Biden’s Middle East Strategy Is Ruthless Pragmatism

There’s a single thread connecting the White House approach to the region, from Syria to Saudi Arabia.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud welcomes then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud welcomes then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud welcomes then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Riyadh Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 27, 2011. AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden needs a Middle East strategy—at least that is what any number of analysts have argued in a variety of publications, including this one. The accusation that an administration “does not have a strategy for X” often reflects the writer’s ideological differences with a given White House rather than the actual absence of a strategy. The critique tends to be a proxy for “the administration is not pursuing my favored policy.”

It strikes me that Biden does have a strategy for the Middle East. That is to say that he and his advisors have considered regional problems, how they intersect with America’s interests, what resources are available to the United States, and what the costs are of pursuing a variety of policies. The result is a strategy that can be described as “ruthless pragmatism.” No wonder why both human rights activists and hawks are crying foul.

Ruthless pragmatism is perhaps clearest in the Biden administration’s Syria and Yemen policies. Based on the president’s statements during his run for the White House, one would have expected him to take a more active role in Syria. It was not that Biden-Harris 2020 offered a detailed plan to deal with Syria’s civil war, but when the candidate spoke about the issue, he signaled a muscular approach. Biden assailed President Donald Trump for not understanding the geopolitical environment, making the case that Trump’s intention to withdraw American forces from Syria would advantage the Assad regime and Iran, as well as leave the Israelis dependent on the Russians for their security. Of course, it is rarely the case that campaign rhetoric aligns with policy once a president takes the oath of office. As he was gearing up to run for president in 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush told Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to ignore “the empty canons of rhetoric” that he would hear as Bush hit the hustings.

President Joe Biden needs a Middle East strategy—at least that is what any number of analysts have argued in a variety of publications, including this one. The accusation that an administration “does not have a strategy for X” often reflects the writer’s ideological differences with a given White House rather than the actual absence of a strategy. The critique tends to be a proxy for “the administration is not pursuing my favored policy.”

It strikes me that Biden does have a strategy for the Middle East. That is to say that he and his advisors have considered regional problems, how they intersect with America’s interests, what resources are available to the United States, and what the costs are of pursuing a variety of policies. The result is a strategy that can be described as “ruthless pragmatism.” No wonder why both human rights activists and hawks are crying foul.

Ruthless pragmatism is perhaps clearest in the Biden administration’s Syria and Yemen policies. Based on the president’s statements during his run for the White House, one would have expected him to take a more active role in Syria. It was not that Biden-Harris 2020 offered a detailed plan to deal with Syria’s civil war, but when the candidate spoke about the issue, he signaled a muscular approach. Biden assailed President Donald Trump for not understanding the geopolitical environment, making the case that Trump’s intention to withdraw American forces from Syria would advantage the Assad regime and Iran, as well as leave the Israelis dependent on the Russians for their security. Of course, it is rarely the case that campaign rhetoric aligns with policy once a president takes the oath of office. As he was gearing up to run for president in 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush told Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to ignore “the empty canons of rhetoric” that he would hear as Bush hit the hustings.

Instead of the hawkish approach to Syria that Biden signaled, he has apparently concluded that de-escalation best serves a set of geostrategic goals that are both related to the Syrian conflict and broader than the civil war. It is based on the implicit acknowledgement that President Bashar Assad has won and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Team Biden apparently believes that by coming to terms with this reality, the United States will stand a better chance of getting more aid to the people in Syria who need it, help the poor Lebanese, alter relations with Russia (though that now has more to do with Ukraine than anything else), and peel the Syrians from the Iranians.

Toward those ends, the Biden administration was not overly critical—or critical at all—when King Abdullah of Jordan called the Syrian president or when the Emirati foreign minister visited with him in Damascus in early November. The Jordanian leader’s plan for the restoration of Syrian sovereignty and unity seems to align with Biden’s overall view, though the White House has not signed on to the king’s plan.

American diplomats were reportedly involved in efforts to use the Arab Gas Pipeline to send Egyptian gas to Jordan and then to Lebanon via Syria, providing relief for the Lebanese who have been forced to contend with intermittent electricity (among many hardships). This has left members of Congress from both parties, who have sought to hold Assad accountable for his war crimes, wondering aloud why the Biden administration is standing by while Arab countries, including Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon, and Tunisia in addition to the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, rehabilitate Syria.

One need not agree with what the administration is doing in Syria, but it is clear there is an underlying strategy. Biden’s ruthless pragmatism in Syria tracks with American interests in counterterrorism, counterproliferation, Israeli security, and, yes, human rights by looking for ways to increase the flow of aid. Does it treat the root cause of the problem? No. Are their reasons to be skeptical? Yes, of course. Any objective observer must acknowledge that Assad has never dealt with the aid issue in good faith and has often done just enough to keep his opponents at bay while retaining the capacity to continue malignant policies. Maybe Biden’s strategy is a bad one, but he does have one.

Yemen is the other place where Biden’s ruthless pragmatism is clear. There was a lot of anger among human rights groups and progressive members of Congress when the Senate voted in favor of a $650 million weapons package for the Saudis. The administration said that the sale was for “defensive weaponry,” but opponents of the deal cried foul. They have a point. What constitutes a defensive weapon often depends on whom you ask.

The Houthis, a loathsome group that shares in the responsibility for Yemeni suffering, would make the case that their missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory is defensive. The Saudis, who are also responsible for Yemeni suffering would disagree, making the case that their airstrikes in Yemen are defensive, too. It’s this kind of semantic fuzziness that contributes to Biden’s ruthless pragmatism. Even leading critics of the Saudi war effort like Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) voted for the arms package because, as he claimed, the weapons bound for Saudi Arabia will help the country defend itself.

Of course, there is more going on here, at least for the administration. Cutting off the weapons supply to the Saudis is not going to stop the war in Yemen. It may make it harder after some time, but the Yemen conflict will not end by an act of Congress. The Biden administration’s policy is based on this reality and on a recognition that it is awfully hard to make Saudi Arabia into a pariah. Since Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the intervention in Yemen, revelations of other Saudi human rights abuses, and the shale revolution in the United States, the view among Washington’s foreign policy analysts and members of Congress is that there is an opportunity to change the U.S.-Saudi relationship. That Riyadh needs Washington more than Washington needs Riyadh, and this fact gives the United States leverage. Like everything else in life, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is more complicated. The two countries need each for different things and often at different times.

The conflict in Yemen is awful and made worse by the Saudi intervention in 2015. Yet, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Biden has another issue to worry about that is intertwined with his own politics and national interest (though when are these not intertwined?): the free flow of oil and the ability of the Saudis to affect the price of that oil, and, by association, what American consumers pay at the pump. Analysts have raised concern about the stability of the Arabian Peninsula and threats to strategic waterways like the Mandeb Strait and Red Sea resulting from a Houthi victory, especially given their links to Iran. That is all valid and important, but wrapped up in the weapons sales is a need to elicit Saudi help. Biden would like Saudi Arabia to pump more oil because he is getting killed politically for inflation and high gas prices.

To climate activists this is craven, and to an extent it is, but as much as the energy landscape is changing, it is not going to happen as quickly or as smoothly as environmentalists would like everyone to believe. And until there is a cultural shift in the United States where Americans stop believing that they have a divine right to drive around in large trucks and SUVs filled up with cheap gas, Saudi Arabia is going to remain an important country.

There is nothing edifying or heroic about Biden’s ruthless pragmatism, but foreign policy is often about making decisions that are morally suspect. Give Biden and his team credit where credit is due, however. Unlike their critics, they are engaged in strategic thinking.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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