Joe Biden’s presidency is likely to have important ramifications for US foreign policy in the Middle East. Biden comes to the job with a lot on his plate. His priorities will surely be to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, heal domestic wounds and rebuild America’s relationship with its European allies. However, the Middle East never has low priorities in the US. Biden previously spent four decades in Congress with a foreign policy focus and then served as Vice President of Barack Obama, who had a significant foreign policy portfolio. As a result, it is almost guaranteed that he will bring this expertise and apply much of it to the Middle East.
The challenges facing the Biden administration in the Middle East stem from the legacies of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. After the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous forays into Iraq and Afghanistan after September 11, Barack Obama came to power in 2009 with the promise of liberating the United States from Iraq and rejuvenating US efforts in Afghanistan . He was able to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq to around 4,000 soldiers while having limited success in the war on terror, including the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Obama generally supported the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Whether or not the overthrow of the three regimes that controlled these countries was a desirable outcome is up for debate, as only Tunisia was in a slightly better position. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the Obama administration has tried to improve conditions in these countries through financial aid and symbolic support. For example, the US promised to make Tunisia a key ally outside of NATO and in 2015 offered the Tunisian government loan guarantees of $ 500 million.
In relation to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen, the Obama administration’s approach has been problematic and contradictory. For example, the US supported a number of Sunni rebels against the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria, but was generally friends with the Shiite-led government in Iraq and led a rapprochement with Syria’s most important ally in the Middle East, Iran. Despite criticizing the Syrian government’s harsh tactics in Syria, the Obama administration not only tolerated the war in Yemen, but also armed it and did little to hold back the Bahraini government during its crackdown on protesters in Manama.
With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama continued to make some efforts to advance the cause of peace in general with little success. In his honor, he waived a veto against a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activities. However, the fact that this act took place at the end of Obama’s presidency meant that it was a purely symbolic gesture with no tangible consequences.
Obama’s greatest success in the Middle East was perhaps the kind of language and diplomatic approach he used. In contrast to the previous Bush administration and the subsequent Trump administration, Obama and his spokesmen used diplomatic language that helped create goodwill.
Donald Trump did just the opposite. He first imposed a so-called Muslim travel ban and condemned the immigration of people from the so-called “shitty countries” to the United States. Trump has also done great damage to the possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The so-called “Deal of the Century” headed by son-in-law Jared Kushner has done nothing to address the root cause of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. The Trump administration also gave in to any outrageous or unilateral demand by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, approving Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and cutting funding from key organizations such as UNWRA and the Palestinian Authority .
In Syria, Trump generally avoided getting embroiled in the Syrian conflict and was cautious about dealing with the Syrian opposition. Although he may have been right about the extremist nature of some Syrian opposition groups, his postponement to Russia and Turkey left the Kurdish communities in northern Syria with little protection. Other Syrian communities in key cities were exposed to the whims of the Assad regime. As a symbolic gesture, Trump fired rockets at a Syrian air base on April 6, 2017 after Syria allegedly crossed a red line and allegedly used chemical weapons.
Likewise, the Trump administration did little to stop Saudi Arabia’s excesses in Yemen, protecting Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump and Kushner played key roles in creating a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran. This has tended to divert attention from the Palestinian cause, which remains arguably the central destabilizing issue in the Middle East. Furthermore, Trump’s assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 could have sparked war, but the Iranians refused to escalate tensions and only launched a symbolic retaliation.
This context is of crucial importance for the Biden administration. President Biden is sure to face the legacy of his past with Obama as he navigates the turbulent waters of Trump. The Biden administration talked a lot and faced the challenge.
By and large, Biden has talked about reducing the presence of U.S. forces in the area but opposed a full withdrawal. The Biden administration is likely to seek continued military support for key US allies. Commenting on Trump’s hasty withdrawal of US forces from Syria, Biden said in a speech in 2019 that Trump’s actions “had a devastating clarity about how dangerous it is to our national security and leadership around the world.” Instead of a complete withdrawal, there are indications that Biden will switch the modus operandi of the US armed forces to largely advisory functions, particularly in the area of counter-terrorism.
These moves are certainly an attempt to reassure American native audiences, which have largely condemned the endless wars that spanned nearly two decades. This strategy is in direct contradiction to Biden’s focus on supporting democracies, which may require continued military presence in countries like Iraq. Biden may remember his tenure under Obama and how the withdrawal of troops led to the strengthening of the Islamic state. With this in mind, the shift in tactical operations should help Biden meet the demands of his constituents while continuing his commitments to his allies in the Middle East.
By maintaining a nominal troop presence, Biden may seek ways to reassert an American role in Syria and Iraq and review Russian drafts. This will be welcome news to Kurdish communities, who have shouldered the brunt of Trump’s withdrawal from Syria. However, Biden should be careful about repeating the mistakes of the Obama administration in Syria: he should at all costs avoid supporting extremist groups or allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar to fund another Salafi-style insurgency.
Although Biden has shown a pro-Israel position than some other Democrats during his career in the U.S. Senate, he will likely want to repair the damaged relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority. Whether Biden will go one step further and pressurize Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians is unlikely. It’s pretty safe to say that Biden will try to re-engage the Palestinians and try to resume peace talks. He could also seek to reinvigorate the Jordanian monarchy, which presides over a key stabilizing country in the region that Trump largely ignored.
Biden will likely encourage further peace efforts between Israel and other Arab nations, but probably not at the expense of advances on the Israeli-Palestinian path. During the peace negotiations between the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain and Israel, Biden congratulated all countries involved on what he described as a “historic step to bridge the deep divisions in the Middle East”. But he also affirmed the “right of the Palestinians to a state” of their own. ‘
When Obama drafted the JCPOA deal with Iran, Biden worked there directly with officials and craft policy. Biden himself made remarks that he was ready to speak to the Iranian leadership. He has since defended the deal. While no one can predict the future with absolute certainty, it is likely that Biden will want to resume some kind of dialogue with Iran.
There are some complications. While the Biden team may have already started talks with Iranian officials, Iran’s position was non-binding. Iran has both hinted that the US should return to the table while at the same time acting bellicose and rejecting US efforts to renegotiate. However, the actions of the Trump administration have shown a notable weakness in American foreign policy. With the possibility of a radical shock every four to eight years, many countries like Iran will be cautious about signing major bilateral agreements, especially those like the JCPOA. Despite these challenges, European allies have urged Biden and his cabinet to implement such plans and this could very well help fuel the momentum.
In pursuing these goals, the Biden government will encounter all sorts of obstacles, not the least of which is the fact that it faces difficult personalities in the region: Netanyahu, Putin, Erdogan, Mohamad bin Salman and others. You need to balance practical considerations with idealistic goals. It is important that the administration takes all aspects into account before making decisions and taking action in the region. Given Biden’s history and expertise in the field, the in-depth administration should be well prepared for these and other challenges. As such, the best outcome would be for the United States to take a balanced approach to the region that does not serve a limited agenda.
Further reading on E-International Relations