The changing of the guard at the White House has raised hopes for diplomatic settlements to decade-long conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria. It has also promised reduced tensions in Iraq and Sudan, and support for their governments’ reconstruction programmes.
Of course, whenever a new president enters the Oval Office, the people of the region hope for a fresh and balanced approach to the Palestinian question. The Trump administration’s determination to pressure a number of Arab countries into normalising relations with Israel while ignoring the need to pursue a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has only complicated the task of resolving a conflict that has lasted more than 70 years.
For the moment, however, President Joe Biden and his administration are preoccupied with urgent domestic needs shaped, above all, by the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic downturn, mounting unemployment and the volatile sociopolitical polarisation epitomised by the storming of the Capitol building. On the foreign policy front, most of the focus is on the question of the Iranian nuclear programme, reengaging with Europe and strengthening the Western alliance, as well as sending signals heralding shifts in policies towards China and Russia.
Washington certainly has a lot on its plate, probably more than at any time since the end of the Cold War, and it is struggling to order priorities. For our region, this raises the question of whether it is possible to rely on the US to achieve sustainable resolutions to Middle East conflicts. Despite all the excitement over the new faces in the White House, there are no clear indications of how efficacious US interventions would be under Biden, though it would be safe to say that where Trump was inclined to military and economic threats and arm twisting, Biden will lean towards diplomatic leverage underpinned by US military and economic power.
Judging from his first few weeks in office, Biden’s approach to the Middle East, in general, rests on solid alliances with Washington’s historic partners: the Gulf countries, Israel and, of course, Egypt, Jordan and – according to observers, the latest addition to this group – Sudan. As his Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, this is the time to restore and revitalise alliances. According to experts, changing circumstances and conditions, especially the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, will be among the main factors to determine how Washington goes about this.
For example, it was the brutal humanitarian plight in Yemen that led Biden to revoke the terrorist designation that the Trump administration had applied to the Houthi rebel group in his final days in office. State Department officials made it clear that this did not alter Washington’s position on the Houthis’ behaviour and that the step was only necessary in order to facilitate humanitarian relief operations. At the same time, Washington has reiterated its long-standing commitment to protecting the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, in particular.
The Biden team’s position on Iran, on the other hand, is still up in the air. Although Biden has stated that he hopes to return to the nuclear agreement from which Trump unilaterally withdrew, Blinken has said that this process could take a long time. He then cautioned that, if Iran lifted more of the agreement’s restraints it could come closer to having enough material to produce a nuclear weapon. The US is caught in the dilemma of having to determine how to tackle Tehran: by being tough or by inducements to encourage it back to the negotiating table.
Nevertheless, it does say something that, in his first major policy address last week, President Biden mentioned “the Middle East” only once (in connection with Yemen). As mentioned above, his administration is prioritising those foreign policy issues that impact his country’s interests most directly, such the competition with China over world leadership, clipping Russia’s wings and utilising the Western alliance for such purposes.
This does not signify that Washington, under Biden, will avoid taking action on matters related to the region. But it does mean that Washington might lack the enthusiasm needed to play a more definitive role in resolving complex issues such as the civil wars in Libya and Yemen.
Hopefully, the Biden administration will see these conflicts in a strategic framework that transcends the Cold War-like head-butting with adversaries in the global power game. In recent years the Middle East has endured far too much warfare, suffering and attrition. Its people want world powers to play more constructive roles and to remedy the wrongs that drove the region to uncontainable wildfires of strife.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly