U.S. policy adrift in the Middle East
The Biden administration appears content to get to the 2024 elections without any major initiatives in the Middle East.
In a nutshell
- The Biden administration is dodging hard choices, leaving them to regional players
- The U.S. president shares Barack Obama’s antipathy toward Benjamin Netanyahu
- There are no signs that the American leader is seeking regime change in Iran
As President Joe Biden’s policies for the Middle East mature, they appear to be largely focused on disengagement. This is not surprising, reflecting continuity with the general policies of former President Barack Obama (2009-2017), since many of the same key officials are serving in the present administration, including the former vice president himself. Israel, the Iran nuclear threat and energy have been the key issues anchoring the United States in the Middle East. The Biden team, like the Obama team, seems interested in downplaying these challenges as issues of vital U.S. interest.
In part, the administration’s ambivalence toward Israel reflects the deep ideological divisions in his party. Support for Israel is becoming less a bipartisan given, not only due to changes in the Democratic Party, but also in the Jewish population in the U.S.
Jewish Americans are a small demographic. Further, American Jews are increasingly more liberal and secular, more closely aligning with the left and less concerned with Israel. This makes it more difficult for traditional Jewish advocacy groups that sought support from both parties in Washington. As a result, in general, leftist politicians at the national level are less anchored in avowedly pro-Israel policies.
For instance, the administration recently launched a public anti-Semitism campaign. This occurred after the White House had ignored growing anti-Semitism and hate crimes against Jews in the U.S. for two years. This may, in part, reflect a desire of the administration to attract Jewish voters for national elections in 2024. It is more likely, however, that the White House embraced this initiative after former President Donald Trump hosted Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and Kanye West, who has repeatedly made anti-Semitic remarks, for dinner at his home in Mar-a-Lago. The dinner came in November 2022, shortly after Mr. Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2024.
President Biden is under no pressure to do anything for the Palestinians.
In addition, President Biden shares Mr. Obama’s antipathy toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently formed a new government. A good indicator of strains in the relationship will be negotiations over renewing the joint Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on defense cooperation, which the two countries signed under President Trump in 2018. The administration could try to hold the Netanyahu government hostage over negotiating a new MOU. But Mr. Netanyahu may respond by trying to wait them out, hoping for a more cooperative U.S. president after the national elections in 2024.
Further, while the administration, like the Obama team, seeks to be “evenhanded” in relations with Palestinians, essentially President Biden has returned to the Obama status quo. That is not likely to change. Further, there is general apathy toward the Palestinians in the region. President Biden is under no pressure to do anything for the Palestinians.
While the White House has not formally abandoned hopes of restructuring and reentering the 2015 deal to stop Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, the Biden administration now acknowledges the deal is moribund. Yet, there are no signals that Washington has a backup plan. While ongoing internal protests continue to rock Iran, the Biden administration has done nothing serious to prepare for or foment regime change. Indeed, there are no signs they want such a change, preferring instead the stability of the current regime that they know well.
“Biden is punting away on the hard issues while putting a greater burden on regional allies,” argues Heritage Foundation regional expert James Phillips. “Nervous Arab Gulf states are hedging and cultivating closer ties to China and Russia; Iran and Turkey are absorbing parts of Iraq and Syria, two [practically] failed states.”
The Biden administration will likely continue to muddle through the next two years.
Elsewhere in the region, the administration has shown little interest. For instance, it continues to neglect the precarious situations in both Tunisia and Libya. In contrast, both Jordan and Egypt have been and remain close U.S. allies. Yet, they are also frustrated that the U.S. seems relatively indifferent to domestic concerns in both countries.
The Biden administration continues to emphasize green transformation in its energy policy and encourages regional production only as a domestic issue and for the sake of global markets. Regional powers know this and do not regard the administration as a reliable partner on global energy policies. Regional producers are not happy about the cold shoulder from the U.S. They have taken up renewed dialogue and engagement with Russia and China, mostly to get Washington’s attention. It does not seem, however, to be sparking much of a response.
There are developments that could shake the administration from its current course. They include the following:
Congressional action and presidential politics
“I expect Congress to take an outsized interest in the entire region as everyone starts looking to 2024,” forecasts Heritage Foundation security and foreign policy analyst Victoria Coates, a former member of Trump’s National Security Council staff. Congress may seek “a stronger-than-ever prioritization of the relationship with Israel, an ongoing commitment to both security and energy cooperation with the Gulf, and crystal clarity on what commercial engagement with China looks like if these countries prioritize maintaining said cooperation,” according to Ms. Coates. Congress and election politics may drive President Biden to bolder action, such as taking a harder stance against Iran.
Hamas, the Palestinian militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, is making every effort to supplant the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The Palestinian economy could collapse. Lebanon remains incredibly fragile. Dramatic instability may force the U.S. to become more directly involved than it wants.
Nuclear breakout in Iran
“If the Supreme Leader starts to feel seriously threatened by the ongoing unrest and his systemic economic problems,” suggests Ms. Coates, “he could decide to make a break for the nuclear club to achieve a North Korea-like status.” Alternatively, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may die and, in the political infighting that follows, the decision to become a declared nuclear weapons power may occur. This might force the U.S. to come up with an alternative plan to restart the Iran deal.
India has a proactive “Look East” policy seeking to expand its engagements and influence beyond Iran. China continues to show interest in growing its presence and influence in the region. These other actors may take bold initiatives that, in turn, spark a response from the U.S.
But the Biden administration will likely continue to muddle through the next two years.