30.11.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Joe Biden will Militarize US Middle East Policy


Joe Biden, the US president-elect, won the elections on the promise of ‘re-setting US foreign policy.’ An important area of US foreign policy has always been the Middle East for both geo-political and geo-economic reasons. Under the Trump administration, the US got out of JCPOA, sanctioned Iran and even engaged in a limited military conflict. It pursued a Middle East peace-plan that ended up normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan. The US relationship with Saudi Arabia remained strong as the Trump administration continued to support the Saudis through a difficult international scenario that developed following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi consulate in Turkey. This was also followed by a US partial withdrawal from Syria and a shift of the Middle East command centre from Qatar to South Carolina, indicating a potential military retrenchment. The process might have continued if Trump had won the elections.

Joe Biden, however, during his election campaign, repeatedly vowed to change the course of affairs. Changing the course of affairs, however, does not mean a radical shift in the US’ Middle East policy, involving an absolute normalization with Iran and a calculated distance from Israel. The Biden administration will only be making some crucial adjustments that will keep the US involved in the Middle East.

While Joe Biden has also said he would reenter JCPOA, he also supports the on-going normalisation process in the Middle East, which means Israel will continue to be the centre of US’ Middle East policy. And, while Biden had earlier vowed to declare Saudi Arabia a “pariah”, the US-Saudia relations are too deeply institutionalized and tool old to allow for such a venture. On the contrary, with Saudi Arabia now already in line for normalization with Israel, the Biden administration will be hard pressed to keep it ‘friendly’ with the Saudis and not allow the process to derail through a ‘tough’ policy vis-à-vis the Saudis.

Notwithstanding Biden’s campaign rhetoric, it remains that the Obama-Biden administration had sold more arms to Saudi Arabia, well over US$100 billion, than any of his predecessors, and that administration also supported the Saudi war in Yemen with diplomatic backing and military assistance. This means that Joe Biden is not really an anti-Saudia leader. If Biden didn’t care about thousands of Yemenis dying at the hands of the Saudis, he is unlikely to translate his apparent anger over the murder of a journalist into a radical policy shift.

The reason, however, for why the nature of US-Saudia relations may change isn’t what the Saudis did or are doing, but what the UAE is doing in terms of replacing the Saudis as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. The UAE has been taking steps to position itself as such.

The US policy under the Biden administration will be more in line with the Obama administration. It will be more militarized and more focused on entrenching the US. This will be guided by a core objective of rebuilding the US influence.

Biden’s Potential Cabinet Ministers Tell What to Expect

This is evident from the potential cabinet ministers Biden has picked for the posts of Defence and State secretaries.

For instance, Michele Flournoy, who reportedly top choice for US defence secretary, is a strong advocate of the use of military force to secure US interests. She is also the one who believes that rebuilding the US influence is both necessary and a long-term task.

As assistant secretary of defense for strategy under President Bill Clinton, Flournoy was the principal author of the May 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which laid the ideological foundation for the endless wars that followed. Under “Defense Strategy,” the QDR effectively announced that the US would no longer be bound by the UN charter’s prohibition against the threat or use of military force. It declared that, “when the interests at stake are vital, …we should do whatever it takes to defend them, including, when necessary, the unilateral use of military power.”

She is also one of the authors of a report called “Extending American Power”. This report categorically calls for American entrenchment. To quote it:

The best way to ensure the longevity of a rules based international system favorable to U.S. interests is not to retreat behind two oceans, lower American standards, or raise the tolerance level for risk. The proper course is to extend American power and U.S. leadership in Asia, Europe, and the Greater Middle East – regions where threats to the international order are greatest and where either new approaches or more consistent application of time-honored approaches are most urgently needed.

As far as Iran goes, the report calls for a “hard-nosed” enforcement of JCPOA, and “stronger efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region, from its support to terrorist groups like Hezbollah to its efforts to sow instability in the Sunni Arab states.”

Another important potential cabinet member as secretary of state is Susan Rice, former US ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Advisor in the Barack Obama administration. She was an ardent supporter of US invasion of Iraq and believed that the Saddam regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. She, like Michele Flournoy, is an ardent supporter of the use of military force to achieve foreign policy objectives.

With proponents of active deployment of US military force to achieve US foreign policy interests likely to find a place in the Biden cabinet, it is increasingly possible the US will increase its military presence in the Middle East in general, and in Syria and Iraq in particular.

There is no gainsaying that oil remains a significant aspect of US Middle East policy. With the trump administration having already devoted military force to “secure” Syrian oil, the Biden administration will most likely follow suit. This is compounded by the fact that Susan Rice is particularly anti-Russia and will see in the presence of US military force in Syria as a means to thwart Russia’s Syria unification plans.

The US Middle East policy under the Biden administration will thus be more geared towards rebuilding US influence. The only credible way for the Biden administration to do this is through military entrenchment. The presence of Susan and Flournoy in the cabinet will facilitate this to a large extent.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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