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Can Biden Finally Put the Middle East in Check and Pivot Already?

The new administration, like previous ones, has a Middle East quagmire. But it’s trying some nuanced moves to break free.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
U.S. President Joe Biden steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on March 1.
U.S. President Joe Biden steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on March 1. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

It’s been just under ten years since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, to Foreign Policy, the U.S. pivot to Asia after a decades-long focus on the Middle East. It didn’t last long. Soon after, the Arab Spring uprisings forced the Middle East back into the center of U.S. foreign policy. Then came civil wars in Syria and Libya. Next was the eruption of the Islamic State. All the while, there were nuclear negotiations with Iran—a cascade of events that ensured that the Middle East, as it had for former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and certainly his son, would exert inexorable pull on the Obama administration.

Like former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, U.S. President Joe Biden hoped to downgrade the Middle East in favor of finally waging a strategic competition with China, which Biden said would be the most consequential challenge of his presidency. But just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.

The first test came in mid-February, when Iranian-backed Shiite militias fired rockets at a U.S. air base in northern Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor and injuring a U.S. service member. Since Biden’s inauguration, Iran has targeted not only U.S. forces in Iraq, as it has for years, but also launched attacks against Saudi oil fields, airports, and other facilities.

It’s been just under ten years since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, to Foreign Policy, the U.S. pivot to Asia after a decades-long focus on the Middle East. It didn’t last long. Soon after, the Arab Spring uprisings forced the Middle East back into the center of U.S. foreign policy. Then came civil wars in Syria and Libya. Next was the eruption of the Islamic State. All the while, there were nuclear negotiations with Iran—a cascade of events that ensured that the Middle East, as it had for former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and certainly his son, would exert inexorable pull on the Obama administration.

Like former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, U.S. President Joe Biden hoped to downgrade the Middle East in favor of finally waging a strategic competition with China, which Biden said would be the most consequential challenge of his presidency. But just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.

The first test came in mid-February, when Iranian-backed Shiite militias fired rockets at a U.S. air base in northern Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor and injuring a U.S. service member. Since Biden’s inauguration, Iran has targeted not only U.S. forces in Iraq, as it has for years, but also launched attacks against Saudi oil fields, airports, and other facilities.

Biden took time to respond, but there were no unenforced red lines, angry tweets, or saber-rattling rhetoric—just a carefully targeted strike on a Syrian crossing used by Iranian-backed militias to launch attacks across the border on U.S. forces and a muted U.S. Defense Department statement saying, “President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel.”

If Obama was all carrot and Trump was all stick, then Biden seems to favor a healthier mix of engagement and dialogue.

It was a deliberate pawn advance in the administration’s chess game, not a reckless charge. The attack was a warning that the United States was not to be trifled with but was not so severe that it closed the door to diplomacy. Indeed, Biden launched the strikes at the same time that his administration offered to relaunch talks with Iran over salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal, sending a clear message to Tehran that attacks on U.S. personnel or its allies would not be tolerated but that dialogue remained the endgame.

If Obama was all carrot and Trump was all stick, then Biden seems to favor a healthier mix of engagement and dialogue, leavened with surgical strikes on proxies, continued sanctions, and diplomatic pressure. Biden wants to get back to the deal that Trump abandoned—and even offered to engage in European-led dialogue before Iran had come back into compliance with the deal’s nuclear restrictions—but understands that doing so without responding to Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region doesn’t improve his chances.

Biden’s national security team has many of the same faces as the Obama administration, but they all know this is not 2015. Israel is normalizing ties with several of Iran’s gulf neighbors. The COVID-19 pandemic, a sustained period of low oil prices, and the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign have all put Tehran on the defensive. Today, Iran needs the nuclear deal far more than the United States does.

But Biden’s problems in the Middle East aren’t limited to bringing Iran back into line. He also wants to end the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has created a humanitarian disaster. Washington needs Saudi Arabia to do both. At the same time though, the president, who called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” while a candidate, wants to recalibrate a relationship that grew too cozy and, in some senses, out of date under the last administration.

If Obama overpromised and underdelivered, especially when it came to Saudi Arabia, and Trump simply adopted a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach toward Saudi leadership and human rights abuses, Biden’s trying to thread a middle ground.

He announced a review on the huge arms sales that the Trump administration had pushed through, including against congressional opposition. Unlike Trump, Biden has returned head-of-state level discussions to where they belong—with the current king—and relegated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his rightful place as the counterpart of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. And last week, the Biden administration finally released the intelligence assessment, mandated by Congress but buried by Trump, on the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The report determined that Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, ordered the killing, given the direct involvement of security officials close to him and his iron-clad control over the country. Yet Biden opted to impose sanctions against officials believed to be involved in the Khashoggi killing—but not the crown prince himself. Similarly, when Biden announced an end to U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, he suggested the United States takes a leading role in forging a diplomatic solution to the conflict, naming a veteran diplomat as a special envoy for the issue who is well respected in Riyadh and pledged to protect Saudi security interests. The president, it seems, isn’t just recalibrating—he’s calibrating.

It is a classic case of balancing interests and values—one of the central tenets of foreign policy. If Biden can work with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who both have blood on their hands and whose countries have directly threatened U.S. interests, why should he sever the United States’ relationship with a key Arab ally and its future king? Saudi Arabia, for all its flaws and ups-and-downs in the relationship, has remained a strategic partner of the United States since the waning days of World War II.

Trump’s cruise-control approach to the region created openings for Russia and China to play a bigger role in the Middle East.

Some foreign-policy experts want the United States to play hardball with Mohammed bin Salman, perhaps in a bid to change the dynastic destiny of the kingdom. That would likely be a mistake given his public profile, huge popularity with young people, and despite it all, reputation as a moderate reformer. He has made tentative steps toward reform in areas like women’s rights, and he might, unlike his father, normalize ties with Israel—making him, despite his flaws, a bulwark still.

More to the point, the Trump administration’s cruise-control approach to the region created openings for Russia and China to play a bigger role in the Middle East. Russia is a kingmaker in Syria. China strengthened its political and economic partnerships across the Middle East during the Trump administration, including a growing partnership with Iran, from whom it made massive purchases of crude oil in violation of U.S. sanctions. The Biden administration, like the one before it, wants to confront great-power rivals, but Washington invited them into the Middle Eastern sandbox.

When he was confirmed as secretary of state, Anthony Blinken laid out the Biden administration’s foreign-policy priorities as, first, Asia-Pacific, then rapprochement with European allies, and finally the Western hemisphere. But past weeks have shown that the Middle East remains, as it has for decades, the region where U.S. troops and resources, if not direct interests, face the greatest risks.

Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has found himself mired in the Middle East’s toxic cocktail of nation-state conflicts, religious extremism, and superpower intervention that frustrates the United States’ broader agendas. If Biden wants to truly focus on China’s hegemonic ambitions, he has to once and for all extricate the United States from its never-ending cycle of entanglements. Creating a new balance of power, even if that means treading a fine line between idealism and realism, could help get him there.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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