Like every country or region across the world, the Arab nations are likely watching the contentious presidential campaign unfolding in the US and anxiously wondering what the outcome could mean for them.
US policy in the Middle East, one of the most bipartisan issues in Washington, has shifted under Donald Trump’s Republican administration, and all eyes are now on Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden and whether he will change any of Trump’s actions.
As the race for choosing America’s next president heats up and the Arabs weigh the choice between Trump and Biden, the Arab world faces a potential challenge: a shortage of options to set priorities and objectives in the post-US election era.
After four years of reckless US Middle East policies under Trump, the Arabs should be counting the days to the November elections, hoping that fairer and more value-driven foreign policies will be adopted by the next US administration.
Trump’s incoherent foreign policy has played a pivotal role in reshaping US relationships with the Middle East. Instead of its traditional proactive and even hegemonic foreign policy that the US has always pursued in the Middle East, Trump followed his instincts and pushed a hotchpotch approach that aimed solely at erasing former US president Barack Obama’s legacy.
The Trump administration’s vision for the Middle East, as stated in the US National Security Strategy, merely mentions vague goals, such as promoting stability and a favourable balance of power, while lacking any mention of cooperation and engagement with regional powers to solve complex issues.
Trump’s irrational Middle East policies, including on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the crises in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and over energy, have largely been seen as encouraging chaos and making US allies in the region uncertain and fearful.
The Middle East peace plan, touted as the “Deal of the Century,” which was introduced by Trump in January 2020 fell remarkably short of that goal and was unlikely ever to become the basis for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The framework was a sharp departure from decades of US policy of supporting a Palestinian state and heavily tilted in favour of Israel and paved the way for the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories.
The plan aimed primarily to boost the Israeli extreme right and its plans to end the two-state solution, inflicting more anger, despair and hopelessness on the Palestinians and making the region as a whole more combustible and dangerous.
A similar lack of clear objectives and coherent strategy features in the Trump administration’s policies towards Iran. Trump’s attempts to undermine a 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear programme have run into serious problems and raised the threat of a broader regional confrontation.
Trump’s escalation with Iran has become the most vivid example yet of his foreign-policy fiascos and has ironically raised tensions with Iran just as it has weakened the overall US position in the Middle East.
The absence of US leadership in the Middle East or even basic guidance under Trump has been underscored by his failure to respond effectively to events in Iraq and Syria and has consequently raised alarms about the future of the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
One of the key issues that has put the Middle East at a crossroads today is the Trump administration’s strategy on countering rising Chinese and Russian influence in the region, enabling Beijing and Moscow to focus on becoming larger economic and energy players in the Middle East.
More importantly, Trump’s lack of focus on the new geopolitical competition has increasingly helped the two powers to become more entangled in regional politics and security issues.
As the Chinese and Russian clout in the Middle East continue to grow, Trump has done even less to contain their expansion, thus weakening the US strategic position and strengthening theirs, effectively reshaping the regional geostrategic landscape.
Trump has left many US allies in the Arab world blindsided and out of the loop, rendering them dangerously exposed both to China and to Russia and their ambitious policies in the Middle East.
The question now, should Biden win the White House in November, is whether the new US president will introduce a foreign-policy shift that will dismantle or severely curtail many of Trump’s actions in the Middle East.
Biden has promised to fix US foreign policy and restore the credibility and influence of the US in the world as a whole, which has been showing signs of decline since Trump came to power in 2017.
In an article he wrote in the US magazine Foreign Affairs in April, Biden said he would seek to “rescue US foreign policy after Trump,” though he acknowledged that “picking up the pieces will be an enormous task.”
Biden is also under pressure from influential progressives in the Democratic Party to make drastic changes in US Middle East policies, particularly towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and softening support for Israeli policies.
While it remains unclear if Biden will reverse some of Trump’s actions in regard to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, such as the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or returning the US embassy to Tel Aviv, Biden may restore the US role in brokering a peace settlement.
Biden is also expected to be less confrontational with Iran, and he is likely to return to talks with the Islamic Republic to re-establish a basic working relationship and some level of mutual trust.
A new Democratic administration will likely get to work on a long list of other Middle East conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen and on addressing threats from terrorism. A renewed US embrace of these issues could jolt the Middle East out of its current geopolitical stasis.
Additionally, Biden is expected to take bold action against the two main rival powers of the US, Russia and China, which are contesting US power in the Middle East through a combination of political and economic influence.
One of the critical issues that is likely to arise with Washington pivoting back to the Middle East is tough talk from Biden on human rights and democratic reforms and fears that he will turn these issues into bargaining chips with governments.
From an analytical perspective, there are several possible futures for the Arab world in the period after the US presidential elections, all of them maybe undesirable and requiring the Arabs to be more prepared to deal with their consequences.
Trump’s chaotic term in the Oval Office has made it clear that he will leave behind him a powder keg in the Middle East, with disputes raging and tensions rising almost everywhere.
Whoever wins in the US in November, the Middle East will remain a combustible region awash with dangerous geostrategic conflicts and risks that matters could escalate further and even as far as blows.
If reelected, Trump is expected to pursue the same style of “madman diplomacy,” while Biden’s central goal will be to find windows of opportunity to master and reshape the Middle East’s changing environment.
Yet, regardless of the outcome, the Arab world faces tough years ahead regarding the US role in the Middle East, much of it because the world is entering a stage where the US is taking up less space.
There are concerns that things will change drastically and fast even if a new Biden administration tries to undo much of Trump’s legacy in US Middle East policies.
Much of the US disengagement in the Middle East started under Obama, who steadily distanced his administration from the conflicts in the region, despite constant warnings from experts and allies along the way against leaving the Middle East.
Barring a tectonic geostrategic shift directly impacting the US, the Arab world should expect America to continue downsizing the size of its footprint in the Middle East, which is no longer integral to its economic prosperity and global interests.
Many experts have been arguing that the US has few remaining vital interests in the region, raising questions as to whether it is worth maintaining the huge US presence in the region.
Historically, the relationship between the US and the Arab world has always had its ups and downs, but beyond these what is needed by the Arabs is a broader change in attitudes and strategies in order to deal with the reality on the ground in a new post-US election period and probably also in a post-US era in the Middle East.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.