Glenn Greenwald rips Biden, U.S. for coddling Saudi Arabia

March 3, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I finally figured out, after I read the article below, what bothers me about Glenn Greenwald. It’s not that I disagree with him some of the time, but that he’s always so painfully strident and earnest, seemingly lacking any sense of humor, that reading his pieces is like being yelled at.  His new Substack piece rightfully excoriates Biden for promising over a year ago to be hard on Saudi Arabia for its human rights violations, and then folding into a wet paper towel when his own intelligence services determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the country, almost surely ordered the murder of dissident Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

This is paywalled, so I’ll just give a few quotes below.

He starts out with a rant, which he continues later with supporting examples. It’s not that he’s wrong, for he isn’t. I agree with his calling out Biden. It’s just that it’s strident, and also reprises largely irrelevant tropes that show up in many Greenwald columns, including harping once again on Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Now, we atheists are accused of stridency all the time, so that doesn’t make the piece wrong or unreadable; it just makes it go down with some difficulty. Greenwald:

When the U.S. Government and its media partners want to increase the hostility and fear that Americans harbor for adversarial countries — for Russia, for China, for Cuba, For North Korea — it hauls out the same script: we are deeply disturbed by the human rights violations of that country’s government.

Yet it is hard to conjure a claim that is more obviously and laughably false than this one. The U.S. does not dislike autocratic and repressive governments. It loves them, and it has for decades. Installing and propping up despotic regimes has been the foundation of U.S. foreign policy since at least the end of World War II, and that approach continues to this day to be its primary instrument for advancing what it regards as its interests around the world. The U.S. for decades has counted among its closest allies and partners the world’s most barbaric autocrats, and that is still true.

Indeed, all other things being equal, when it comes to countries with important resources or geo-strategic value, the U.S. prefers autocracy to democracy because democracy is unpredictable and even dangerous, particularly in the many places around the world where anti-American sentiment among the population is high (often because of sustained U.S. interference in those countries, including propping up their dictators). There is no way for a rational person to acquire even the most minimal knowledge of U.S. history and current foreign policy and still believe the claim that the U.S. acts against other countries because it is angry or offended at human rights abuses perpetrated by those other governments.

What the U.S. hates and will act decisively and violently against is not dictatorship but disobedience. The formula is no more complex than this: any government that submits to U.S. decrees will be its ally and partner and will receive its support no matter how repressive, barbaric or despotic it is with its own population. Conversely, any government that defies U.S. decrees will be its adversary and enemy no matter how democratic it was in its ascension to power and in its governance.

And about Saudi Arabia. First, here’s Biden’s promise to punish the country should they be found responsible for murdering Khashoggi.  This was said during a Presidential candidate debate on November 20, 2019. Biden’s putting on his tough-guy persona:

That is a strong statement that the U.S. will stand up for violations of human rights. Except, we found out, when it’s Saudi Arabia or other “allies” who violate them.


But beyond a few trivial and inconsequential gestures (sanctioning a few Saudis and imposing a visa ban on a few dozen others), the Biden administration made clear that it intends to undertake no real retaliation. That is because, saidThe New York Times, “a consensus emerged inside the White House that the cost of such a breach, in terms of Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and in confronting Iran, was simply too high.” Biden officials were also concerned, they claimed, that punishing the Saudis would push them closer to China.

Not only is the Biden administration not meaningfully punishing the Saudis, but they are actively protecting them. Without explanation, the U.S. withdrew its original report that contained the name of twenty-one Saudis it alleged had “participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi” and replaced it with a different version of the report that only named eighteen — seemingly protecting the identity of three Saudi operative it believes to have participated in a horrific murder.

Even worse, the White House is concealing the names of the seventy-six Saudi operatives to whom they are applying visa bans for participating in Khashoggi’s assassination, absurdly citing “privacy” concerns — as though those who savagely murder and dismember a journalist are entitled to have their identities hidden.

