Biden and Putin shouldn’t waste time arguing about things they can’t fix

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  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will use some of their meeting this week to prepare for an even more important meeting this summer.
  • A summit between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin should focus on topics where they can agree on something rather than rehashing irreconcilable differences.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet at an Arctic Council ministerial today, the two will be using some of their time together to prepare for an even more important meeting this summer.

A potential summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, likely to take place in Europe, would come at an especially turbulent time in the US-Russia relationship.

The two countries, however, don’t have the luxury of taking the path of least resistance and allowing bilateral relations to atrophy into a permanent state of animosity. Washington and Moscow may not like each other, but they can’t ignore one another either.

For Biden, a summit with his Russian counterpart would be the best opportunity to date to at least inject some predictability into the US-Russia relationship – an objective the president himself emphasized during his April 15 address at the White House.

Putin is the stereotypical autocratic nationalist, a man who puffs out his chest, exaggerates Russia’s power and broadcasts an aura of Russian determination to the world. But the fact is that Russia suffers from a long list of socio-economic problems.

Alexei Navalny Protest
Russians clash with police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, January 23, 2021.

Real disposable incomes for the average Russian citizen have dropped five out of the last seven years. Russia’s GDP is down by 25% since 2013; at $1.7 trillion, the Russian economy is less than one-tenth the size of the US and less than half the size of Germany’s. The gap between the Russian political class and the Russian population is rising, with 75% of Russians skeptical they can influence the Kremlin’s decision-making.

Domestic problems aside, Russia remains a formidable regional power and has demonstrated to the world it will use military force (Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015) if Moscow perceives its core security interests are threatened.

While its defense budget can’t compete with the US or NATO-Europe, Russia doubled its military expenditures between 2000-2017 – much of which has gone into modernization and procurement. Russia is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the world’s largest nuclear weapons power, possessing over 6,200 nuclear warheads.

For the US and Russia, respecting the other’s baseline interests is imperative if both want to move forward. This requires Biden to recognize which issue areas are irreconcilable and which hold promise.

The irreconcilable issues are easy to discern. It is no surprise that Putin will recoil from any topic that touches upon Russia’s domestic affairs. While Biden will likely condemn Alexei Navalny’s persecution and excoriate Putin for cracking down on Russian opposition movements, the Russian government is highly unlikely to change its behavior based on US urgings.

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Putin listens to Biden during a virtual global climate summit, in Moscow, April 22, 2021.

Ukraine, too, will be a contentious issue. US demands that Moscow move its forces out of the Donbas and allow Kiev to retake full control of the Russian-Ukrainian border will fall on deaf ears.

In the seven years since Ukraine’s war in the east began, Russia has made it abundantly clear that a total military victory by Kiev won’t be permitted. The best we can expect is a reaffirmation of support for the Minsk II peace process – hardly a satisfying outcome.

Areas of collaboration, however, are available if both men are willing to seize them.

First, Biden and Putin could use a potential summit to wind down a cycle of diplomatic escalation that shows no sign of ending. Washington and Moscow have traded tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, visa restrictions and entry bans this year.

Those expulsions are largely emotional reactions that do little to solve ongoing disputes like cyberattacks and disinformation operations and in fact just accentuate the grievances. Biden and Putin should at the very least come to an understanding on stopping the escalatory cycle at its current state.

Ideally, a mutually-acceptable arrangement on reversing those measures would be reached – some of which leave ordinary Americans and Russians in the cold.

US Embassy in Moscow
The US Embassy in Moscow.

Second, the US and its NATO allies should resurrect the NATO-Russia Council. This joint council, formed in 2002 to bring NATO and Russian decision-makers together for consultations on areas of mutual interest, has been in a state of purgatory since Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Tensions have only risen in the years since. But it’s precisely during times of strained relations when consultative mechanisms like the NATO-Russia Council are so important.

Third and most consequentially, strategic stability should be at the top of any Biden-Putin agenda. Washington and Moscow have already had some success in this regard, when both agreed to extend the New START agreement, which caps deployed strategic nuclear weapons and launchers.

Biden himself floated a strategic stability dialogue with Moscow that would, in his words, “pursue cooperation in arms control and security.” The Russian Foreign Ministry suggested such an initiative was possible. Any strategic talks will prove remarkably difficult. Yet the alternative of no discussions is even worse.

US-Russia relations will be tense for quite some time. But given that Washington and Moscow hold 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, Biden would be wise to approach Russia not as an ally, friend or adversary, but as a nation that must be engaged with whether we like or not.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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If Biden and Putin actually do meet, they shouldn’t waste time listing the things they’re mad about

FILE PHOTO: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Joe Biden, then US vice president, in Moscow, March 10, 2011.

  • After hawkishness during the campaign, President Joe Biden has taken a pragmatic approach to Russia.
  • Now the world’s two largest nuclear-weapons powers have a responsibility to reduce tensions.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

During his long campaign for the presidency, Joe Biden presented himself as the consummate Russia hawk – a man who would hold the Kremlin accountable for a litany of sins ranging from cyber-espionage to meddling in US elections.

Whereas Biden called China a competitor, he referred to Russia as an “opponent,” a country seeking to bully its neighbors in the post-Soviet space and challenge US hegemony around the world.

