic minefield of whether accommodations and decisions reached over the past week are commensurate with the perceptions that are currently being bandied about in the press accounts. However, I can definitively say that the negative perceptions reflected in the fist bump fiasco appear to question the importance of whatever preconceived agreements on policy have been rendered by the negotiations. In other words, did we get enough for what we have forsaken?
Certainly, a picture is worth a thousand words and it does not take a political genius to forecast what the impact of the picture of the fist bump would be. The apparent message emanating from the trip is framed by paying deference to prices at the gas pump over the human rights of a pesky journalist. I have known Joe Biden for over 40 years and personally respect his empathy, intelligence, and kindness. It is unfathomable to imagine that this is the message he either wanted to send or is happy with. But that is where we stand.
With the multitude of problems facing the world right now, the last thing we need is controversy over what it is we, the United States, stands for. As the shining beacon of democracy, we must not allow our positions on human dignity and protection of basic rights be either compromised or appear to be wavering. We must not allow our fundamental adherence to the betterment of all mankind to be questioned by the mistaken image of either tolerance or forgiveness for atrocities committed by others.
Unfortunately, many analysts are inclined to equate that the true beneficiaries of the past week’s discussions are, in fact, fossil fuel interests, even though it is unclear what commitments were actually solidified in the discussions. And as if that in and of itself is not discouraging enough, the Democratic agenda on climate change has received a body blow from none other than West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, whose self-interested allegiance to dirty fuel through campaign funds that eclipse all other members of Congress will help stall what is, in all likelihood, the most serious long-term ecological, environmental, and economic crisis that awaits our children and grandchildren.
We owe it to them to clearly and unambiguously state our disgust and disapproval of brutal acts of murder regardless of the potential implications involved. Nothing is more important.