Worse still, the U.S. is not imposing any sanctions on bin Salman himself, the person most responsible for Khashoggi’s death. When pressed on this refusal to sanction the Saudi leader on Sunday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki claimed — falsely — that “there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations.” As the foreign policy analyst Daniel Larison quickly noted, that is blatantly untrue: the U.S. has previously sanctioned multiple foreign leaders including Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, currently targeted personally with multiple sanctions, as well as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the now-deceased Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.

Jen Psaki’s statement really bothers me because, first of all, she’s a fellow William & Mary alum, but mostly because she’s turning out to be somewhat of a dissimulator—not nearly as bad as Trump’s succession of Public Liars for sure, but when Psaki was appointed I really thought, “At last, someone who’s going to be completely straight with us.”

Here’s Psaki on CNN waffling about Biden’s campaign promises. The Saudi stuff starts at 3:17 and lasts about four minutes, after Psaki is played Biden’s campaign promise about Saudi Arabia. The interviewer, whom I don’t know, asks some tough questions, and Psaki dissimulates in the way Greenwald noted about “sanctions on leaders of foreign governments”. The interviewer keeps pressing, asking Psaki whether she thinks justice has been done re Khashoggi.  The response is lame. There are so many waffles that you need to watch this with a jug of maple syrup.

I was foolish: it’s politics, Jake!

There’s a bit of a Chomsky-esque tone to the rest of the piece in its indictments of U.S. complicity in propping up dictatorships, but who can say that Greenwald is wrong?

21 thoughts on “Glenn Greenwald rips Biden, U.S. for coddling Saudi Arabia

  1. Greenwald carries on as if he were a politician or had never seen one before. Newsflash, Biden has been a politician most of his life. So what he said last year or on a campaign trail is not going to hold up very long. Hell, name any politician that does not talk out of both sides of their mouth. The old joke is – How do you tell when a politician is lying? Watch his mouth, if it’s moving he is lying. The human rights bit has always been the U.S. thing and it is mostly hypocrisy. It is what they do. Now lets review what Trump did. NOTHING. And he did even worst, he threw it all under the rug. He gave the guy all the military crap he wanted to bomb the hell out of his neighbors. At least we are told, Biden is not doing that. We have this false sense of need for Saudi that just isn’t there any longer. Saudi is only going to win a war in the same way we attempt to win a war – by bombing the hell out of the other guy.

    1. Also a way to take such criticism, a quick wave as to agree to some bits as trivial, even though they aren’t trivial and aren’t widely accepted, and then whataboutery (Trump).

      I find it rather important that politicians do not routinely lie, and even more important that the US (as any other country) actually prioritise ethical considerations in foreign policy (in who to support, and not support).

      Interestingly, US propaganda always puts these ethical stuff first (champion democracy etc.), which tells you that this is what the recipients of the message want to hear. Americans want to see themselves as the Good Guys, and to my experience aren’t widely aware that this image is not always shared even by closest allies.

  2. I would find such failures to act much more palatable if public officials just admitted that it’s a complicated situation (perhaps more so than it was thought to be when the “promise” was made, though that seems a bit unlikely), and that they fear that the costs – economically and potentially even in lives – would be greater if they take aggressive action to punish the prince than otherwise, but that they do not consider the matter closed and will continue to investigate possible avenues by which to bring some semblance of justice in this situation. Most people know that politics and international relations is complicated and difficult, and that rarely can the perfectly moral outcome be achieved with respect to foreign governments, and that the costs involved are often great even when achieved, and so sometimes it’s a forced choice of the lesser of 2 evils. But when they claim they will do one thing, then don’t do it, then waffle and weasel about it, it rightly infuriates people. We’re not children (most of us). Be honest, as much as you can. I think that would lead to greater credibility.

    And, yeah, Greenwald is a bit of a twerp and rather humor-impaired. But, as PCC(E) says, that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.