In the first 100 days of his term, however, now-President Joe Biden has adopted a more pragmatic mindset with respect to the Kremlin.

While Biden is no dove when it comes to Russia – the administration has enacted several rounds of economic sanctions against Moscow, the latest on April 15 in response to the SolarWinds cyber-breach – he is also cognizant that the US-Russia relationship is too big to fail completely.

If the first several months of Biden’s tenure are any indication of where things are going, dialogue will remain a key plank of US Russia policy going forward.

While the US and Russia won’t be resetting their relations anytime soon, the world’s two largest nuclear-weapons powers have a unique responsibility to ensure tensions between them are mitigated, one another’s core interests are respected and cooperation on common agenda items is preserved.

Russia police protest Alexei Navalny
Law-enforcement officers in front of a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in St. Petersburg, January 23, 2021.

Currently, US-Russia relations can be categorized charitably as unproductive. Anatoly Antonov, the Russian Ambassador to the US, hasn’t been in his Washington, DC, office for a nearly two months. US Ambassador John Sullivan isn’t in his Moscow office either, having traveled back to Washington for consultations partly at Russia’s urging.

Only weeks ago, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin were calling each other names. Before the Russian Defense Ministry ordered a pullback of forces last week, Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine’s eastern border prompted senior US officials to warn Moscow of unspecified consequences in the event of a second invasion.

And of course there’s the situation with Alexei Navalny, Putin’s political foe who the Russian government has tried to silence in more ways than one – first by poisoning, then by a two and a half year prison sentence for violating his parole.

The imminent branding of Navalny’s organization as extremist will re-confirm in the minds of many in Washington that Putin’s Russia is on an irreversible authoritarian track.

However, the question isn’t whether Russia is becoming increasingly autocratic or whether Washington and Moscow can see the world through the same lens.

The question, rather, is whether two powers that control 90% of the world’s nuclear stockpile can find a way to coexist peacefully and settle on a relationship that at least stalls further confrontation.

Minuteman III ICBM missile launch
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, October 2, 2019.

Biden’s remarks at the White House on April 15 are a positive step in the right direction. Stressing that additional deescalation would have negative repercussions for both the US and Russia, Biden emphasized that “[t]he way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process.”

Assuming Biden’s proposed summit with Putin actually happens (the meeting could occur as early as June), this would be a significant development given the current state of US-Russia relations.

But if Biden and Putin are sincere in making some degree of progress, they need to spend far less effort reciting grievances and focus more on what is realistically possible.

Because strategic stability remains the top priority in US-Russia relations, it should be at the very top of the agenda for any summit meeting.

Washington and Moscow have already made strides in this regard by extending New START for another five years, an accord that places strict caps on deployed strategic nuclear warheads and launchers and provides both countries with rigorous inspection protocols to verify compliance.

Saving New START from imminent death, however, is literally the bare minimum the US and Russia could do.

Both nations have now bought themselves additional time to explore more comprehensive arrangements on what strategic weapons systems are next-up for limitations – the Biden-Putin summit would be a perfect forum to jump-start those discussions.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to President Joe Biden during a virtual global climate summit via a video link in Moscow, April 22, 2021.

Washington and Moscow also need to discover a way to move their relations from one of mutual antagonism to one of normality.

Over the last several years, both countries have expelled one another’s diplomats, closed one another’s consulates, and banned certain high-level officials from getting visas. While some of this may have been justifiable in the moment, none of it is conductive to a pragmatic, working relationship over the long-term.

Biden and Putin should therefore use their conversations as an opportunity to stop further expulsions and, when appropriate, to begin lifting current restrictions.

This would admittedly be a small deliverable for a meeting at the head-of-state level. Yet at a time when the US-Russia relationship is at its lowest point in the post-Cold War era, even minor remedial steps can have major dividends down the road.

“The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia,” Biden told the American people earlier this month. “We want a stable, predictable relationship.”

This is the right objective. The Biden administration must now put those words into action.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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Biden’s plan to get out of Afghanistan risks repeating the ‘end’ of the war in Iraq

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A US soldier watches a UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter land in southeastern Afghanistan, August 4, 2019.

  • Biden’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11 doesn’t comply with the peace deal but is welcome.
  • But Biden has to stick to his plan and refuse to let the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 replicate the “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.
  • Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In a video address to the nation on Wednesday last week, President Joe Biden announced the 20-year US war in Afghanistan will finally end by September of this year.

It’s not quite the timeline of the pact negotiated with the Taliban by the Trump administration: Biden said he’ll “begin” the final US withdrawal on May 1, which was to be the deadline for its completion, and instead complete it by the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

This doesn’t exactly comply with the peace deal, but it doesn’t discard it, either, and that could prove enough to hold the Taliban to its side of the bargain.

This is excellent news – long overdue, but only made more welcome by two decades of delay. Biden’s brief speech made a cogent case for US departure from Afghanistan, giving weight to his insistence that this plan is to be taken seriously. That weight is, frankly, needed with a war of this length, cost, and chaos.

Indeed, the challenge for Biden over the next four months will be keeping to his own agenda, refusing to let the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 replicate the “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.

Kuwait US soldiers Iraq withdrawal
Kuwaiti and US soldiers close the border gate after the last vehicle crossed into Kuwait during the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq, December 18, 2011.

