President Biden’s priorities are to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, oversee a safe and effective distribution of the vaccine, and jump-start the economy. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has often said that foreign policy starts at home, and domestic strength is necessary for a successful foreign policy.
A 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate creates opportunities and challenges for President Biden on the foreign policy front. Acting on policies that enjoy bipartisan support creates political capital that which President Biden can expend on domestic issues around which the Senate is divided along partisan lines. However, when there is bipartisan support for policies that are not necessarily in line with the administration’s preferred course of action, the president’s room for maneuver is reduced and the domestic political costs of policy actions increase.
The argument is often made that the Biden administration’s foreign policy will simply be a continuation of the Obama administration’s. However, the world President Biden is coming into is different from the one the Obama administration left to Donald Trump four years ago – and this is particularly true in the case of the Middle East. Shifting power and new alignments between regional states, diffusion of power away from states, and a growing questioning of governance within state institutions place limits on what external actors, including global powers like the United States, can do in the region. Regional actors and dynamics are increasingly becoming less subject to influence by external actors. Moreover, the Trump administration sowed doubt about the commitment of the United States to past agreements. Can President Biden convince allies and enemies in the region that the next U.S. president will not undo the commitments he makes, as Trump did over the past four years?
It is no revelation that the Middle East does not figure high on the Biden administration priority list. During the campaign, now-U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken argued that in terms of time allocation and budget priorities the U.S. would be doing less, not more, in the Middle East. If past is prologue, however, the Middle East always finds a way to impose itself on every U.S. president’s agenda. Moreover, the challenge for the administration will be how to retain influence over regional actors and dynamics especially in the pursuit of its efforts to de-escalate conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya and deal with the complex nexus of problems involving Iran, while spending and doing less in the region.
I propose to examine the Biden administration policies in the Middle East through four policy lenses:
1. Restoring historic partnerships with Europe: The Middle East is one area of shared interests between the United States and Europe, and where the transatlantic relationship could be solidified;
2. Iran: President Biden stated that if Iran were to come back into compliance with its obligations under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, so should the U.S. However this does not necessarily mean going back to the point where negotiations led by former Secretary of State John Kerry stopped. The idea is for the U.S. to be doing more on issues of concern regarding Iran, including its ballistic missile program and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East, including its support for non-state armed militias. Not only do they want to put Iran’s nuclear program “back in the box” by ensuring Iran returns into compliance with its obligations per the terms of the 2015 JCPOA deal, U.S. officials including Secretary of State Blinken have argued that there will need to be follow-on negotiations to build a stronger and longer-term nuclear agreement and address other issues of concern to the Biden administration and its regional allies and partners about Iran.
The two countries are currently deadlocked on the nuclear file. What concessions either side is willing to make to bring them back into compliance with the 2015 agreement is at issue. As time passes, the political cost of these concessions increases. It is not clear that Tehran is ready to reengage diplomatically with the United States, that it wants to return to compliance with its JCPOA obligations, and that it would agree to put its ballistic missile program and destabilizing regional behavior, including its support for proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, on the negotiation table. It is also not clear which sanctions the Biden administration is ready to lift in return for Iranian compliance. Lifting some of the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Iran might prove to be too costly politically for President Biden.
3. Ending forever wars: This is an issue of wide agreement inside the Democratic Party between its moderate and progressive wings. Policy-wise, this translates into use of force as a last resort and diplomacy as the first instrument of American power. It also translates into a narrower definition of the mission of U.S. forces in the region and bringing back the majority of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Force will not be used recklessly. It will be used selectively and intelligently. Case in point is President Biden’s decision to launch reprisal strikes against Iran-aligned Iraqi militias operating in Syria and Iraq in response to attacks they carried out against U.S. assets in Iraq and the Kurdistan region. This decision conveyed the administration’s resolve to deal with troublesome actors in the region when they threaten U.S. interests.
While U.S. policy in different theaters in the Middle East is still under review, there are certain action items that have already been articulated by U.S. officials: ending support for offensive military operations led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and appointing a special envoy for Yemen to pursue, along with the U.N., a diplomatic solution for the war; reengaging diplomatically on Syria, especially since many officials in the Biden administration who worked on the Syria file in the past are acutely aware of the numerous shortcomings of the Obama administration’s Syria policy; damage control in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, moving away from Trump’s pro-annexation policies and returning to the traditional U.S. theoretical endorsement of the two-state solution, as well as restoring humanitarian and economic assistance to the Palestinians; and pushing the U.N.-led diplomatic process in Libya. This does not mean normalizing relations with the Assad regime or withdrawing U.S. forces from northeastern Syria. In fact, a Biden administration sees the latter as a means for U.S. leverage in the U.N.-led diplomatic process. It also does not mean acting on other promises like reopening the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem or reopening the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington. These policy actions can have high political costs domestically, and in the case of reopening the PLO mission, will face legal hurdles as well.
4. A value shift with a renewed emphasis on human rights in U.S. foreign policy, which were not important for the business-like, transactional Trump administration. Of particular interest to President Biden is the issue of fighting corruption. President Biden promised to issue a presidential directive establishing corruption as a core national security interest.
He also promised to organize and host a global summit for democracy in his first year in office. The United States will seek country commitments in three areas: 1. Fighting corruption; 2. Defending against authoritarianism; and 3. Advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.
The decision to release the 2018 intelligence report linking the crown prince of Saudi Arabia to the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is promoted by the Biden administration as proof of the value shift they are committing to in support of human rights and ending impunity in the Middle East.
Yet, to many in the Democratic Party particularly in its progressive wing, the decision to release the report is not enough. Surely, President Biden will confront demands from Democrats in Congress and human rights groups to take punitive actions against the crown prince himself. Simultaneously, the administration needs the cooperation of Saudi rulers, primarily the crown prince, in dealing with a host of challenges in the Middle East, not least of which is ending the war in Yemen.
The Biden administration faces a regional playing field that is less favorable to U.S. interests and where its power is contested by China and Russia which have strengthened their ties to the Middle East. Working together with competitors to bring states in the region to negotiate and agree to a new regional cooperation framework can help find solutions to protracted fragmentation and divisions in the region that regional actors have to-date not been able to design and implement on their own and serve enduring U.S. interests in in a secure and prosperous Middle East.