  3. I have seen Greenwald yuck it up with—of all people—Tucker Carlson quite a few times. He does have a sense of humor, but his tone takes some getting used to (from someone who has experienced the full Greenwald spectrum from abhorrence to deep appreciation). I find many of his views tightly aligned with Jerry’s.

  4. I haven’t given up on our SA policy yet. If the administration can get Iran back into some sort of nuclear deal, MbS might find things a bit more uncomfortable.

    Yes absolutely our weak human rights policy is linked to our realpolitik desire to have a forward operations base near Iran. And yes absolutely that’s a moral failing. But I’m willing to work within that framework and hope that the current administration will put other pressures in place on Iran that then lets them push back on this Saudi murder more and more.

  5. … first of all, she’s a fellow William & Mary alum …

    I did not think Ms. Psaki could be so cruel, and when it comes to excusing this stuff, William & Mary won’t do.

  6. I think it is unreasonable to get much out Jen Psaki on this subject. Biden has done more than his predecessor to holding MBS accountable just by releasing the report. Accountability can mean pretty much anything anyway. There are a limited number of things that a president can do to hold the leader of another country accountable. Should we cut off our relationship with Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s murder? Even if we only do our accounting using “lives lost” as the measure, that would likely be a bad decision. Also, Biden may be thinking about punishing MBS in the future or after some other event. He wouldn’t want to announce that until he’s ready and Psaki absolutely wouldn’t want to get out ahead of actual WH policy or speculate on it.

    1. Press secretaries are mostly left out to dry in these kind of things. They could just lie as all of those attempting the job for Trump did. That was the biggest crowd ever or the tax decrease will save all the poor people thousands. Putin is not Trump’s daddy. She should maybe say, let me be perfectly clear about this, I have nothing to add.

      1. I’ve watched many of Jen Psaki’s WH press conferences. She has no problem saying that she has nothing to add. IMHO, she does as well as anyone could possibly do in this political climate. Those that complain about her seem to fall into two groups: (a) right wingers who make silly comments about her red hair or that she uses big words and (b) people who don’t seem to understand the limitations of the job (eg, she’s giving the official WH position, not her personal one; she can’t preannounce unless directed to do so; she shouldn’t give detailed answers to questions that are better addressed by the appropriate department).

        1. I’ve watched enough West Wing and Designated Survivor to know that the job of WH Press Secretary is thankless. You’re given poop and asked to make a sandwich out of it.

  7. I think it is highly probable that MBS has hidden away millions or even billions of Saudi royal funds to guard his lifestyle against the time that the king has had enough, and says “next.” Should Biden direct the intelligence apparatus of the US to ferret out such potential funds–and then reveal their existence when MBS needs the dough? That would be fun.

  8. What matters in US foreign policy is to forge alliances not on the basis that they are wonderful people, but on whether those alliances serve the interests of the US. None of the Persian Gulf states meet acceptable standards of human rights. If we wish to be allied with anyone there, it is logical that we should go with the SA/UAE/Bahrain/Kuwait alliance.
    Personally, I would prefer that we never buy another drop of gulf oil, and would be content to see the desert slowly retake all of it. However, as we are not an isolationist power, and we need bases, secure port facilities, and overflight agreements across the globe. That often means dealing with governments that we have issues with, but can deal with to our own advantage.
    We have shared military bases with the Saudis since the 1940s.
    I know that a great many progressives seem to have a fondness for Iran, but they have no tolerance for the existence of Israel, and claim more or less the whole of the gulf as their sovereign territory. They are to the Middle East what North Korea is to Asia. We should talk to them and try to negotiate and enforce treaties, but with no real expectation that they will follow through, and with the assumption that they will betray us at the first opportunity.
    I think people really underestimate the fanatical aggression of the IRGC.

    1. Yes, the United States must sometimes make uncomfortable allies with repugnant regimes to advance our national interest. But we should also (especially among our so-called allies) use moral suasion, US economic power, and the soft power of our State Department to advance human rights whenever possible. Freedom-loving people across the globe should know that they have the support of the USA.