Biden’s arguments for ending US intervention in Afghanistan were practical and persuasive. He pointed to the futility of Washington’s nation-building attempts and argued for Afghan self-determination and resolution of what is essentially a civil war.

Recounting a trip to the country in 2008, Biden affirmed that “only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country.”

An endless US war can’t “create or sustain a durable Afghan government,” he said, and we are foolish to continue to try. This is the problem with the conditions-based exit scheme long popular among the bipartisan foreign policy establishment: The conditions will never be met. Thus an ostensible schema for ending the war is in practice a tool to prolong it perpetually, as Biden seems to understand.

The president emphasized the distinction between the war’s initial mission – retribution for 9/11 and “ensur[ing] Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again” – and the aimless mission creep of subsequent years. He promised US counterterror programs would continue to keep Americans safe.

The connection he could have drawn a bit more boldly, however, is that the counterterrorism model of 2001 (invading, occupying, and manipulating a whole country because it hosted terrorist training camps) makes no sense in 2021 (when far more advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities allow the US to monitor and address threats emanating from anywhere in the world).

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Soldiers from the last US military unit to depart Iraq arrive at Fort Hood in Texas, December 21, 2011.

“Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way – US boots on the ground,” Biden rightly said. He should have made clearer that US counterterrorism doesn’t require forever wars either.

That absence is part of what leaves me still a bit skeptical about this plan. In previews of the announcement last week, Biden administration officials told The Washington Post the “goal is to move to ‘zero’ troops [in Afghanistan] by September.”

But a New York Times report the same day revealed “zero” may not mean “zero”: “Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the United States will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors, and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats, current and former American officials said.”

That means this might not be the full withdrawal the remarks suggest. Biden said he wouldn’t pass the responsibility of “presid[ing] over an American troop presence in Afghanistan” to a fifth consecutive president, but that’s only true if we use a deceptively narrow definition of “troops.”

As it stands, it appears Biden’s plan is to keep a small American military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Afghanistan

That continuous exposure to attacks from anti-American forces opens the door to future re-escalation, to precisely the “cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan” Biden decried. It opens the door to an “end” of a war unfortunately reminiscent of the Obama administration’s “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.

There too, ending combat operations didn’t mean going to a true “zero” troop presence. The war re-escalated just three years later when the Islamic State registered as a new regional threat, and it has continued ever since.

“It’s time for American troops to come home” from Afghanistan, Biden said last Wednesday. That’s absolutely correct, and the president should match those words with a full exit that precludes all possibility of resuming our country’s longest war.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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Biden has finally found a country the US can rebuild

Highway collapse traffic
A collapsed freeway overpass near downtown Oakland, California, in 2007.

  • The Biden administration has made an ambitious $2 trillion proposal to address the US’s infrastructure problems.
  • That influx of money would be welcome after two decades and billions of dollars squandered trying to rebuild other countries.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that America’s domestic infrastructure is in utter disarray. Travel down I-95 between New York City and Boston, and you will be lucky not to hit a 5-inch-deep pothole in the middle of the lane.

The United States, the most prosperous country in the world, is now 13th in terms of infrastructure quality, below many of its peers in Europe. Over 20% of its roads are in poor condition. About 127,000 bridges across the US are either structurally deficient or need to be replaced. And as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan showed, even clean water supplies aren’t a given.

The United States, in other words, is in desperate need of investment at home. The alternative is watching as Americans who live in cities continue to suffer from dilapidated highways while their fellow citizens in rural areas are left searching for a basic broadband connection.

The juxtaposition outside US borders is stunning. Over the last two decades, as US infrastructure was worsening, Washington was busy conducting reconstruction initiatives in nations that to this day remain consumed by conflict and led by unaccountable and corrupt governments.

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Afghan policemen stand guard outside the Iraqi embassy in Kabul after an attack, July 31, 2017.

As of December 2020, the US has spent approximately $143 billion of taxpayer money on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

The projects were designed to kickstart the Afghan economy, introduce a degree of self-sufficiency over the long-term, and ensure ordinary Afghans were able to enjoy the kinds of public goods – accessible water supplies, highways, access to hospitals – that are often taken for granted in the West.

Yet the results, to put it generously, have been poor. $1 billion was devoted to schools in Afghanistan that weren’t even operating. A $8.5 billion program to wean Afghan farmers away from growing poppy was unsuccessful, evident in Afghanistan’s current status as the world’s foremost producer of opium.

As Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testified to Congress last month, systemic corruption in Afghanistan undermines US-funded reconstruction initiatives to the point of irrelevancy. Of the $7.8 billion in US reconstruction funds SIGAR investigated, just $1.2 billion – 15% – went to their intended purpose.

Many of the buildings paid for by the US taxpayer were left abandoned. Afghanistan still relies on international donors for 80% of its budget; remains dominated by corruption at all levels of government; and is seemingly incapable of exhibiting the slightest degree of responsibility in how it spends US taxpayer money.

US Soldier Selfie Iraq
A US soldier takes a selfie at the US Army base in Qayyara, south of Mosul, October 25, 2016.

The US experience in Iraq isn’t much better. Despite their good intentions, US officials ran into problems on the reconstruction front almost immediately.

After an infusion of $172 million to restore the Baiji power plant after the initial invasion, the plant was only churning out half of its potential output. The United States sunk billions into large and costly projects the Iraqi government was unable to handle or finance.

