What does a Biden administration mean for the Middle East?

The Next Century Foundation congratulates Joseph Biden Jr. on his victory in the U.S. elections, and we wish him luck during this time of great uncertainty. As a new administration is set to take charge of the White House, we felt it was appropriate to examine President elect Biden’s presumed foreign policy stance on the Middle East. How does he fare in comparison to Trump? Will we witness a radical departure from the Obama era? What does a Biden administration mean for the people of the Middle East?

From Bush to Trump

Much of America’s Middle East policy over the past decade has been a response to the actions of the Bush administration, the consequences of which still reverberate across the region today. Barack Obama campaigned on a message of peace and diplomacy, articulating a desire to withdraw troops from Iraq and rebuild shattered alliances. A few months into his term, he visited Cairo to deliver an enthralling speech aimed at the Islamic world, proposing a new beginning between the U.S. and Muslims globally, based on mutual interest and respect. It’s easy to forget now, but the President’s speech appeared, at the time, to be an extraordinary break from the past. Candid and forthright, and with his usual oratory flair, President Obama signalled a new sense of hope that was so diminished under the Bush administration. The Middle East, for a brief moment, felt inspired. Perhaps the stage had been set for a new America.

But hopes were quickly dashed when it became apparent that President Obama would not prove drastically different in his foreign policy outlook. Granted, he was a more judicious and cultivated presence than the more provincial George W. Bush. But this mattered little when he assisted Europe in toppling Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, leading to a devastating civil war. Obama’s lofty rhetoric also rang hollow when it came to the sheer brutality of his escalated drone strikes policy. Correspondingly, he failed to close Guantanamo and bring the troops home like promised.

The Trump candidacy was likewise a response to the George W. Bush era. The Apprentice star continually admonished Hillary Clinton, perceived as a politician with hawkish instincts who would continue the Bush/Obama doctrine, for voting in favour of the Iraq War. Instead, Trump rallied voters behind a message of ceasing America’s “forever” wars and diminishing its troop presence abroad. After two administrations worth of foreign policy blunders, the message clearly resonated. Donald Trump took home the election, and Washington trembled in its boots. This was someone whose reckless rhetoric and bellicose behaviour indicated a man of uncertain instincts. Would President Trump spell catastrophe for the Middle East?

It turns out: not really. President Trump’s role in the region was a typical exercise in Republican leadership. Although he was initially labelled an ‘isolationist’, this proved questionable as his time passed. Undoubtedly, he often spurned a path of multilateralism and was heavily critical of organizations like the U.N. and the World Health Organisation. But to equate this with a detachment from the world stage would be erroneous. President Trump’s primary goal was, like the Presidents that preceded him, to maintain America’s power globally. He employed an actively hostile posture towards Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, imposed sanctions on countries like Lebanon and Syria, initiated a trade war with China, developed military alliances, and made a concerted effort to embolden the USA’s ally Israel. Altogether, it was not the vast overhaul of foreign policy that pundits expected, much of the speculated fears over Trump’s finger on the nuclear button did not materialize either. But what did change?

For one thing, President Trump certainly appeared more congenial towards authoritarian leaders like Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (even calling the Egyptian President his “favourite dictator”). Boisterous comments like this are indicative of President Trump’s unvarnished populist aesthetic, meant to cast himself as some sort of dramatic rupture in U.S. leadership. But as president, Donald Trump merely vocalized sentiments that always lingered, but were never espoused publicly – dispensing with the pleasantries that usually veil America’s realpolitik agenda. Yes, President Trump extolled President el-Sisi, but the coup that hoisted the Egyptian leader to power occurred on President Obama’s watch, who refused to use the word “coup” and continued to sell F-16s to the Egyptian government. President Obama’s top diplomat John Kerry even described the event as a ‘restoration of democracy’. Yes, President Trump was outwardly more amicable towards the Saudis, but Obama sold billions in arms to the same government (even whilst it was engaged in a deadly war with Yemen) and did little to mitigate its authoritarian tendencies. Iran and Israel were the only significant examples of any major divergence by President Trump, who bowed out of the JCPOA and enforced onerous sanctions on the former, while tightening relationships with the latter by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, along with mustering a peace plan that endowed Israel with large swaths of territory. Aside from these examples, President Trump navigated through the Middle East largely without initiating conflict.

