Under Biden, the Middle East Would Be Just Another Region

The Democratic presidential candidate would stop sucking up to the region's autocrats, but he also wouldn’t give much encouragement to liberals.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
U.S Vice President Joe Biden meets with troops during a visit with Jordan's King Abdullah at a joint Jordanian-American training center on March 10, 2016 in Zarqa northeast of Amman, Jordan.
U.S Vice President Joe Biden meets with troops during a visit with Jordan's King Abdullah at a joint Jordanian-American training center on March 10, 2016 in Zarqa northeast of Amman, Jordan. Jordan Pix/Getty Images

The Middle East is the place where U.S. foreign-policy ideals in the post-Cold War era have gone to die: democracy promotion, nation-building, counterinsurgency, humanitarian intervention, and the two-state solution. In the aftermath of 9/11, in his 2005 second inaugural address, President George W. Bush said that the “survival of liberty” at home depended on the flourishing of liberty in the Middle East, where “resentment and tyranny” had spawned global terrorism. Today, the argument seems fanciful. Terrorism has hardly vanished, but it is not the threat it was even five years ago; nor does the United States need to depend on regional autocrats to ensure the supply of oil or to temper public anger at Israel to the degree it did until quite recently.

The Middle East “matters markedly less” to the United States than it used to, to quote a much-discussed 2019 article by Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official under President Barack Obama, and Mara Karlin, a former Pentagon official under Obama. The time had come, they concluded, “to put an end to wishful thinking” about Washington’s ability to affect the internal dynamics or external calculations of regional actors.

This is the Middle East mission that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would inherit should he win in November. He will be in a far better position to follow Wittes and Karlin’s suggestion to “pivot” away from the generational obsession with this intractable region than was Obama, who was pulled back in by the civil wars in Libya and Syria and the founding of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Biden is likely to take advantage of that opportunity, though probably not to a degree that would satisfy the realists and progressives who would like to see the United States liquidate its military presence in the region.

Biden is, by temperament, almost as immune to transcendent visions as was former President George H.W. Bush. On the great question that would ultimately define Obama’s foreign policy—the use of force in the Middle East—then-Vice President Biden played a cautionary and sometimes contrary role. In the fierce debates in the summer of 2009 over policy toward Afghanistan, as I mentioned in an earlier piece, Biden stood up to the generals when they argued for an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy. He didn’t think it would work, and he thought that a counterterrorism approach would satisfy America’s national security interests.

Biden also opposed the 2011 intervention in Libya. “He was skeptical of some of the grand ideas for transformation in the region,” said Daniel Benaim, who served as Biden’s Middle East advisor and foreign-policy speechwriter during his second term as vice president, “including our capacity to steer the outcomes of Arab revolutions.” In the wake of the nuclear agreement with Iran, a former aide said, “there was a gradient of idealism” about whether Iran could be nudged to a less adversarial posture toward the West. (The campaign didn’t allow this advisor  to speak on the record.) Biden, he said, “didn’t invest big hopes.” Should the Arab Spring flare back to life under a Biden administration, brave liberal reformers would certainly enjoy more support than they have over the last four years under President Donald Trump, but Biden would greet them more warily than Obama did, or than a President Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would.

Biden, in short, occupied the realist wing of the Obama administration on Middle East issues. Trump might claim residence for himself in that wing, too. But if a “realist” is guided by objective interests rather than ephemeral values, then Trump’s crass and value-free mercantilism in the region has emptied that term of all meaning. He has truckled to brutal autocrats including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman even as they have meddled in civil wars in Libya and Yemen in a way that plainly harms U.S. interests. Biden would not hesitate to criticize their behavior both at home and abroad. He has said: “I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” It would be up to Saudi Arabia, he warned, “to change its approach.”

The same principle would apply to the United Arab Emirates, which, however, has withdrawn from the Yemen war, made quiet overtures to Iran, and, of course, agreed to open diplomatic relations with Israel. Biden would strike a new, more distant, equilibrium. The former aide said that he expects Biden to “resist pressure from progressives to punish them.” He would continue working with repressive regimes even as he sought to deter them from exacerbating local conflicts.

The Middle East would almost certainly be demoted under a President Biden—but how far? One senior advisor—who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign—predicts that the Middle East would be “a distant fourth” in the order of priorities, after Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and Latin America. Yet Biden has deep ties to the region, and he is unlikely as president to turn his back on leaders and states that he has worked with closely for years. In 2009, Obama assigned him to act as a traffic cop of Iraqi politics, keeping that country’s sectarian kingpins from tearing one another to shreds and taking the country with them. Biden took on the job with a zeal, traveling to the region regularly and logging hundreds of hours on the phone. At the time, as Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was persecuting Sunnis and guiding the country into the arms of Iran, Biden’s faith in endless palaver looked hollow. Today, with Iraq still intact and the worldly Mustafa al-Kadhimi serving as prime minister, his belief in diplomacy doesn’t seem quite so absurd.

While for both progressives and realists Iraq is the perfect example of a quagmire from which the United States needs to extricate itself altogether, Biden, according to his former aide, believes that Iraq “has a chance to prevent a jihadist upsurge and be a harbinger of a less polarized and more pluralist Middle East, if they get it right.” Biden would also fortify U.S. relations with moderate states like Jordan, which have been almost trampled underfoot in Trump’s rush to embrace wealthy Gulf sheikdoms, above all Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Most Middle East experts list thwarting terrorists, ensuring the global flow of oil, and containing Iran as the chief remaining U.S. interests in the region. The Iran nuclear agreement was the Obama administration’s one notable accomplishment in the Middle East; Trump’s unilateral abrogation of the pact has not only failed to rein in Iranian adventurism but has also caused Tehran to restart its nuclear program. Biden has said that if Iran agrees to return to the terms of the deal, he would do so as well “as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.” That will not be easy: Iran has said that it will not return to the status quo ante—much less agree to extend the current terms—without significant concessions. It’s not clear what kind of offer, if any, Biden would be prepared to make.

Trump has thrown in his lot with Israel as single-mindedly as he has with Saudi Arabia. Biden has made it clear that he would withdraw that blank check as well. In a speech earlier this year to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Biden said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plans in the West Bank—now in abeyance—“are taking Israel further from its democratic values, undermining support for Israel in the United States, especially among young people in both political parties.”

That said, Biden has a long history of staunch support for Israel, including as vice president. He would not threaten Israel with, for example, reduced military assistance to deter further settlement expansion. Biden remains committed to a two-state solution. Yet that long-sought goal has receded to a very remote horizon. Biden could be the first U.S. president in a generation to devote little or no effort to this endlessly glimmering prospect, devoting himself instead to improving conditions for Palestinians and lowering tensions with Israel.

Perhaps the best way to think of Biden’s aspirations is to say that he would seek to normalize U.S. relations with the Middle East. He would not ask as much as Obama did, but he also would not tolerate as much as Trump has. He would be unlikely either to raise expectations or to dash them. He would not withdraw all American troops from Iraq or Syria or from the network of U.S. bases around the region, but he would be very wary of deploying them in the middle of a civil war. He would, if lucky, fulfill the dream of many of his predecessors to give the region no more attention than it merits.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.