Schools and prisons funded by Washington were left idle, while water treatment plants in dangerous areas like Fallujah were overbudget and woefully inadequate for the population. Today, Iraq remains a country so riddled with parochialism and multiple power centers that Shia militias are building up their own revenue streams separate from the state.

As US soldiers and aid workers were essentially throwing billions of dollars in the toilet in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s own schools, roads, and bridges were falling apart.

Total spending on US domestic infrastructure fell between 2007-2017. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US a “C-” on its infrastructure score and estimated that the US economy could lose $10 trillion in GDP by 2039 if Washington failed to plug the infrastructure spending gap.

The Biden administration, like its predecessors, is hoping to solve (or at least mitigate) America’s infrastructure problems with an ambitious $2 trillion proposal that would be paid for over a period of 15 years.

Flint Water Crisis
Michigan Army National Guard soldiers hand out bottled water at a fire station in Flint, Michigan, January 17, 2016.

The plan would dump $600 billion into improving and modernizing ports, railways, bridges and highways. $300 billion would be devoted to supporting domestic manufacturing, while an additional $100 billion would be invested into building up an electric grid prone to occasional outages.

Biden’s initiative will run into steep opposition due to the cost. But leaving the details aside, one can’t help but feel a sense of jubilation that US policymakers are actually showing some interest in investing in America rather than in countries overseas that have proven to be perpetually weak, dysfunctional, and perhaps even immune to US generosity.

Policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits still like to describe the United States as an exceptional nation in a league of its own. But no nation, not even the United States, can thrive if it underinvests in its own communities or takes its eyes of the ball to what is truly important: expanding its own strength domestically.

It’s a lesson the old denizens of the Soviet Union learned the hard way – and when they finally appreciated the concept, it was too late.

America’s source of power overseas is anchored in its prosperity at home. If the US is so keen on nation-building, it should start and end in its own cities and towns.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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There are no victories left to win for US troops in Iraq and Syria. It’s time for Biden to bring them home.

Army soldiers Syria Bradley fighting vehicle
US soldiers walk to an oil production facility to meet with its management team, in Syria, October 27,2020.

  • The US still has 3,500 troops in Iraq and several hundred more in Syria.
  • Any benefit the US may get from those deployments is dwarfed by the risks of keeping them there.
  • Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and former US Army lieutenant colonel.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The United States will engage in a “strategic dialogue” with Iraq this month, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week. The key agenda item, she explained, was the US combat deployment there.

How or whether to extend the operation should not be part of the discussion. Nailing down details of the withdrawal should.

The 3,500 US troops currently in Iraq serve no purpose related to American national security. They don’t have a militarily attainable mission which could be recognized and signal the end of the deployment. The only benefactor is the government in Baghdad and even they are ready to show America the exit.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi told reporters in Iraq he is approaching April’s dialogue with Washington as a chance to push for the withdrawal of American troops. He cited what he considered a positive outcome from the June 2020 strategic dialogue with the US in which Iraq “succeeded in reducing the size of the US combat forces in Iraq by 60%.”

In this upcoming meeting, al-Kadhimi added, he will seek the complete “redeployment of [US] forces outside of Iraq.” The administration, however, appeared interested in cooling such talk.

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A US Army crew chief looks over the Tigris River from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, March 3, 2021.

At the recent press briefing, Psaki sought to “further clarify that coalition forces are in Iraq solely for the purpose of training and advising Iraqi forces to ensure that ISIS cannot reconstitute.” If the troops are not officially engaged in direct combat, some believe, the deployment will be more palatable to the American people.

There is little evidence the US population cares about the nuance, however. Upward of 75% want the troops to return home. Such views are well-founded, as the troops no longer provide even nominal support for US security interests.

The reason troops are in Iraq at all today is because President Barack Obama sent them to help Baghdad fend off the rise of ISIS in the summer of 2014.

When President Donald Trump assumed office, he beefed up the military presence and gave them the mission of helping the Iraqi military (and later Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria) retake the territory ISIS had captured. That mission was completed in Iraq in November 2017 and in Syria in March 2019.

Today ISIS has been driven underground, as is the case with numerous other violent insurgent groups in the Middle East. Though ISIS poses a potential terror threat – as literally scores of other radical groups do – the threat they pose is limited and in any case is not diminished by having a few thousand troops on the ground in either Iraq or Syria.

Lt. Gen. Paul Calvert, commander of the US-led counter-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria, told Defense One that ISIS’s “ability to reemerge is extremely low right now.”

What does concern Calvert, however, are the volatile cultural and political conditions in both countries. “It’s clear to me and people that I’ve talked to [in Iraqi government],” Calvert said, “there’s a significant amount of concern in terms of the possibilities of an internal Shia civil war.” Things in Syria are even worse.

Army soldier M2 Bradley fighting vehicle Syria
A US soldier next to an M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle in northeastern Syria, December 16, 2020.

Aside from the ongoing civil war, operating within Syria are Iranian troops fighting alongside Syrian troops, Russian Air Force bombers striking anti-Syrian targets, Russian mercenaries, Shia militias, Kurdish elements Turkey considers terrorists, and Kurdish groups the US considers allies.

