As President Joe Biden considers ways to punish Saudi Arabia for driving up global oil prices, he will continue to take advice from Brett McGurk — the controversial White House official who encouraged Biden to court the Saudis, despite his campaign promises and most Democrats’ wariness of the kingdom.
On Tuesday, Biden said he would impose “consequences” on Saudi Arabia over its oil market maneuver, which the White House sought to avoid. U.S. officials say the president plans to do that by working with lawmakers who have complained that his administration has been too soft on the Saudis.
But when HuffPost asked if the president still has confidence in McGurk, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby responded Friday: “Yes. Next question.”
A senior congressional aide blasted Biden over the news — suggesting it could complicate the president’s bid to cooperate with Congress in adjusting his Saudi policy.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that the White House and the president himself still puts faith in Brett McGurk for a strategy and set of policies that have failed to deliver for the United States and its interests,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak to the media.
“The idea that the U.S.-Saudi relationship not only needs to be reevaluated but significantly reset is now not only a progressive-left thing but Democratic Party orthodoxy. McGurk has fought this at every turn, is trapped in the past and should no longer be serving this administration.”
The latest crisis in the two countries’ relations began Oct. 5, when OPEC+ — the international cartel of oil exporters in which Saudi Arabia is a key decision-maker — said it would slash oil production by 2 million barrels a day. The plan is set to drive up gas prices worldwide and boost oil exporter Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine.
Since then, prominent voices in Washington’s debate over the kingdom have highlighted concerns with McGurk and demanded that Biden put pressure on the Saudis.
On Oct. 7, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said he wants McGurk to testify before Congress to “explain why he organized a disastrous visit for @POTUS with MBS over cabinet objections,” referring to a summer meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi human rights activist, criticized McGurk’s advocacy for the trip, pointing to “everything bad the Saudi ... [government] did in all fronts after Biden’s visit.”
“Why do they still see it as a success?!” Alaoudh wrote in an Oct. 6 tweet.
After Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities Monday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he would not approve any U.S. cooperation with the Saudis, hinting at the Biden administration’s policy of major arms sales to the kingdom.
“Either you support the rest of the free world in trying to stop a war criminal from violently wiping off an entire country off of the map, or you support him,” Menendez said in a statement, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chose the latter in a terrible decision driven by economic self-interest. The United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia.”
Before McGurk took over the Saudi file for Biden, he worked on Middle East policy under every president since George W. Bush. Earlier this year, current and former officials who know McGurk told HuffPost that he is a talented bureaucrat and well connected in the region, but they questioned Biden’s choice to empower someone associated with a controversial U.S. track record and choices like largely unchecked support to the Saudis.
“Here’s the brilliance of Brett: The problem he helped create, he comes up again and again as the person to fix it,” one former official, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said in May. “He torched the fucking house and then showed up with a firehose.”
Citing Crown Prince Mohammed’s responsibility for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a devastating military intervention in Yemen, Biden spent months pledging to show the Saudis that they must improve their behavior if they want to remain a close U.S. partner. The administration initially said Biden would not engage with the crown prince but instead deal only with his father and the Saudi head of state, King Salman.
But once in office, the president resisted calls from leading Democrats and advocacy groups to limit weapons deals with the country, punish powerful Saudis involved in the Khashoggi killing and push the kingdom to release jailed dissidents.
The soft touch was not enough for the Saudis, however. The crown prince and people close to him, including pro-Saudi voices in Washington, were dismissive toward Biden and his team in the fall of 2021 and earlier this year, saying the White House needed to do more to woo Riyadh.
“It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking,” said Fred Ryan, the publisher of Khashoggi’s former employer The Washington Post.
After Biden’s trip, the crown prince remained uninterested in a closer relationship, according to The Wall Street Journal, and the Saudis rejected private U.S. requests to delay the cut in oil production.
With Biden and officials like Kirby, the spokesperson, now warning that the U.S. will push the Saudis to change course on oil, Riyadh appears unconcerned about any serious action. The Saudi government has issued repeated statements saying it views the OPEC+ decision as necessary, and it has highlighted that Saudi Arabia voted against Russia on the latest United Nations resolution regarding Ukraine and helped negotiate the release of prisoners of war, including some Americans.
The president may soon take big steps to send a serious message to Riyadh. Biden could endorse a new bill from Khanna and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that would pause all arms sales to the kingdom, as well as crucial logistical and support services; advocate for bipartisan legislation that targets OPEC+; or re-deploy missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia to Ukraine.
But as long as McGurk is a major player, observers fear he might shield the Saudis.