President Biden

Advisors to Biden have claimed that the new leader will spend 80% of his time dedicated to domestic policy, his acceptance speech mentioning little with regards to international affairs. This is hardly unexpected, given the engulfing crisis that is the Covid-19 pandemic. But even within the domain of foreign policy, the U.S. has seen a drift away from an interest in the Middle East. Washington insiders are now absorbed with developments in China, which poses the largest threat in terms of rivalling America’s hegemony. But Joseph Biden will still have a role to play in the Middle East. He will most certainly work towards restoring many of President Obama’s policies – including returning the U.S. to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the World Health Organisation. He will rebuild the state department and attempt to restore American diplomacy. Yet what is crucial is how this will translate to concrete action. Joseph Biden is often perceived as another iteration of President Obama – a little more unpolished, granted, but someone who seeks to return to the status quo under the Democrats. But when the Arab world was interviewed, 58% declared that President elect Biden should distance himself from the Obama administration’s policies. It’s evident then, that harkening back to the status quo will not necessarily ensure a fruitful Middle East policy. To come to grips with what a Biden presidency would mean for the region, we can examine a few select countries that might experience the most perceptible changes.

Turkey

Biden has not remained quiet with regards to his enmity for autocratic leadership around the world. He has openly chastised the behaviour of nations like Hungary and China. Turkey also finds itself on this list. Indeed, out of all the leaders in the Middle East, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is perhaps most troubled by the prospects of a Biden presidency. Trump and Erdogan got along cordially, with the former rarely indicating any resistance to the latter’s increasing disdain for human rights and democracy. The same cannot be said about Biden, who has called out Erdogan more explicitly on issues like his aggression towards the Kurds and even partly blamed him for the ascendancy of ISIS in the region. As Vice President, he would often speak openly about Erdogan’s increasing contempt for the public press and free speech in his country. His administration also helped shelter Fethullah Gulen, the man who Erdogan accused of engendering the 2016 coup against him. Biden was perhaps most frank when interviewed by the New York Times editorial board, where he asserted forthrightly that Erdogan was an autocrat and that America should get behind the Turkish opposition in order to remove him from power through the ballot box. Leadership in Turkey worries that Biden will taint the recently strengthened bilateral relationship between the two NATO allies with his human rights rhetoric, and more seriously, threaten their interests in Libya, Syria and the Mediterranean. Questions also remain as to whether Biden will impose sanctions on the country for deciding to purchase Russian S-400s. On the other hand, Biden might tow a similar line to Trump for fear that Turkey could stray from NATO’s orbit. A game of balance will undoubtedly need to be played.

Erdogan has lent Turkey a more assertive role in the region, something that Biden will be forced to address

Iran

Though they maintained an outward ambivalence towards the Biden victory, Iran quietly breathed a collective sigh of relief. The nation has suffered immensely under the Trump administration, which pulled out of the JCPOA and sought to curb the growing regional influence of a then vitalized Iran. The tactic Trump chose was coercion. He did this by strangling Iran’s economy. Oppressive sanctions prevented the country from dealing effectively with Covid-19, taking its mightiest toll on the country’s citizens. In retaliation, Iran abandoned many of their nuclear commitments and hastened its production of enriched uranium. This complicates the situation. Much will have to be done before the two nations can sit down at the table. Biden’s desire is for Tehran to first return to its prior nuclear commitments, while a growingly suspicious Iran might wish to continue its enrichment project if the U.S. does not provide reparations for the betrayal and harm it caused the country over the last four years. Complicating things further is the role of Europe, which has grown wearier of Iran, and will likely demand more concessions from the country before resuscitating the nuclear deal. What is certain is that if Obama’s nuclear deal is re-established, it will likely be followed by echoes of disenchantment across much of the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel perceive Iran to be a threat, and any strengthening of its hand will be considered disconcerting.

