As the second year of US President Joe Biden’s “glorious” tenure comes to an end, it is already possible to take stock of some of his policies around the world, including in the Middle East.
Many unfortunate events, particularly in recent months, have taken place during this period. These include the Yemeni Houthis’ missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the constant militia attacks on US troops in Syria and Iraq. There is strong Arab resentment, even in wealthy Gulf countries such as Kuwait, at the Pentagon’s military presence on their soil. In the territory of small but wealthy Kuwait there are currently, according to official figures, 13,500 US troops, but in fact many more, once redeployed from Iraq. This has led to restrictions on the movement of Kuwaitis within their own emirate, not to mention the banned travel of tourists and visitors around Kuwait, and they are forced to spend all their time in the capital Al Kuwait. All these facts show clearly and convincingly the rejection of current Washington policies and highlight the great continuing risks for a “democratic” US in the region.
It should be recalled that the Biden administration came to power with the clear intention, as has been much advertised, of shifting the US attention, including its militarily component, to South-East Asia and Europe. Many Americans are simply tired of years of increased attention to the troubled Middle East and have completely lost track of their foreign policy toward the Arab world, Iran and Afghanistan. And after the sad and instructive fleeing of their military from Afghanistan, many Americans have asked a perfectly reasonable question: what has the US and themselves forgotten in that corner of the globe? And neither Biden nor his administration officials can give a clear answer to this direct question.
Biden’s Middle Eastern policy, in his words and speeches, has focused on expanding diplomatic practice, partnering with key states in the region and focusing on top priorities such as nuclear non-proliferation and counter-terrorism. While Biden and high-ranking officials often refer demagogically to the importance of promoting human rights and democracy, in day-to-day life they take a pragmatic approach to the region that in practice pays little attention to these issues. Stephen Cook argued persuasively in his Foreign Policy article that Biden’s team is pursuing a strategy of “ruthless pragmatism” towards the Middle East with a clear focus on defending US interests in the region, while recognizing the limits of its increasingly diminishing resources.
The US president has focused his special attention on what the US can reasonably achieve in the region at a limited cost. In a speech, Brett McGurk, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, said the US remained committed to engagement in the Middle East, while rejecting the “maximalist” goals of the last three presidents. He described a “going back to basics” plan for the region, focusing on alliances, a “smart strategy”, “clear goals” and a “limited base of American resources”. Administration officials and Biden himself specifically rejected the concept of “regime change” in the countries of the region. Somehow, however, it is not about countries such as Iraq, where a fierce political struggle has been going on for ten months now, the result of brutal US aggression and the unceremonious annihilation of Iraqi statehood.
In addition to its strategic approach, the administration does have specific policy objectives for 2022. These include providing minor assistance to Iraqi armed forces and maintaining a US military presence in Syria allegedly to prevent the re-emergence of Daesh (a terrorist group banned in the Russian Federation). But on Syrian soil, the Pentagon’s military is mostly busy looting the oil wealth of hapless Syrians. The White House actively supports the “Abraham Accords” with several Arab countries, initiated by Donald Trump’s administration, and hopes to help normalize relations between Israel and other Arab states. Moreover, in fact Biden’s team has always and repeatedly declared its “ironclad” support for Israel, while providing ostensible paltry assistance to the Palestinians. Although Biden has paid lip service to the two-state solution, his administration has little interest in investing political capital to achieve this goal. The facts show that the current US rulers do not care about the tragedy of the Arab people of Palestine, who have lost their homeland. Another more important goal, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, is to help “Gulf partners defend themselves against threats from Houthi forces.” Understandably, it is far more pleasant to help the wealthy Gulf states, whose investments flow broadly to the US, than it is to help the impoverished and destitute Palestinians. Such is the truth of democracy the American way!
Iran is likely to be and is the top regional priority for 2022. Negotiations aimed at bringing Iran and the US back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are now, according to experts, in their final stages. While some diplomats expressed limited optimism, others were divided on the likelihood of a deal being struck. The White House said a nuclear-armed Iran was “unacceptable” and that all options were on the table if negotiations failed. But the reality is that few in the administration or the American public want a new war in the Middle East, which Israel simply covets and its top leadership constantly talks about. It is only natural that if Tel Aviv provokes an attack on Iran, Washington with all its might will side with “little defenseless Israel”. And then it will be the Israelis who, without the knowledge of the American people, will provoke the US to its detriment, as Washington is now rudely doing to Europe by violently twisting its arms in the Ukrainian conflict and pitting it against Russia in every possible way. Still, if the negotiations fail, Biden’s team will not have good options, but it is likely to continue with a strictly pragmatic approach aimed at limiting the forward movement of Iranian policy in the region.
In its approach to the Middle East this year, the White House, in the face of its declining prestige, prefers to pursue quiet diplomacy backed by limited military action. Biden’s team hopes to work with allied regional partners and maintain current trends towards de-escalation. The president does not intend to ignore the region, but he wants to focus attention and resources elsewhere. However, no one is in control of all events in the Middle East, as was the case with previous US presidents. A host of factors could disrupt Biden’s outlined approach to the region. Negotiations with Iran could fail. A new Daesh (banned in the Russian Federation), al-Qaeda (also banned in the Russian Federation) or another extremist group may emerge. The war in Yemen, unleashed by Riyadh and actively supported by Washington, has already transcended Yemen’s borders and could become an even greater threat to Yemen’s neighbors and shipping in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and throughout the Arabian Sea.
Although the Biden administration might have acted wisely in admitting that Washington cannot address the root causes of the Syrian war. The reality that these underlying causes remain unaddressed will continue to fuel the dangers and unresolved nature of the Syrian conflict.
Several countries in the region, such as Lebanon and Iraq, face serious risks of political instability. A new crisis between Israel and the Palestinians could easily thwart the White House’s desire to avoid the issue. Any of these threats will naturally affect US interests, and the aged Joe Biden willingly or not will have to deal with these issues.
There are also global risks that could undermine Biden’s ability to implement the policies he has outlined in the Middle East. The most immediate foreign policy danger is the situation in Ukraine, which requires the close attention of senior officials in Washington and a huge financial injection to fight to the last Ukrainian.
The White House’s intention to focus on Southeast Asia stems from real dangers; managing relations and risks with China will require a great deal of US attention and the use of increasingly scarce resources. At the same time, Biden must continue to grapple with the unfortunate consequences of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan – in other words, the shameful flight from that country without “saving face”. All this has not brought glory to Joe Biden personally, it has shown the hypocrisy, the mendacity of his policies and a basic lack of respect for his partners.
The Middle East also offers excellent opportunities, if Biden’s team has time to focus on exploiting them. Recent efforts by regional powers to improve their inter-neighborly relations and de-escalate tensions are creating more opportunities to address a range of issues. An agreement with Iran could go a long way towards stabilizing strategic risks. The region’s young population and geostrategic location offer political, economic and cultural prospects. The question will be whether a “decrepit” Washington has the capacity to pursue its policies and expand once-lost opportunities in the Middle East. The answer is rather NO. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, no man ever steps in the same river twice. Especially if it is a Middle Eastern river.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.