Can Biden wean the US off its Middle East Addiction?
by ARTHUR KLEINMAN
Following decades of borderline compulsive meddling in the politics of the Middle East, a series of foreign policy debacles – chief among which is the Iraq War – and a shift in the underlying geo-economic calculus have pushed many Americans to want out. Two presidents - Barack Obama and Donald Trump – were swept to power on the back of this sceptical, isolationist sentiment. Yet the addiction has proven enduring; a series of unfortunate (if not entirely unpredictable) events under both presidencies would repeatedly lure American policymakers back into the region. Could Biden succeed where his predecessors failed? Potentially.
Where did the previous administration falter? Attempts to discern some underlying rationale in the Trumpian policy agenda might be a fool's errand, but there is nevertheless material to work with. In particular, Trump’s approach to the Middle East was characterised by its unconditional support and indulgence of traditional US allies in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. One could think of this as a quasi-delegatory strategy, summed up by the maxim “we’ll let our friends get on with it.” The previous President likely perceived this as the best way to free up American bandwidth for other areas deemed more pressing, such as trade and immigration.
This approach, while not entirely illogical, proved largely fruitless. The US decision to quit the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) - at the behest of Jerusalem and Riyadh – caused the Islamic Republic to substantially increase its uranium enrichment levels, inching the region dangerously close to a nuclear arms race. Furthermore, it induced Tehran to retaliate (albeit limitedly) against the Saudis and US forces in its near periphery, eliciting an increased American military presence in the region - a scenario the Trump presidency, at least from the outset, had sought to avoid. In other words, a partisan and intellectually reticent foreign policy begot instability, which in turn triggered the US’s informal obligation to protect its allies.
This is not even to mention the axiomatic moral hazard posed by unconditional support for allies despite their belligerent tendencies, as exemplified by literal Saudi kidnapping of (then) Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the unabated growth of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, or the substantial Emirati military and financial support for Libyan warlord-cum-dictator Khalifa Haftar (all of which were either disregarded or outright ignored by Trump); none of these developments have been especially conducive for regional stability.
Where does this leave the new administration? Biden has for much of his career been sceptical of extraneous US embroilment in the Middle East; for instance, he was one of the principal voices in the Obama administration cautioning against further involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is little to suggest that his views have substantially changed; the administration has been fairly explicit in voicing its intent to shift away from the Middle East and instead focus on other policy areas, such as COVID-19, competition with China, and climate change.
One could construe this as a re-run of Obama's 'Pivot to Asia' strategy, which was in its initial form largely ineffectual owing to an overwhelming preoccupation with the Middle Eastern affairs at the time. However, an outcome of the ‘Pivot’ which did actually materialise was the JCPOA, the intent behind which was to construct a durable equilibrium or balance of power in the Middle East. If competition between Iran and its proxies on one hand and Israel and the affluent Gulf states on the other is an inexorable reality - so the logic goes - the best strategy is thus to establish some framework that limits the extent to which the conflict can escalate (for instance, by precluding a nuclear arms race), which in turn would drastically undermine the prospect of the US having to affirmatively intervene to prevent a catastrophe.
Little more aptly captures Washington foreign policy elites’ obsession with the Middle East than a recent Foreign Affairs piece titled “The Only Way Out of the Middle East Is Through It”. However, the headline’s immediate irony aside, the core argument made by author Vali Nasr is sound: only through measured diplomatic engagement which respects the interests of all actors in the region – including Tehran – can regional stability be instituted which allows the US to divert its energies elsewhere.
Of course, when implemented by Obama, this strategy aggravated decision-makers in Jerusalem and Riyadh, who perceived it as effectively legitimising what they deemed Iranian military and geopolitical expansionism; hence their insistence that the Trump administration abrogate the JCPOA, which for reasons outlined earlier proved to be anything but stabilising. By re-joining the deal - something which senior Biden administration officials have telegraphed an interest in doing - the hope is that the equilibrium envisioned by Nasr will be restored, thus allowing the US to safely wind down its presence in the region.
That said, Biden seems reluctant to rock the boat too much. If a swift pivot to diplomacy were his immediate objective, the US would have already revoked sanctions and re-joined the JCPOA. However, the Biden administration is clearly playing a more intricate game vis-à-vis Tehran, as indicated by its insistence the latter rejoin the deal first and the authorisation of retaliatory airstrikes against Shia militias in Syria. Furthermore, while it is quite clear that Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman (the Israeli Premier and Saudi Crown Prince respectively) won't receive the same lavish treatment they enjoyed under Trump, neither are they being utterly neglected. Biden continues to speak warmly about Israel and its Prime Minister despite the latter’s frosty relationship with Obama, and the President's harsher tack toward Riyadh has stopped short of punishing the Crown Prince directly.
In lieu of these mixed signals, how should we expect the Biden administration to act in the Middle East going forward? Consider their overriding modus operandi to be the avoidance of unnecessary fuss. The partisan belligerence that characterised the Trump administration will be spurned, but decision-makers in Washington are nevertheless aware that going too far in the other direction would bring complications of its own. For instance, if Riyadh were cut completely loose, and felt utterly bereft at the hands of a more militarily and strategically shrewd Iranian leadership, who's to say they wouldn’t follow their Emirati allies and actively pursue nuclear capabilities of their own? Such a scenario would catalyse an already brewing arms race in the region - the precise scenario which Obama sought to obviate via the JCPOA. As such, the Biden administration has wisely sought to strike a fine balance, whereby their commitments in the region are wound down without too drastic of an upheaval to the status quo. Whether this will be sufficient to end the US’s addiction to Middle Eastern geopolitics once and for all, we shall see in due course.