American troops have sometimes narrowly avoided armed clashes with Russian combat troops, Syrian troops, and even its NATO-ally Turkey. In somewhat of an understatement, Calvert said the “level of complexity in Syria is immense and is probably one of the most complex environments I have seen in the 33 years that I’ve been serving.”

Whatever incremental security benefit may exist with US troops being deployed in Iraq and Syria, they are dwarfed by the strategic risk we incur every minute we remain on the ground there.

We are in a sea of civil conflict in Syria and in danger of semi-regular rocket attacks in Iraq. Our military presence cannot influence the political outcome in either country.

The best thing Biden can do for the security of the United States and to preserve the lives of our service members from unnecessary risk at the security dialogue with Baghdad is to withdraw our troops, in full, from both Iraq and Syria as soon as possible.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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The world has changed, and now Biden needs to change how the US deals with Saudi Arabia

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

  • President Joe Biden’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.
  • Blowing up the relationship wouldn’t be wise, but the US does need to stop treating Saudi Arabia like it’s still the 20th century, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel DePetris.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is in a state of turbulence.

Persistent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis, including a March 7 strike on a major Saudi oil export facility at Ras Tanura, has led Washington to reiterate its “unwavering” commitment to the defense.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi underscores just how urgent a recalibration of US-Saudi relations really is.

The Biden administration has taken pains to thread the needle between accountability for the killing of a journalist and permanent US resident and the need to maintain a constructive relationship with the kingdom. In general, this is the correct approach. As despicable as bin Salman’s behavior has been since he rose from obscure prince to day-to-day ruler, the US blowing up the entire relationship would not be wise.

This, however, doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t in need of serious work. The US has too often based its engagement with Saudi Arabia as if the world was still in the 20th century.

President Joe Biden needs to reset the terms at an institutional level, getting away from an oil-for-security paradigm no longer as durable today as it was 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Instituting a travel ban on problematic Saudis, slapping financial sanctions on certain Saudi entities and cutting Prince Mohammed off from Biden are surface-level gestures. What Washington needs is real reform.

Mohammed Bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, arrives at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016.

Washington and Riyadh established their strategic relationship at the tail end of World War II, when US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud struck a transactional arrangement that would come to be known colloquially as the oil-for-security scheme.

In return for the Saudis opening their taps and providing a reliable supply of crude oil into the market, the US would grant the kingdom the defense articles and military training needed to protect itself from external threats. The understanding proved to be a pragmatic and largely effective one for both countries, both of which were wary of the Soviet Union and concerned about what Soviet expansionism in the Middle East would mean for the world’s most valuable energy source.

For US officials at the time, having one of the world’s biggest oil producers in Washington’s corner was simply common-sense.

Times, however, have changed. The Soviet Union, America’s adversary for over 45 years, has been in the history books for nearly three decades. While fossil fuels remain vital for the global economy, the tremendous progress being made in green energy is giving the world, including the United States, an opportunity to diversify its energy sources and thereby lessen its dependence on crude oil.

As a consequence, Riyadh has lost some of its influence over geopolitics. In 1991, the US imported 1.8 million barrels of Saudi oil per day. According to the Energy Information Agency’s own data, that figure has gone down to 530,000 barrels per day – the lowest since 1985.

Just because the US is importing less Saudi oil, of course, doesn’t mean the kingdom’s oil reserves are not important. But what it does mean is that the old oil-for-security model that has dominated bilateral relations for so long is less relevant in 2021 than it was during the Cold War.

Back then, a rival superpower dictating Persian Gulf oil prices was at least a plausible scenario for US policymakers and defense planners. Nobody can seriously make the same argument today – Iran and Russia are far too weak militarily and economically to reach hegemonic status, and China doesn’t seem particularly interested in bogging itself down in the Middle East.

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.

The president’s decision last month to end offensive US military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a big step in the right direction, distancing Washington from Riyadh’s reckless air campaign and sending King Salman and his favorite son a message that the US won’t automatically be at the beck and call of the kingdom – especially when the kingdom’s own actions are a big part of the problem.

But a recalibration will stall if the Biden administration thinks all it needs to do is reprimand Crown Prince Mohammed and put the brash heir in his place. And it won’t succeed at all if Washington neglects three critical points: 1) Saudi Arabia is not a formal US treaty ally, 2) US and Saudi interests are more likely to diverge than coalesce, and 3) What is good for the kingdom in the Middle East does necessarily correlate with what is good for the US.

Biden has a golden opportunity to rewrite the old, 75-year-old contract governing the US-Saudi relationship, one where the US approaches the kingdom like any authoritarian state with a terrible human rights record: skeptical and at arms-length, but ready to do business when US national security interests demand it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

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Biden can end the US war in Afghanistan in 2 months. He just has to do what Trump agreed to do.

Joe Biden soldiers troops Bagram Kabul Afghanistan
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with US soldiers at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, January 12, 2011.

  • Under a deal signed by President Donald Trump, US troops would leave Afghanistan by May 1.
  • President Joe Biden pledged to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” but he looks set to renege on Trump’s deal.
  • If Biden wants end the US war in Afghanistan, he has to stick to that deal, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The war in Afghanistan is over, if President Joe Biden wants it.

