The presidency of Joe Biden will restore diplomacy to a damaged US foreign policy on the Middle East
By Maeve Lane
After a four year presidential term characterised by “America First” nationalism, withdrawal from international agreements and emotionally-fuelled Twitter polemics, Donald Trump’s turbulent incumbency is set to end on 20th January 2021, the scheduled date of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The end of the Trump presidency will see significant changes across the political sphere, not least in the sphere of foreign policy. Donald Trump’s approach to foreign allies, and indeed enemies, has been erratic, tumultuous and largely destructive, with US-EU alliances now in a precarious state, American international standing in organisations such as the UN and the WHO undermined, and US-Iran relations volatile. Although Trump made foreign policy pledges throughout his presidency which looked to win over international support, such as negotiating with North Korea towards denuclearization and vowing to draw up an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, such promises have largely proven to be overly ambitious, and indeed empty.
Having said that, the Trump administration has achieved some successes in its foreign policy agenda, most notably in its push back against Chinese international influence and its warning of the threat posed by China’s fast-advancing technology, especially in next-generation mobile communications. During Trump’s presidency the US has significantly reduced its reliance on China for critical materials needed for economic and national security, and has provided the rest of the world an alternative source to China for communication and security technologies. This foreign policy priority on China represents part of a wider move by the Trump administration to shift the US national security apparatus away from decades of focus on the Middle East, and onto its main superpower rival. This foreign policy paradigm shift under Trump was probably for the best, given that what policy the administration did carry out in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region was largely damaging.
Beyond the offensive against ISIS, the Trump administration’s Middle East policy has had a largely destabilising influence in the region.
The main, and some may argue the only, victory of US foreign policy in the Middle East under Trump was the rolling back of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) physical caliphate, killing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, although this military victory was due in part to the military strategy laid out during the Obama administration. Beyond the offensive against ISIS, the Trump administration’s Middle East policy has had a largely destabilising influence in the region. Examples include the Abraham Accords declaration of September 2020 and the moving of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem which has further isolated Palestine, reduced US development spending in the region which has had a negative economic impact, and the killing of General Qassem Suleimani which has served to spur on Iranian nuclear production. Lastly, and perhaps most unforgivably, Trump has supported Saudi Arabia in its bloody intervention in Yemen against the Houthis, having cost over 100,000 lives to date. The lack of diplomacy and foresight within Trump’s Middle East policy represents the administration’s lack of historical and political grounding on the region, and an over-simplified desire to divide the Arab World into ‘friends and foes’.
The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the US is about to significantly alter the country’s foreign policy concerning the Middle East. While Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East will probably follow a similar pattern to that of the Obama presidency, which was far from being faultless, it will nonetheless represent a more communication-centred, measured and politically-correct method than the Trump administration. Rather than abruptly withdrawing from deals based on ingrained preconceptions of who are the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ of the region, decreeing sensational policy moves via Twitter, or expanding Israel’s power at the expense of the rest of the Levant, the Biden administration is likely to follow standard diplomatic procedures in its approach to the MENA region, based on research and historical evidence. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington states that the Biden administration is set to “return to the systematic, institutionalized, alliance-centred and rules-based international order the US carefully built since the end of World War II”.
One of the most notable returns to international alliances predicted to take place under Biden is the rejoining of the Iran Nuclear Accord, which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018. The Accord was drawn up and signed under Obama in order to relieve US sanctions on Iran in exchange for scaling down its nuclear programme, but was criticised by Trump as being unable to fully confront the threats posed by Iran, and too weak in its limits on nuclear activity. As a result, Trump’s administration re-imposed sanctions on Iran and continues to increase economic pressure, blacklisting almost all of Iran’s financial sector. Biden has stated that this “maximum pressure” policy has failed, emphasising that it led to a significant rise in tensions, that allies across the world have rejected it, and that Iran is now closer to a nuclear weapon than it was back in 2016. Furthermore, Biden has pledged to re-join the nuclear accord on the condition that Iran returns to strict compliance, with the lifting of sanctions contingent upon the extent of this compliance.
Biden’s presidency is likely to signal a more conventional, measured and diplomatic approach to US alliances, sanctions and policies in the Middle East.
Biden’s views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are more centrist, and albeit to a lesser extent than Trump’s policies, will continue to isolate Palestine. Biden is a strong ally of Israel’s, and welcomed the Abraham Accord agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, despite the fact that it has stirred up major grievances among other MENA countries, especially in the Levant. Nonetheless, Biden’s administration will no doubt approach the Israel-Palestine conflict with a more diplomatic strategy than its predecessor, especially in relation to its policies on the West Bank. While Trump’s administration has declared that Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law, and have supported Israeli plans to unilaterally annex parts of the zone, Biden is unlikely to exhibit such extreme and uncritical support for Israel. This is especially true when one notes the growth and strengthening of the Democratic Party’s left wing, which has called for more action on the Palestinian cause in recent years. Dr. Idriss Jebari, Al Maktoum Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies at Trinity College Dublin states that “you might see the Biden administration make stronger moves [on the Arab-Israeli situation] if the progressive wing of the Democratic party can pressure the administration: Rachida Tlaib and Ilham Omar are very outspoken on the issue.” However Dr. Jebari notes that the “left-wing has been side-lined in the early stages of the new Biden cabinet in favour of establishment, moderate figures”, and this could limit pro-Palestinian action during Biden’s term.
Finally, Joe Biden has vowed to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This will form part of a larger move by Biden’s administration to distance the US from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. In American politics, strong opposition to US alliances with the Gulf monarchy, whose questionable moral practices are exemplified by the appallingly high civilian death toll it has left behind in Yemen, has increased substantially, especially among the left wing of the Democrats.
Biden’s presidency is likely to signal a more conventional, measured and diplomatic approach to US alliances, sanctions and policies in the Middle East. A revival and reworking of the Iran Nuclear Deal has the potential to normalise, or at least improve, US-Iran relations, while the US withdrawal of support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen will help to end a highly immoral and destabilising war. While Biden will continue American support for Israel, he is likely to discourage Israeli expansion in the West Bank, especially given the power of the Democratic left wing. These predicted policy shifts should have a more stabilising effect on the region, and represent a respect for diplomatic rules and norms which the Trump administration neglected.
Originally published 05.12.20 in Vol. 4 No. 1.