Israel and Palestine

It was the night before the 2016 election when leaders of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank gathered in Hebron to pray for a victorious Donald Trump. Their wishes were granted. Israel enjoyed a felicitous relationship with the Trump administration, one that yielded the country a litany of triumphs. In the last four years, Netanyahu witnessed a weakened Iran, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and a Middle East plan that would have permitted the annexation of huge swaths of Palestinian land. Biden will certainly not be as cozy with Netanyahu as Trump was – who shared a special, symbiotic relationship with the Israeli leader. A two-state solution will be back on the table, and Israel will have to navigate with more caution and deliberation moving forward, as Biden is more likely to scrutinize certain Israeli actions, including any steps toward the annexation of Palestinian territory. The potential for a strengthened Iran (if Biden is to ease sanctions) also frightens Netanyahu. But Biden, an avid supporter of Israel, will not attempt to reverse any of Trump’s actions. Jerusalem and the Golan Heights will continue to be recognized as part of Israel. The U.S. embassy will not be moved back to Tel Aviv. Military aid will continue to pour into the country. In all likelihood, the President will preside over an era of continued recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbours. This, to the detriment of the Palestinians, who have suffered egregiously over the last four years. Mahmoud Abbas, along with Palestinians generally, will certainly be relieved to see Biden take the helm of America’s foreign policy. But relief should not be confused with jubilation. Indeed, Biden has indicated he will reverse some of Trump’s more draconian policies against Palestine, by restoring humanitarian support to the country and reopening the PLO mission in Washington. But with Israel so emboldened over the last few years, possibilities for a peace deal remain dim. While Biden has opposed Trump’s methods in dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue (i.e. mostly manoeuvring unilaterally), he has not questioned its outcomes.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Like Israel, Saudi Arabia will not be celebrating on inauguration day. The opposite is true for Yemen. Biden pronouncing a desire to end American support for the Saudi war in Yemen, a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and wreaked havoc on an already penurious nation, has something to do with this. How likely this will manifest into something palpable is another question. The fact that one third of the Pentagon transition team hails from organizations financed by the weapons industry is not the most promising sign. As Vice President, Biden supported the selling of billions worth in arms to Saudi Arabia. What is irrefutable, however, is that Saudi Arabia’s autocratic ambitions will likely be tempered during the next four years, when compared to Trump, who emphatically supported the oil-rich nation. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Biden’s first diplomatic destination won’t be Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohamed Bin Salman will therefore have to practise more restraint when it comes to stamping out dissent in his country, and he will be more reluctant to pull another horrific incident like the Khashoggi affair, which Biden decried, professing that he would “defend the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence”. MBS will also express disquiet over Biden’s likely decision to reengage in discussions with Iran – a country that Saudi Arabia and many of its neighbours view as an existential threat. But all this must be taken with a grain of salt. If Biden’s tenure will resemble anything like Obama’s, it is likely that the Saudi Monarchy will still receive the generous support of their American allies. Historically, it has mattered little which party has been in charge. The relationship between the two countries has remained almost unassailable.

Syria

Trump will leave a mixed legacy in Syria. On the one hand, he deviated from Obama’s policy of aiming to overthrow Bashar al-Assad by ceasing America’s support for the armed opposition. On the other, he launched (largely symbolic) missiles on President Assad’s forces and imposed his draconian ‘Caesar’ sanctions on Damascus. He expressed disdain for Syrian ally Iran but was warmer to its ally Russia. Likewise, he threw support towards the Kurds for most of his reign, only to abandon them last year, upon swiftly withdrawing most of his troops from the region. Despite this seeming disarray, President Biden is likely to preserve Trump’s policies in the country. Financial pressure will continue. Troops will remain. And the potential for further intervention is unlikely. Because so many interests are entangled in Syria, much of what occurs in the country will also rest on how Biden gets along with countries like Israel, Turkey, Russia and Iran. Syria will welcome a Biden presidency, as his umbrage towards Turkey will prove helpful in reducing their inimical influence – namely in regard to their promotion of division and extremism in Syria. His less affectionate ties to Netanyahu may also prove useful to Syria, which has continually been pummelled by Israeli rockets from next door. Not to mention that President Assad still recalls Obama’s reluctance to attack the country, permitting Iran to enter and rescue his government, along with Biden’s comments arguing against arming the opposition in Syria. Nonetheless, Biden’s Syria policy remains shrouded in ambiguity. Any mention of the country was scant during his campaign. As other theatres of conflict heat up across the region, Biden will leave Syria on the backburner for the time being.

President Assad’s Syria is a tangled web of interests. How Biden approaches the country depends on his relationship with other regional powers.

Libya and Egypt

Libya is a focal point in North Africa. Nations across the region and beyond endeavour to shift the tides of war in their preferred direction. Despite this, America has been relatively apathetic towards the conflict. Biden himself apparently never wished to enter the country in the first place. American strategy is not likely to shift substantially – although unlike his predecessor, Biden might be more inclined to take advantage of multilateralism and work with the U.N. to foster a peaceful solution to the conflict. When it comes to Egypt, however, there might be a more decisive shift. Trump was a faithful ally of Sisi, pumping funds to the country’s military and security apparatus. Biden has chastised Trump for his chumminess with the repressive leader and regularly spoken out against the human rights violations that have occurred under President Sisi’s rule. If this behaviour continues, it would not be entirely unfathomable for Biden to decrease some of America’s expenditure towards Egypt.

Conclusion

Joseph Biden never attained the enthusiasm that Presidents Obama or Trump received when they ascended to power. Most votes cast for the former Vice President were directed against his opponent. The tremendous hope that tailed Biden’s predecessors is notably absent this time around. Ultimately, this works in Biden’s favour. With little expectation, there is little room to disappoint. But the President-to-be should not take this as an opportunity to play idle. He must summon the political will to do what his predecessors failed at doing and work multilaterally to ease tensions in the Middle East, instigate some degree of peace. The region has confronted enough war. It has sustained enough carnage. Biden must ensure that he ameliorates, rather than exacerbates, these profound problems.

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