      The main problem we had in this regard with the last administration is that, due to Donald Trump’s adamant refusal to make the financial disclosure that has been customary of US presidents for the last half century, the American people had no idea how much of his decision-making was driven by US national interests and how much by his personal financial interests. Certainly, some of his decisions regarding foreign nations, including Saudi Arabia — such as his decision to (as he put it to Bob Woodward) “save his [MbS’s] ass” by gaslighting the American people regarding MbS’s culpability for the butchering of Jamal Khashoggi — do not make sense purely from the standpoint of US national interests.

      Fortunately, we will likely find out what drove Trump’s decision-making eventually, now that the Manhattan DA’s office has Trump’s tax returns and accounting records, and the records from Deutsche Bank (a notorious industrial-grade laundromat for the filthy lucre of Russian oligarchs, and the only lender that would touch Trump after his numerous bankruptcies), although that disclosure may have to await that office’s criminal prosecution of Donald Trump and his family.

      1. The article is not really about Trump. He is only mentioned once, sort of indirectly.
        Even though the act was horrifying, it does not seem prudent to plunge the middle east back into war over the death of one Hamas-loving reporter, who previously referred to the current US president as “Ayatollah Biden”.
        Besides which, it is far more dangerous to be a Mexican Reporter than a Saudi one. But relatively little outrage is being generated by the literal piles of dead reporters there. Probably because this is not really about safety of the press and freedom of speech, but about the Palestinians, and by inference, Iran.

        1. How is the Khashoggi murder “about the Palestinians, and by inference, Iran”?

          It’s about a US permanent resident and WaPo journalist who was kidnapped at an embassy in Turkey and hacked to death with a bone saw by a team sent by a psychopathic Saudi crown prince who thinks he can pull this kind of crap (and who has indeed pulled this same sort of crap elsewhere) with total impunity.

          And it’s about Trump in that we’re dealing with this now only because it was Trump who, for reasons as yet unexplained, saved MbS’s ass from suffering any consequences for his horrific conduct by lying about it to the American people.

          1. Not a permanent resident. He was on an 0-1 visa, which makes him a temporary visitor. Also, he was a WaPo contributing global opinions columnist, which a number of non-US residents share.
            The residency thing is not a trivial detail, as far as US responsibility and authority are concerned. When something horrible happens to a Saudi citizen in Turkey, It is not normally the responsibility of the US to investigate and administer justice, even if the person in question has family members who are US citizens.

            I think most people are horrified at what happened to Khashoggi. But pragmatism is a necessary part of foreign relations.

            I don’t think journalism is what drew the ire of the Saudi government. A more likely cause was his activism and influence, which was very pro-Hamas and virulently antisemitic. Hamas and Iran are not the same, but Iran funds them and largely directs their actions.
            Destabilizing the middle east would come at a pretty steep cost. Even the Iranians and Palestinians would suffer tremendously, but their apocalyptic views make them think that it is worth the cost.

            I have to think that the reason the focus is on him rather than Mario Gomez, who was murdered in Chiapas a few days earlier, is the gruesome specifics that were released, as well as the efficiency of the pro-Palestinian global PR machine.

            I admit that I am not unbiased. I hold essentially Zionist views on Israel, and have survived IRGC fanatics trying to kill me. It was my first such experience, and made a strong impression.

            1. Oh dear. I can imagine. Hope you are safe now.
              I think the main reason the Kashoggi murder was so highly publicized is that it happened in Turkey and R.T. Erdoğan did not take kindly or diplomatically to it. Publicizing it and lambasting the Saudis to the chagrin of the Americans suited his politics and boosted his popularity. Also, a journalist murdered and cut into little pieces in an embassy on the order of a feudal prince is the stuff of dreams for the media once it reaches them and not so easily forgotten..

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