Middle East to continue as a lesser priority to US foreign policy after elections: Participants of AUC seminar

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 29 Oct 2020

'When it comes to the three key interests for the US in the Middle East, namely the security of Israel, the security of the Gulf and the security of oil supplies, the US will continue to be as engaged as it has always been'

AUC seminar

With less than a week to go for the US presidential elections, slated for 3 November, the American University in Cairo (AUC) hosted a seminar to examine the avenues of US foreign policy for the region with either a second term for the incumbent Donald Trump or a victory for the Democratic Joe Biden.

Participating in the seminar, held via videoconference, were AUC professor of political science Bahgat Korany and Karim Haggag, a professor of practice at the AUC and an Egyptian diplomat with experience in the US capital.

Ezzat Ibrahim, Al-Ahram Weekly editor-in-chief and former Al-Ahram Bureau chief in Washington, moderated the seminar that essentially examined the impact of the election of either Trump or Biden on the Middle East in general, and Egypt in particular.

The overall estimate was that whether it is Biden or Trump, the Middle East, Egypt included, is not up for big surprises, or for that matter, changes.

“When it comes to the three key interests for the US in the Middle East, namely the security of Israel, the security of the Gulf and the security of oil supplies, the US will continue to be as engaged as it has always been – under any administration,” Haggag argued.

Haggag added that with either Trump or Biden in the White House the US foreign policy towards the Middle East will continue to be committed to reducing the American military presence in the region and will continue to refrain from being too bogged down in the settlement of any of the major conflicts.

The policies on Iran, the Palestinian question and the level of engagement with the Arab Gulf states, Haggag argued, are the three files where some, but not at all drastic, changes are to be expected.

Biden, Haggag argued, will try to get a new deal with Iran but it will be for sure a deal that would include more concessions from Tehran – and “he would certainly use the sanctions that Trump had imposed on Iran to get the new deal done.”

Biden, he added, might review some of Trump's decisions including those of closing down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington and suspending US humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, but he will certainly not reverse the Trump decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, even if he brings back the two-state-solution approach into more focus.

Biden, Haggag said, will revise relations with some of the Arab Gulf countries, especially that there is already pressure from the US Congress for this to happen, but again without dropping the security of the Gulf and that of the oil supplies as a US foreign policy priority.

A great deal of what Biden might or might not do on the Middle East as elsewhere, as Ibrahim noted during the session, depends on whether or not the Democrats will secure, as some indications have it, the majority in the two houses of the US Congress.

Korany agreed that if the Democrats have the majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would be giving Biden a bigger chance to introduce some of the changes he would wish to get including putting some pressure on some Middle East regimes to adopt more democracy-friendly policies. But again, he added, this scenario of an all Democrats set-up in Washington is unlikely to bring about radical changes for the US foreign policy on the Middle East.

The fact of the matter, Korany added, is that Biden himself is not inclined to introduce many changes, except essentially on Iran and to a lesser extent the US approach towards the Arab-Israeli struggle and relations with Gulf regimes.

Korany argued that is quite an exaggerated assessment to assume that Biden will get rough on the capitals of the regions on matters of democracy.

He added that in particular Egypt will not be subject to such a rough pressure. The pressure from Washington on the democracy and human rights files, Korany reminded, did not at all start, contrary to the assumption of some, under the administration of former US president Barack but rather under his Republican predecessor George W Bush.

“It is important also to realise that this was not a position against Egypt or even for that matter against [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak but rather a position compatible with the US approach towards governance in general which was not comfortable to see a president leading a country for over 30 years when he was getting into his mid-80s,” Korany argued.

“Today things are different for sure, not just because we don’t have an ageing president who has been in office for over 30 years, but also because it has become very clear to Washington that the alternative of political Islam did not work and is unlikely to work simply because the Isalmists had their chance and they just failed,” he added.

Moreover, according to Haggag, most of the advisors working with Biden are from the centre of the middle in the Democratic party which means they would not be pushing too fast or too far on matters related to democratisation.

“It is true that they believe in the role of the US as a leading world power that takes it upon itself to promote democracy but they are also a group of pragmatists who believe in promoting multilateralism,” Haggag said.

The status of Egypt on the US foreign policy agenda, Haggag argued, should be decided by the capacity of Egypt to be a leading player in the region, not to be haunted by concerns of possible US pressure on any particular file.

“So I think it is best to accept that matters related to the support of democracy and human rights are effectively part of the DNA of the US foreign policy but that under the rule of Biden if elected, the entire US foreign policy will not be fully consumed by these two files over everything else,” Haggag said.

Ultimately, Korany argued, foreign policy issues are unlikely to consume a lot of attention from either Trump or Biden – “it barely had any significant space in the presidential debate they had” on 21 October.

It is true, Korany said, the US elections of November this year are coming with a big hype that relates to the severe polarisation in US society, but it is also true that foreign policy is not at all a significant part of this polarisation.

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