The United States has played an outsize role in Middle Eastern politics since at least the 1950s, and Middle Eastern affairs have similarly played an outsize role in U.S. foreign policy for decades. As a result, the ruling regimes of most countries in the Middle East are incentivized to maintain and demonstrate their loyalty to any American administration. This, in turn, means that rulers and policymakers within the region closely watch any developments in American politics—particularly during and around the inauguration of a new U.S. President.
No different this time around. Mideastern governments see Biden as a familiar figure on the world stage, since his days as a United States Senator, then as the American Vice President for eight years under President Barack Obama. He is considered as a moderate figure, not inclined to deviation or extremism, and is likely to return to traditional methods in projecting American power abroad.
And true enough, American presidents seldom deviate from guidelines dictated by US national interests and/or that which is recommended by agencies specializing in engaging with the nations of the world such as the CIA, the Pentagon or stalwart diplomats and Washington’s traditional thinktank experts. In general, American policy is characterized by pragmatism.
It can also be said that the nature of the American presidential personality, its temperament, and its ideological and even religious inclinations, largely determine the method of implementing policies, protecting American national interests, and determining the form of interaction with them, and the personality and perception of the president determine the path that the process of drawing up plans for the Middle East region.
Biden and Iran:
As Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, speculation was a plenty that one of the first things his administration would do would be to seek re entry to the Iran nuclear deal that had been abandoned by his predecessor in the White House.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed to between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the European Union in 2015, known as “the Iran nuclear deal” during the Obama-Biden administration, was considered a stunning diplomatic achievement. Iran agreed to limit or eliminate its enriched uranium sources in return for receiving financial and economic relief from the UN sanctions.
While much rhetoric is fueling much speculation about (inflexible) lines drawn in the sand by both the U.S and Iran, both, Biden and Iran seem determined to go back to the deal while the going is good.
Biden, the Palestinian issue and support for Israel
The Palestinian issue on its own merit, does not much concern the inhabitants of the White House, whoever they maybe. What matters, as we are told time and again for more than half a century, are the preservation Israel’s security and stability, and the ensuring of its military supremacy in the region. And Donald Trump is the president who gave Israel the best it wished for in the history of its existence at no cost.
Publically, Biden’s stated policy is to preserve the two-state solution, so that two ‘viable’ neighbors can live side by side in peace, security and mutual recognition. It also opposes any unilateral steps by both sides that could undermine the two-state solution, as well as being opposed to annexation and settlement expansion. It stresses that it will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, including assistance to Palestinian refugees. It claims that it will work to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and it will work to reopen the closed US consulate in East Jerusalem, and the closed PLO mission office in Washington.
Biden stresses that American financial and military support for Israel will continue regardless of what path Israel settlement take. Therefore, expectations should not be raised for the Biden administration regarding the Palestinian issue.
While Biden state publically that he is opposed to Trump’s peace plan known as “Deal of the Century”, he, his Whitehouse press secretary and his Secretary of State all lauded Trump’s last horrah for Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu, known as “The Abraham Accords”, normalizing Israel’s relations with four Arab countries: the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Despite the symbolism of not calling Netanyahu for a month after assuming office, Biden has not taken one single step that is a clear repudiation of Trump’s Israel / Palestine policy. Unconditional support to Israel is perceived as good politics by both Democrats and Republicans who prioritize the security of Israel in the region. No political observer expects the Biden administration to take steps back regarding Israel since no American government can question Israel’s gains – legitimate or not.
Biden’s policy towards the Gulf States and the Yemen crisis
The Arab Gulf states represent for any American administration, an important source of energy, and investments (in the United States) in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Therefore, successive administrations, Biden’s included, are keen to benefit greatly from those countries. Perhaps not as a crudely as Trump did in directly demanding money from these countries (as he demanded $450 billion from Saudi Arabia), but the end result is pretty much the same.
No more was that more prevalent than in what we saw last month with the declassification of the report by U.S intelligence agencies on the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. While the report clearly concludes that Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman (BMS) ordered the killing of Khashoggi, the Biden Administration shied from sanctioning MBS personally, and instead sanctioned few dozen Saudi intelligence operatives. We don’t know yet what the future holds for Biden’s relation with MBS, but we can expect that America’s call on KSA to improve its human rights record and an end to the Yemen war will grow louder.
To end the war in Yemen war, a war the Biden Administration termed as the “worst humanitarian disaster in the world today”, the U.S State Department announced a freeze on the transfer of precision weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Most likely, the Biden administration will seek to settle the conflict in Yemen between the warring parties (the Houthis and Saudi Arabia), using “returning to the Iran nuclear deal’ somehow to pressure the Houthis, and the issue will then end with a power-sharing agreement between the Houthis and the Hadi government, leaving the Yemini people in the ruins in which they are.
