After more than a year of attempting to placate the extremists in his own party, US President Joe Biden's trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week may signal a return to foreign policy pragmatism.
A pivot back to the status quo ante is long overdue.
Congressional "progressives" (an imprecise characterization of their regressive policies) have had it out for Saudi Arabia and Israel for the better part of a decade. Both countries have earned this opprobrium because they stand firm against ill-advised, American-led nuclear diplomacy that would yield billions of dollars to the clerical regime in Tehran.
Both countries have warned that such a deal would only place fleeting checks on Iran's nuclear ambitions, while enabling the regime to fund its terrorist proxies around the Middle East. Both countries also stand firm against Islamist groups with global ambitions, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Extremists in Congress find all of this problematic. They seek to empower extremists from both sides of the Muslim sectarian divide. Most alarmingly, they appear content to legitimize the regime in Tehran, despite its nuclear mendacity, support for terrorist groups, and rapacious human rights abuses.
Through populism and bombast, these legislators hope to re-write the foreign policy status quo in the Middle East and to torpedo longstanding American alliances in favor of new pacts with rogue states. Their rhetoric makes it rather obvious.
Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) has decried "Racism and the politics of hate" in Israel, conveniently ignoring that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, with an Arab minority that enjoys more rights than any of its neighbors.
Ilhan Omar (D-MN) blames Saudi Arabia for "causing the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet in Yemen," while conveniently ignoring the ongoing role of Iran in funding, training and smuggling weapons to their Houthi terrorist proxies in that country.
Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is now in an open clash with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) over Sanders' positions and enthusiasm for anti-Israel candidates. AIPAC now seeks to roll back the influence of the octogenarian and his fellow radicals in Congress, sometimes referred to as "the Squad."
For a time, it appeared the president was willing to countenance such extremism. As a candidate, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah," and pulled American support for the Saudi war against the Houthis in Yemen very early on in his presidency.
And while he had Israel's back during most of the eleven-day conflict with the terrorist group Hamas last year, he eventually turned on then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. White House staffers leaked stories of tension between the two leaders, purportedly driven by Biden's outrage over certain Israeli military actions.
Remarkably, the president also appeared content to ignore a historic diplomatic breakthrough forged by his predecessor Donald Trump. After brokering normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab nations (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco), the Saudis and Israelis were reportedly on the cusp of doing the same. But when Trump lost the election in 2020, Biden chose not to pursue things any further. Once again, he appeared content to appease his anti-Israel and anti-Saudi colleagues on Capitol Hill.
One and a half years into his presidency, Biden appears to understand the folly of trying to placate the "woke" elements of his party on foreign policy. The shunning of Saudi Arabia gained him little. Admittedly, there was some wisdom behind holding the crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. But after the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis, tensions with Riyadh became an enormous liability.
In an effort to revive the transactional friendship with Saudi Arabia, one based on the principle of American security guarantees in exchange for a steady and affordable supply of oil, Biden is now hoping for a reset. With any luck, Biden may be able to leverage this for lower prices at the pump – although the likelihood of doing so in the short term seems low.
Moreover, the president appears prepared to pursue Saudi-Israeli normalization. Reports out of Israel suggest that the president's visit is likely to yield a number of announcements. They will likely fall short of full normalization, but the relationship is moving inexorably toward mutual-recognition and non-aggression. With a nudge from Washington, full peace between these two countries could very well pave the way for a much more stable and prosperous Middle East. There may even be an opportunity to convince the Palestinians to drop some of their most unreasonable irredentist demands.
Howls can now be heard from certain quarters on Capitol Hill, decrying the president's trip. And the president hears them. He is now trying to avoid the appearance of a full reversal of his positions regarding the Saudi crown prince. He is also paying a visit to the Palestinians, so as to inject a sense of balance in his trip to Israel.
However, short of torching both alliances, the president will never be able to placate the radicals in his own party. Their positions are deeply ideological. Biden, by contrast, built his lengthy political career as a pragmatist. That's probably why many Americans voted for him after four years of non-traditional foreign policy by his predecessor.
Biden's trip to the Middle East this week may not yield huge wins. But its importance should not be ignored. Biden is openly defying his left flank. If he keeps his nerve, he could lay the foundation for a return to foreign policies that embrace our traditional allies and promote stability in a regional that is still vital to America's interests.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press 2021). Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.