When Donald Trump was elected to the presidency in 2016, he promised to re-shape American foreign policy towards a strategy defined by an “America First” approach. Four years later, President Trump’s tenure has largely been encompassed by that same doctrine, aggressively promoting allies like Israel and simultaneously applying uncompromising pressure to those who were viewed as adversaries — such as Iran. Today, the Trump Administration has in many ways reshaped the United States’ role in the world.
In January of 2021, a President Biden will inherit the current state of U.S. affairs and be responsible for defining his own doctrine for the issues that the United States will face abroad. Arguably, the Middle East will become one of his most complex challenges, disrupted and significantly different from the one which he left four years ago as vice president. However, this dynamic also presents a unique opportunity for a Biden Administration to redefine American policy in the region and break free of the conflicts that have embedded the U.S. there for two decades.
Iran will become the new president’s most pressing issue in the Middle East, where he will face a tense relationship, fractured and increasingly intensified by the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the fatal military strike against top Iranian military official General Qasem Soleimani. Indications point to a Biden Administration making every effort to save and re-join the JCPOA, if possible. However, rapidly developing Iranian efforts to increase its enriched uranium stockpiles since the U.S. withdrawal may make it difficult for the JCPOA to be effectively reimplemented within its past structure. Further, Biden has indicated in the past that even with plans to rejoin the JCPOA, his administration would maintain pressure on the Iranians for violations of human rights and aggression across the region. The current unstableness of the JCPOA and the odds of continued sanctions will more likely push a President Biden to an alternative approach that forces Iran to the negotiating table to restructure the former nuclear deal.
In this case, one route may be through strengthening and promoting the recent emergence of Israeli-Arab partnerships with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The Abraham Accords up to the current point has been seen by some as largely symbolic; however, even so, it could be the foundation for a strong group of nations encouraged by the idea of limiting Iranian influence. Chiefly, the most prominent potential partner in this case would be Saudi Arabia, who has increasingly become a proponent against Iranian aggression. Further, a warming of the Israeli-Saudi relationship in recent years, point to a potential growing sentiment within the Saudi government that a partnership with Israel could help assess and strengthen many of its regional goals.
However, with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden has expressed intentions to take a cautious approach to both relationships. A primary example of this is highlighted by indications that he would seek a more balanced solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This new Biden policy could be shaped by expanded diplomatic relationships with the Palestinians, in efforts to rejuvenate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Though, despite this potential shift towards a more balanced policy, Aaron Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department official who worked on Arab-Israeli negotiations, argues in a piece for the Washington Post that Biden’s presence as a Democratic president could help return bipartisan support for Israel that he says has become increasingly polarized in recent years. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s relationship with the Obama Administration hardly ended warmly, with the Prime Minister publicly lashing out in statements at the U.S. for its role in the JCPOA, including when he spoke to a full session of Congress in 2015 — a speech that then Vice-President Biden did not attend. Yet, Miller points out that, “working with Israel has been part of Biden’s political life for decades” and that, “[Biden’s] penchant for bipartisanship, in general, will likely return the U.S.-Israel relationship to the normal balance that has characterized it for decades.”
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, could likely see a more blatant cooling of relations under a Biden Administration. Biden has previously expressed deep concern over the ties linking high-ranking Saudi Arabian officials to the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the state’s role in the ongoing war in Yemen, alluding during a Democratic Party Primary Debate in 2019 that U.S. support for the Kingdom would be significantly reduced under his presidency. Yet, there is a distinctive opportunity for both parties to benefit from a re-defined U.S.-Saudi relationship. While Biden is ready to push for several Saudi concessions — most notably a drawdown or withdrawal from the war in Yemen and scrutiny on human rights matters, the Saudi government is slowly beginning efforts of economic development and moving away from oil dependence — a trend highlighted by falling oil prices and global climate change agreements, such as the 2016 Paris Climate Accords, that have painted a dire long term picture for oil and gas exporters. In relation to the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the Saudis recognize that a shift towards a new economic base will be largely assisted by continued U.S./European economic partnerships and U.S. regional security guarantees against Iran. Further, knowing that they have deeply scarred their global reputation through the 2018 killing of Khashoggi, the Saudis and namely Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman could be willing to make certain concessions in order to sustain the relationship. One avenue, as mentioned earlier, the Saudis’ growing wariness of Iran may lead to a decision of normalizing relations with Israel that could possibly give the U.S. administration a strong reason to maintain the Saudis as a partner. However, the Crown Prince’s close and often informal style of diplomacy under the Trump Administration — particularly with President Trump’s advisor Jared Kushner — may not be sustainable under a President Biden who is considered to be a strong “institutionalist” likely to steer towards a more traditional, formal approach to diplomatic relations. Yet, all in all, the outlying strategic and diplomatic opportunities mentioned for both the Saudi Kingdom and incoming American administration in a stable partnership put the future Biden Administration in an excellent position to meaningfully address many of its initiatives in the Middle East through a re-imagining of the Saudi relationship.
Holistically, soon-to-be President Biden will only be four years removed from an eight-year term in the executive as vice president under the Obama Administration. The potential differences raised between the Trump and future Biden presidencies could very well also be analyzed through the lens of similarities that may or may not exist between that of Obama and Biden. In the Middle East, Biden’s foreign policy doctrine arguably has the potential to be more ambitious than that of which President Obama’s had the capability or desire for, due in part to the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that dominated much of the early period of his term in office, as well as Syria during his second term. Biden’s potential guiding philosophy and opportunities for reform, reengagement, and cooperation may not necessarily differ dramatically from the objectives that an Obama Administration hoped to pursue but the present state of affairs of the region has put a President Biden in a unique posture to act.
A Biden Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East will be broadly defined by relationships. For Biden, this may be a perfect occurrence, who in the past has defined his approach to foreign policy as “it all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal… All [foreign policy] is, is a logical extension of personal relationships, with a lot less information to act on.” And, in a period of uncertainty regarding the U.S.’s role in the world, a President Biden will be faced with the enormous responsibility and opportunity to address some of the most critical and longstanding regional issues across the Middle East. With a comprehensive and ambitious approach, a Biden Doctrine could truly reshape and redefine a new decade of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
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