Well, to be a little more precise, the 20-year US military intervention in decades-long Afghan civil strife is scheduled to be concluded on May 1 of this year per the terms of an agreement negotiated between our government and the Taliban.

That deadline can be met and Biden’s campaign pledge about Afghanistan fulfilled if he chooses to ignore his advisers and stick with his predecessor’s plan.

That’s a big “if,” and a recent report from Vox, citing unnamed officials in the administration, suggested Biden keeping the deadline is already “off the table.” It shouldn’t be.

For all their differences, leaving Afghanistan is a point on which Biden and Trump agree – and for all Trump’s failure to end the US role in this war as he promised, the May 1 deadline is worth keeping.

The reasons to leave are manifest: We’ve occupied Afghanistan for the span of a generation. We’ve fielded deployments north of 100,000. We’ve suffered and inflicted tens of thousands of casualties, many on innocent civilians. We’ve spent and borrowed trillions.

And, for all that, we have not eradicated terrorism or built a stable democracy or guaranteed human rights or fostered peace. Another year of fighting won’t change that. Nor will another 10.

US soldiers troops war in Afghanistan
US Marine Sgt. William Olas Bee has a close call after Taliban fighters open fire near Garmsir in Helmand Province, May 2008.

“Washington has spent $2 trillion in Afghanistan just to stay exactly where it was almost two decades ago,” as the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford recently explained at Foreign Policy. “And if Biden doesn’t withdraw now, we’ll all still be having this argument in five or 10 years, with no substantive improvement to the situation.”

This is a lost war which is not worth our while to continue, and everyone but the Washington establishment knows it.

And speaking of Washington, that brings us to the absurdities typically presented as reasons to stay. As Ashford observed, it’s “the Washington establishment that wants Biden to throw out Trump’s Afghanistan policy.” She pointed to the findings of the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), which were published last month.

“The group actually ignored the recommendations of its own advisors,” Ashford said, “which advocated two options: withdraw by the May deadline, or negotiate a single, one-time extension to push for political settlement.”

Instead, the ASG advised the Biden administration to keep US boots on the ground in Afghanistan indefinitely, prolonging the occupation until an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state” somehow emerges from the ether.

It should go without saying that any person of good conscience wants Afghans to live in freedom, peace, security, and prosperity with a transparent government that respects – and is competent to protect – their rights.

But by now, approaching the 20th anniversary of the US invasion in 2001, it should also go without saying that these are not conditions the United States can create for Afghanistan. It’s not that the goal is wanting in merit. It’s simply a goal we have proved, year after year and administration after administration, we cannot accomplish.

Biden would be wise to recognize this difficult truth and break this miserable and pointless pattern. That means putting the May 1 deadline back on the table and bringing all our troops home.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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North Korea’s nukes aren’t going anywhere, and the US needs to get over it

Joe Biden South Korea
Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, August 11, 2001.

  • The Biden administrations departure from Trump’s approach to North Korea is a useful change.
  • But Biden’s continued insistence on denuclearization is counterproductive, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
  • If the US sets that aside, a multitude of more practical goals become achievable.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Observers should not mistake the absence of direct engagement between Washington and Pyongyang for disinterest in the fate of US-North Korea relations, State Department representative Ned Price said in a recent press briefing.

Price stressed that the administration’s “strategic goals” with the Kim Jong Un regime will be “focus[ed] on reducing the threat to the United States and to our allies as well as to improving the lives of the North and South Korean people. And, again, the central premise is that we remain committed to denuclearization of North Korea.”

The Biden team’s workmanlike approach is an expedient change from their predecessors’ photo-op diplomacy. But this continued insistence on denuclearization as the primary goal in US-North Korea engagement is incredibly counterproductive.

Hwasong 15 North Korean missile (ICBM)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviews a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in an undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency, November 30, 2017.

If Biden and his team are serious about making headway on their first two strategic goals – threat reduction and humanitarian gains on the Korean Peninsula – they must drop the third. For progress with North Korea, forget denuclearization.

We can do that safely for three reasons. First, as Price himself noted, “the United States, of course, remains the most powerful and strongest country in the world.” Even with nuclear weapons, North Korea’s military might is miniscule by comparison. In nuclear and conventional weaponry alike, the US advantage is overwhelming, as the Kim regime well knows.

This is not to say Pyongyang couldn’t do real damage. It could – the South Korean capital of Seoul, a city of 10 million, is only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, well within North Korea’s strike range.

But Kim is unquestionably aware of the consequences unprovoked aggression against a US ally (let alone the United States proper or our military, which has an extensive South Korean presence) would bring. He would not finish the resultant conflict in power; he might not finish it alive.

That glaringly obvious truth creates a powerful deterrence for the United States, and it is a deterrence which maintaining the nuclear status quo indefinitely will not obviate.

Kim Jong Un Missile
Kim at what was said to be a missile test site at an undisclosed location in North Korea, May 15, 2017.

Second, Price repeats the longstanding claim that denuclearization is itself a goal. This is not – or, at least, should not be – quite correct. The proper goal is avoidance of horrific, world-changing, history-altering nuclear war.

Denuclearization is one means of accomplishing that avoidance. But it is not the only way, and the mere existence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons does not mean they will be used.

