It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Should Biden Backtrack on His Campaign Promises?

The president’s trip to Saudi Arabia and talk of regional security guarantees are a dramatic departure from his rhetoric during the 2020 race.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15.
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15.
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! Long time no see. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve been offline for a few weeks, and a crazy number of things have happened in the world since our last column.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. Welcome back. I hope you are feeling better. I know that debating me must be challenging enough at full strength—I would have hated to make you do it with COVID-19 brain fog!

EA: I’m pretty confident I could win this debate with my brain tied behind my back, but I thought it was better not to risk giving you an easy win.

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! Long time no see. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve been offline for a few weeks, and a crazy number of things have happened in the world since our last column.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. Welcome back. I hope you are feeling better. I know that debating me must be challenging enough at full strength—I would have hated to make you do it with COVID-19 brain fog!

EA: I’m pretty confident I could win this debate with my brain tied behind my back, but I thought it was better not to risk giving you an easy win.

I want to spend most of our time today on U.S. President Joe Biden’s big Middle East trip, but I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t start with the most shocking news story of the last few weeks: the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a campaign rally.

MK: Shocking and sad news, indeed. He was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, a good ally of the United States, and father of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” framework for countering China. He will be missed.

EA: Abe was a complicated figure. He sometimes stoked tensions by embracing Japan’s nationalistic political culture. But, as you say, he was also a fixture in international politics and someone who had been keen to work with the United States to build up Japan’s role in Asian defense issues. Thus far, we don’t really know what led to the assassination, but it will be interesting to see whether it relates to foreign-policy questions, such as Japan’s reorientation away from its traditional postwar pacifism, or whether the assassin had other domestic or ideological motivations. I suspect this story is one we’ll come back to.

From the point of view of U.S. foreign policy, however, the big news this week is Biden’s trip to the Middle East, including stops in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Let me ask you this: What do you think Biden’s goal in this trip is?

MK: I think the main goal is to improve the United States’ strained relations with regional partners. The Middle East is an interesting exception to the general refrain about the Trump and Biden administrations’ approach to allies. Former President Donald Trump was criticized for disdaining traditional friends, and Biden was elected on a foreign-policy platform of restoring alliances. But in the Middle East, the opposite has been true: It was the Trump administration that had strong support from regional partners, while Biden gave them the cold shoulder.

Now, in the second year of his presidency, I think he is seeing that his approach doesn’t really work. Even though he may not particularly like the Gulf monarchies, there are good reasons why Washington has maintained strong partnerships in the region.

U.S. foreign policy in Europe and Asia is easy. Allies there largely share U.S. values and interests. If Washington sets a political or human rights litmus test for partnerships in the Middle East, however, it will find itself alone. So, I think this attempt to restore the relationships is a useful corrective to the Biden administration’s misguided, early inclinations.

EA: Here’s an alternative theory. The Biden administration came into office promising to fix the Trump administration’s mistakes in the Middle East: return to the Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), stop giving the Saudis carte blanche, and draw down our force posture in the region. And then—to use the language of my people—they completely bollocksed that up.

They’ve wavered so long that they’re basically left with one choice: pick up Trump’s Middle East policy and pretend it’s something new.

Rather than returning to the JCPOA early in the administration, for example, they waited for months, discussing the issue, until it became effectively impossible to do so. They’ve wavered on bases in the region and on whether to reverse Trump’s policy choices on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And now, a year and a half into the administration, they’ve wavered so long that they’re basically left with one choice: pick up Trump’s Middle East policy and pretend it’s something new.

Hence this trip, which, in contrast to Biden’s campaign promises, will reaffirm the U.S.-Saudi relationship, emphasize the Abraham Accords as a regional alliance against Iran, and potentially commit the United States to new security arrangements in the region. It’s madness!

MK: I agree on the general change in approach, but I think it is an acknowledgement that the Trump approach to the region works better. The Iranians only respond to pressure. The idea that we were going to get back into the JCPOA by playing nice with Tehran was always doomed to fail. Iran pretends to negotiate as it inches closer to the bomb. So, now, finally, the Biden administration is shifting back to the pressure track, increasing sanctions on Iran. If only they had started with that at the outset.

EA: But Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2017. The “maximum pressure” sanctions have been in place for almost five years; Biden never took them away. So, how long should we wait for this approach to work? Because, as far as I can tell, we have nothing to show for it so far, except that the Iranians are now weeks—rather than a year or more—away from enough enriched uranium to build a bomb.

MK: The Biden administration greatly relieved pressure through lax sanctions enforcement and essentially taking the military option off the table. Contrary to polite opinion, Iran did not ramp up its nuclear program in response to Trump pulling out of the deal. If one looks at the timeline of Iran’s nuclear development, the biggest and most provocative nuclear advances happened under the Biden administration, I believe as a result of their soft, engagement-oriented approach. Biden is learning that engagement doesn’t work and is returning to pressure.

