What will Biden’s ME policy look like?

Salah Nasrawi , Wednesday 24 Mar 2021

Biden’s Middle East policy needs to go beyond Obama’s bumper stickers and Trump’s troublesome legacy

What will Biden’s ME policy look like?
File photo of U.S. President Joe Biden (photo: Reuters)

Two months into his presidency Joe Biden faces mounting criticism for his Middle East policy. Strategic experts across the region feel it lacks focus, with neither a clear set of objectives nor sufficient engagement with regional power houses.

Even more worrying to the region’s policy makers and practitioners are the empty slogans of “recalibrating” and “de-escalation”, which have become catchphrases among the Biden administration’s foreign policy and national security officials discussing the Middle East.

Like his two predecessors, Barak Obama and Donald Trump, Biden faces numerous foreign policy challenges in the Middle East but a closer look at his administration’s actions shows the region is probably not among his top priorities. But, even if the Biden administration is de-prioritising the Middle East, challenges may well force it to project military and political influence in the region whether or not it wants to.

Topping the list of issues looming over Biden’s Middle East diplomacy is Iran which had already preoccupied US regional allies and Republican congressmen within weeks of the start of Biden’s tenure.

In his first major foreign policy statement at the State Department on 4 February, Biden notably made no mention of Iran, but his administration has made clear that it wants to salvage the nuclear deal signed in 2015 and later scrapped by Trump. 

While no meaningful breakthrough has been made on the nuclear track, which would require ending Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, many US allies have railed against the Islamic Republic as being at the root of most conflicts in the Middle East and called for talks about its regional activities. 

One of the few Middle East problems that Biden did say he wanted to tackle is Yemen. In his 4 February speech, he promised that his administration would step up diplomacy to end the war there, which he described as “has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” 

The administration has also appointed a special envoy to the Yemen conflict and, to underscore his commitment to that goal, Biden decided to end all American support for offensive operations in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales to the kingdom.

Among the handful of issues with a crucial impact on the Middle East is Afghanistan. The Trump administration had set 1 May as a deadline to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan under a peace deal the Trump administration made with the Taliban. 

Biden has so far given few indications of whether he will complete the US withdrawal from the war-torn country amid fears that the move would jeopardise successes seen so far in Afghanistan and turn the country again into a safe haven for international terrorists that may proliferate across the Middle East.

Another hot spot where the Biden administration policy has sparked apprehension in the region is Iraq. Although Biden and many top officials in his administration have a long history with Iraq following the US invasion of 2003, the beleaguered nation has disappeared from his agenda. 

Since he came to power Biden, who was the Obama administration’s point man to Iraq, has maintained silence about what to do help bring Iraq firmly back to stability. The Biden administration’s measured response to a rocket attack in Erbil sharply contrasts with a Trump-era campaign against Iran that, more often than not, caught Iraq in the crossfire.

It is not clear, however, how the US will counter Iran’s expansionist agenda in Iraq, continue its support to Iraqi security forces in fighting Islamic State (IS) militants and help Iraq regain its sovereignty, assisting with internal politics, especially with sectarian divisions, all at the same time.

One long-standing issue the Biden administration was expected to pay attention to is Syria. But neither Biden nor his foreign-policy aides have had anything to say on the crisis in Syria, where hundreds of US troops are stationed but with no clear policy.

Turkey is another thorny issue which Biden has to deal with. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoyed special privileges during the Trump era. Turkey’s foreign policy directions and a host of other issues such human rights concerns and Ankara’s purchase of S400 Russian missile system are now straining bilateral relations. 

Since Biden won the election, Erdogan has made several gestures to break the ice but Biden ignored the Turkish leader’s charm offensive with Pentagon officials saying the administration would continue the policy of shutting Turkey out for the time being.

As for the stalled Middle East peace process, Biden has already signalled his willingness to roll back Trump’s anti-Palestinian policies and reestablish ties with the Palestinian Authority, backing the two-state solution along the 1967 borders. He also showed support for the Trump-brokered normalisation deals with four Arab countries.

Meanwhile, Biden has showed little interest in cementing ties with traditional US regional partners such as Egypt, Jordan and the oil-rich nations in the Gulf. Washington has also started “recalibrating” its long standing partnership with Saudi Arabia, putting further stress on the US-Saudi relationship.

With vast foreign policy experience in the Middle East - orchestrating Obama’s exit from Iraq, waging a lonely battle to exit Afghanistan, showing no desire for the US to be involved in Syria, supporting the Iran nuclear deal, reckoning with the “war on terror” and stumbling over the Arab Spring – it remains to be seen what Biden’s Middle East policy will actually look like.

So far, there have been few signs of engagement in tackling the major conflicts in the Middle East apart from these simplistic approaches underlined in election campaign pledges, political statements and the foreign policy guidance which either do not amount to strategies or underline the notion of narrowing the scope of US engagement in the Middle East. 

While efforts to end the standoff with Iran have stalled, and future of the US troops in Afghanistan remains unclear. The United States is doing nothing in Iraq, Yemen or Syria to help bring these countries back to normal.

That makes suspicions among other Middle East nations about the Biden administration intents and goals abound. 

Part of Biden’s Middle East policy problem is his lack of a compressive strategy to deal with all these complex crises which are closely interconnected and cannot be tackled in isolation, with a change in one place having unexpected results in another.

Simply put, Middle East issues are joined together and are often only one part of a larger jigsaw puzzle of challenges facing policy makers. Efforts to end the war in Yemen and deal with Iran, for example, depend on coordination and cooperation with Saudi Arabia, and attempts to sideline Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman could only be interpreted as a signal to downgrade relations.

Biden’s vow to stand up for democracy and human rights around the globe is sending another warning signal to Middle East governments and will be seen as using an ideological tool in foreign relations.

This policy will also fall on deaf ears of pro-democracy and human rights activists who have developed something of an apathy towards if not a downright suspicion of the seasonal role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the region.

Therefore, if one understands the messages from Washington correctly, Biden seems to be more interested in closing as much as of the century’s long chapter in US-Middle East policy as possible than in fixing old policies and broadening relation with the region or turning residual tensions into opportunities.

Biden’s strategically fractious policies to underperform relations with the region are more in line with his campaign promise to end “forever wars” and balance them against domestic and foreign policies. They may also reflect a general frustration with the region inherited from his former boss Obama.

Yet sooner or later the Biden administration will find itself sandwiched among multiple international and regional forces such as China, Russia, Iran and Turkey competing for geopolitical influence in the Middle East.

US Middle East policies have always proceeded in endless and disorienting loops but with Biden wanting to turn the page through his ambiguous “recalibrating” and “de-escalation” gambits, they may end up unimaginably worse.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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