The United States is already securely coexisting with a nuclear North Korea. We are stably coexisting with other nuclear powers, too, including several (chiefly China and Russia, but also Pakistan, if conventional wisdom is correct) that are hardly reliably friendly to America.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal is of a similar strength to our own, and China boasts a far more powerful military and economy than North Korea ever could. Yet complete denuclearization of these countries is not standard US policy, not only because it is an unachievable aim for Washington but because it is not necessary to avoid nuclear war.

We can likewise avoid nuclear conflict involving North Korea without attaining denuclearization – indeed, we have done it for decades.

Finally, forgetting denuclearization for now may ultimately get us to denuclearization, and it will certainly help us toward the administration’s other two goals of de-escalation and improved quality of life for the Korean people.

Joe Biden South Korea troops
Biden, then vice president, with Joint Joint Security Area soldiers in Panmunjom, December 7, 2013.

If we set aside denuclearization – a concession Pyongyang will not make so long as it perceives any risk of forcible, US-orchestrated regime change like that in Iraq and Libya – a multitude of more practical and feasible goals become accessible to us.

Working-level diplomacy by the Biden administration could accomplish a nuclear freeze, regular inspections of Kim’s arsenal, or even some reduction of his nuclear stockpile or missile systems. It could produce, seven decades late, a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War. It could bargain for concessions from Pyongyang by offering cessation of US sanctions that harm ordinary North Koreans. It could permit expanded, Korean-directed engagement between North and South Korea, including trade and reconnection of divided families.

It could take steps toward making North Korea a far more normal country, opening the “hermit kingdom” to the global culture and economy and giving its people a shot at deprograming themselves from their government’s sadistic brainwashing. And it could ultimately lay the groundwork for a new era in North Korean foreign relations, one which might mature someday, probably long after this administration is over, into a denuclearized and even democratic Pyongyang.

None of that is possible, however, if the Biden administration insists on denuclearization now. A shortsighted demand for Kim to concede what he views as his sole guarantee against American invasion will ensure Biden leaves office just like former President Donald Trump, having moved the needle on US-North Korean relations not an inch.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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Biden’s approach to Iran is better than Biden makes it sound

Iran missile launch
A missile is launched in a drill in Iran, January 16, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden’s comments in his first weeks in office have raised concern about whether he’ll pursue the diplomacy with Iran he promised during his campaign.
  • But posturing is to be expected, and Biden’s more substantive moves, and the personnel he picks, that merit attention, writes Defense Priorities fellow Shahed Ghoreishi.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In a recent interview, President Joe Biden said the US will not return to the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, until Iran stops enriching uranium first. A “US senior official” clarified the remarks, repeating a campaign line that Iran has to “stop enriching beyond the limits of the JCPOA” – not “all” enrichment.

Understandably, diplomacy advocates were concerned by Biden’s initial remarks, but there are good reasons to remain hopeful. The public posturing is par for the course. President Barack Obama did the same, before approving secret talks in Oman in 2013 that laid the groundwork for the deal.

While public announcements remain important, the real scrutiny should be directed at substantive moves – some of which are happening behind the scenes. In this regard, Biden has made a number of positive moves signaling his desire to de-escalate away from the crisis the Trump administration created with Iran, return to the Iran deal, and ultimately avoid another endless war in the Middle East.

First, Biden quickly moved an aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, out of the Persian Gulf in an early signal to Iran that he desires lower tensions.

Iran Biden Trump protest
Protesters burn pictures of President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, November 28, 2020.

In mid-January, Iran conducted its fifth military drill in two weeks, while the Trump administration sent the USS Nimitz, along with multiple B-52 flights, to the region as a threat to Iran. Between the Trump administration’s military threats and Iran’s increasing stockpile of uranium, tensions were high and speculation that Trump might order a strike on Iran churned until his last days in office.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “believes that we have a robust presence in the Middle East” and therefore didn’t need to send any provocative signals to Iran.

The merits of having a “robust presence” in the region deserve their own scrutiny, but in this case avoiding dramatic displays is meaningful, even if more routine military activity in the Persian Gulf continues.

Second, the Biden administration suspended offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and reversed the decision to place Houthis on the official terrorism designation list. The suspension came in the context of Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling out Saudi Arabia for “contributing” to the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”

While these actions were done in the context of the Biden administration ending US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, they do send a signal the US is hoping to have a more balanced approach to the region.

After all, it was the Trump administration that spent four years following our authoritarian partners’ lead in the region, even after the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

It was Obama who originally said Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn to “share the region,” instead of embracing regional competition.

In fact, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail. This is the first step in giving the US a more balanced approach to the region and greater strategic flexibility – rather than taking the Gulf States’ side in their regional rivalry with Iran.

Third, Biden has already signaled his intentions with his personnel choices by bringing on a number of experienced, pro-diplomacy advocates that know how to engage Iran.

This includes the Biden administration’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal; national security advisor Jake Sullivan, who met with the Iranians in Oman prior to the JCPOA negotiations; and nominee for CIA Director William Burns, a veteran diplomat. Since the Biden administration has stated its intention to expand diplomacy with Iran even after returning to the JCPOA, these veterans will be that much more critical.

Lastly, there is a lot that we still do not know. The preliminary talks in Oman during the Obama administration became public nearly a year after they took place, when higher level negotiations were underway.