Biden’s policy towards Syria
While much of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy appears to be an extension of US strategy created during his tenure under President Barack Obama, there is little hope of turning back the clock in the case of Syria.
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Obama’s strategy sought to support the mishmash of rebel groups attempting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But those days are long gone, with much of the international community now coming to a consensus that the leader (Assad) is here to stay.
Picking up after former President Donald Trump’s convoluted moves in Syria – which confused even some of the world’s leading military analysts – will be a challenge for the Biden presidency, especially, that Trump’s strategy sought to turn Syria into a quagmire without a clear vision.
Currently, severe sanctions put in place by the US Congress via the Caesar Act make up a large share of US involvement in Syria.
With around 900 troops on the ground, who have been mostly stationed around oil reserves, there is also the question of what goal the Biden administration will set regarding continued US military involvement.
Although Biden knows that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad fought a very brutal war in order to maintain Syria’s unity, stay in power and keep his people in power, and he’s not going to lose, as there is no opposition today that could possibly overthrow Assad, he is not likely to restructure U.S policy to accommodate such a realization.
Biden’s Policy towards Iraq
As President Joe Biden becomes the fourth consecutive U.S. president to inherit the mantle of wartime leadership in Iraq, his foreign policy decisions inevitably are viewed in relation to those of his predecessors—and none so much as those of the man to whom he once reported, former President Barack Obama.
In perhaps no country is this more clear than in Iraq, where U.S. troops remain, (in smaller numbers) despite Obama’s announcement of a full withdrawal nearly a decade ago amid a collapse in discussions with the Iraqi government at the time.
But for now, the new administration’s goals for the war in Iraq, at least as briefly outlined by top U.S diplomats, are likely to prolong U.S. involvement indefinitely.
Last month, acting U.S ambassador to the U.N to the UN Security Council that “the United States will seek to help Iraq assert its sovereignty in the face of enemies, at home and abroad, by preventing an ISIS resurgence and working toward Iraq’s stability.” That means facilitating free and fair elections, Mills continued, plus fighting Iran-linked militias and terrorist groups like the Islamic State, as well as funneling money toward economic development, humanitarian improvements, and the elimination of corruption. “The United States will remain a steady, reliable partner for Iraq, and for the Iraqi people,” he concluded, “today and in the future.”
That’s an understatement. With goals as expansive and flexible as these, the United States will have a military presence and roster of associated nation-building projects in Iraq not only through the end of the Biden administration but for decades to come.
Biden campaigned on a promise to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” “Staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts,” he rightly reasoned, “only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.” We shall see if Biden’s words will come back to haunt him as it did his predecessors.
Biden’s Libya Policy
The US has maintained a relatively passive approach to Libya under President Donald Trump, whose administration largely left the Libyan dossier to Egypt, several Arab Gulf states, Turkey, Europeans, and Russia. In 2021, however, America’s new leadership is set on a course to try to assert US influence in the war-torn country more actively.
President Joe Biden and those in his inner circle have vowed to push back against Moscow in various ways, which means Libya could be a growing point of contention between the incoming US administration and Russia. In any event, the Libyan crisis offers Biden an opportunity to demonstrate to Washington’s traditional Western allies that his administration is determined to reassert US leadership in the world and stand against Russia’s designs for Libya and, by extension, in the Middle East and Africa too.
After all, Biden was vice president when Washington led its NATO allies in military operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, which has thrust the war-torn country into the destructive malaise it is in today.
Conclusion: The Biden administration hasn’t wasted time in making a significant shift in US policy toward the Middle East.
Over the past couple of weeks, the US has launched airstrikes against alleged “Iranian targets” in Syria and released a damning intelligence report overtly linking the crown prince of Saudi Arabia to the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden has pledged to end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen; something the Trump administration largely ignored while continuing weapons sales. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is no longer able to message Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner in the middle of the night but must now deal with a president who is more institutionally minded and sensitive to human rights violations, especially in Yemen where the Saudi coalition has killed thousands of civilians.
Both Biden and his Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, have made repeated and clear statements that they are intent on rejoining the JCPOA, (the Iran nuclear deal), urging Iran on recommitting itself to the deal abandon by his predecessor.
On Israel and the Palestinians, Biden repeated familiar phrases about ensuring Israel’s security, and defending Israel on the international stage, dismissing any possibility of linking American aid to Israel with settlement freeze and the likes. At the same time, he reverted to talk of a two-state solution and a promised resumption of aid to the Palestinians. All is to be seen.