FILE PHOTO: (L-R) Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry listen as President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki address reporters after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, November 1, 2013.     REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
Biden, then vice president, and Antony Blinken, then deputy national security advisor, in the Oval Office, November 1, 2013.

The Biden administration has to deal with congressional hawks, advocacy organizations that prefer continued animosity, lobbyist firms, and regional partners that benefit from the status quo of a heavily sanctioned Iran.

Israel has already threatened to strike Iran if the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA. The current team in the White House has not forgotten the lessons of the Obama administration and understands the public-relations sphere.

It goes to show the real progress diplomacy has had when expectations for diplomacy are as high as they are. The Biden administration’s move to review US sanctions policy and how it undermines COVID-19 response in various countries, including Iran, was praised, but has been quickly forgotten since. These important moves should not be taken lightly.

Yes, the window of diplomatic opportunity with Iran will not remain open forever, but important gestures have been made. The path toward a balanced approach to the region and avoiding another endless war is still very much before us.

Shahed Ghoreishi is a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi

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Biden needs to remember what kind of friend Saudi Arabia really is

Mohammad bin Salman king salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, with his father, King Salman, at a meeting in Riyadh, December 9, 2018.

  • President-elect Joe Biden has long been skeptical of the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the way previous administrations have cozied up to Riyadh.
  • As president, Biden should trust his instincts and remember that Saudi Arabia needs the US more than the US needs Saudi Arabia, writes Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As presidential candidates have been doing since the dawn of time, Joe Biden made his fair share of promises and commitments on the campaign trail.

The United States, he said, would be respected again on the world stage. Russia and its spymaster president, Vladimir Putin, would be held accountable. US foreign policy would be smarter, less volatile, and more considerate of Washington’s allies.

Some promises, however, are more important than others. And if there is one idea the president-elect should make good on as he prepares for Inauguration Day on January 20, it’s the absolute necessity of reforming Washington’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Biden has been a relative skeptic of the kingdom during his long career. When he was a senator and influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he frequently pointed out in floor speeches and media interviews that Saudi Arabia was less an iron-clad friend of the United States and more a partner of convenience.

During a 2004 interview with PBS, Biden questioned whether the United States was getting anything out of its bilateral relationship with Riyadh, a statement considered heresy at the time. But however unpopular those words may have been, it was an astute observation: What, exactly, does Washington get for granting the Saudi monarchy special favors?

trump saudi arabia

Biden’s reticence towards the kingdom hasn’t decreased with age – if anything, the feelings have hardened. At one point during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden openly called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” a term normally reserved for folks like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

Biden’s assessment is no doubt driven by the direction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has taken the monarchy, a path that includes state-sanctioned assassinations of journalists, aggressive and bumbling misadventures overseas, and the creation of the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today.

Releasing tough statements, of course, is one thing. Following those statements through with concrete action is another thing entirely. The Biden administration should approach its policy on Saudi Arabia with three key elements in mind.

First, the Biden White House won’t be able to reassess US-Saudi relations if it doesn’t start with an accurate baseline. When it comes down to it, Saudi Arabia needs the United States a lot more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia. This frequently gets overlooked in Washington, which tends to view the kingdom as if the world was still in the 20th century. Yes, Saudi Arabia is the world’s second-largest oil crude oil producer, but US oil imports from the Persian Gulf have declined by nearly 70% over the last decade as the US becomes more energy independent.

Unlike the Cold War, when Soviet domination of Middle Eastern oil supplies was very much on the minds of US policymakers, there is no power today – regional or otherwise – remotely close to attaining the status of a market-making oil hegemon. This includes a more assertive China, which despite relying on the Persian Gulf for 47% of its oil supplies watched with glee as Washington got bogged down in the Middle East. Beijing’s conclusion: A permanent military presence in the region is a costly endeavor.

Donald Trump Saudi Arabia

Second, the Biden administration should view the US-Saudi relationship for what it really is: A pragmatic arrangement whose genesis occurred at a very different time, in a very different world with very different circumstances.

While Washington and Riyadh have boasted relatively decent relations since President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz al-Saud met on the USS Quincy in the closing days of World War II, it’s important to remember there is no formal alliance between the two nations. The US is not obligated to defend the kingdom in the event of an attack, nor do the Saudis enjoy the privilege of unconditional US diplomatic or military support. To believe otherwise is to give the monarchy veto power over US foreign policy. Any problem in the Middle East, no matter how detached from US security interests, would automatically morph into a problem for the United States.

Third and finally, it’s critical for Biden and his foreign policy team to recognize just how divergent US and Saudi interests truly are. For the kingdom, Iran is a regional nemesis that seeks to undercut Saudi influence. Yet to Washington, Iran is a third-rate nuisance whose economic, military, and diplomatic leverage is manageable.

Saudi Arabia hopes to increase its influence to the point where it transforms into the Middle East’s perennial power. The US, in contrast, doesn’t have an interest in putting its thumb on the scales or picking winners and losers, which would upend the balance of power and drag the US military further into the region’s internal disputes.

Keeping these three principles in mind will help Biden navigate a US-Saudi relationship in sore need of a reappraisal. Washington doesn’t owe Saudi Arabia anything – certainly not hundreds of millions worth of smart bomb sales, tens of billions of dollars worth of offensive military equipment, or US involvement in a calamity of Riyadh’s own making.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at Newsweek.

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