The Biden administration is also now embracing Trump’s biggest diplomatic breakthrough: the Abraham Accords. It makes good sense to consolidate that win and continue to improve diplomatic relations among Israel and Arab nations.

This is not meant to be a partisan point. Trump got a lot wrong, and the Biden administration is doing some good things. But I think the Trump approach to the Middle East works better. The United States should be good to its friends and tough on its enemies. Biden grasps that in Europe but not in the Middle East.

EA: I don’t think the United States really has any friends in the Middle East. At best, Washington has situational partners who also often act against U.S. interests. Just look at the way the Saudis, Emiratis, and, yes, even the Israelis have reacted to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They’ve hardly been supportive of the United States.

You do have more of a point on the Abraham Accords. If we want a balanced region, where no one state dominates, then it makes sense to encourage an alignment between the Gulf states and Israel.

The United States should be good to its friends and tough on its enemies. Biden grasps that in Europe but not in the Middle East.

But here’s another place where I worry the Biden approach is misguided. Surely the point of the Abraham Accords is to facilitate ties between Israel and the Arab states to let them work together to more effectively balance Iran and therefore to let the United States pull its attention away from the region. Instead, the talk from the White House instead implies that the United States will take the lead role in this partnership, which just adds more to the U.S. burden for no strategic benefits.

MK: You and Henry Kissinger are always looking to turn over U.S. responsibilities to regional sheriffs. You think that if Washington pulls back, then regional allies will pick up the slack. That doesn’t work. A superpower needs to lead.

EA: What’s your evidence that it doesn’t work?

MK: The “regional sheriffs” portion of the Nixon-Kissinger doctrine largely failed. It made U.S. allies in NATO and Japan nervous and emboldened the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon and Kissinger thought the United States was in decline and that Washington had no choice but to improve relations with its enemies and scale back its commitments. Thank goodness Ronald Reagan rejected that approach and won the Cold War. Reagan understood that the United States and its allies were strong, the Soviet Union was weak, and that, through a massive military buildup and across-the-board competition, the outcome of the Cold War could be that we win and they lose. Washington would be wise to relearn that lesson for the current era of great-power rivalry with China, Russia, and Iran.

EA: Hoo boy, that is certainly a take. Nixon got the United States out of Vietnam, kept it out of Middle Eastern wars, and helped remedy the country’s fiscal health after a long period of economic crisis. The benefits of Nixon’s foreign-policy choices were a big part of what gave Reagan a healthy basis for his own foreign-policy choices. And the notion that Reagan single-handedly won the Cold War is more of a popular narrative than it is a historical fact. As the great historian Melvyn Leffler put it, “By seeking to talk to Soviet leaders and end the Cold War, Reagan helped to win it. In that process, his emotional intelligence was more important than his military buildup.”

MK: Nixon and Kissinger did some good things, but their attempted regional sheriff approach did not work.

EA: It’s true that Nixon and Kissinger never did manage to fully implement that strategy, in large part because of the Iranian revolution. But many of their other choices helped facilitate some U.S. retrenchment in a way that made U.S. foreign policy more healthy.

And we are in a period of potential U.S. decline—or, at least, of relative decline in comparison to other major powers. The research on decline among the great powers is fairly clear on this: Great powers that successfully retrench and cut their commitments often manage to return to growth and power, just as the United States did under Nixon. Those that don’t tend to continue their decline. Think of it in terms of personal finance. If you’re in debt and worried about keeping up with your commitments, you trim your budget to put yourself on a more secure financial footing for the future. That’s better than continuing to spend blindly and potentially going bankrupt.

The United States needs to redistribute its defense burdens, and the Middle East is by far the easiest place to do it. The Biden plan potentially undermines that strategy.

Russia is in decline. China is stalling out if not in decline. This is a time to press harder, not scale back.

MK: You cite the “research” on decline, but I think you are referring to a single book, Twilight of the Titans, where the authors likely knew their conclusions from the start of the project.

Even if abandoning important world regions works for countries in decline, it would be a mistake to apply those lessons to the United States. The United States is not currently in decline. It has possessed between 20 and 25 percent of global GDP since the 1960s. That is right where it sits today.

Russia is in decline. China is stalling out if not in decline. We need a strategy for a strong country with strong allies facing weak and dangerous enemies. This is a time to press harder, not scale back.

EA: Returning us to the Middle East, though, what I think is really problematic is that the Biden administration isn’t really embracing either of the positions we’ve laid out here. In fact, I’m not really sure what they are going to announce while the president is in the Middle East. There are rumors that the United States will offer the Gulf states a “security package,” but no one really knows whether that’s some half-baked attempt to form an Arab NATO or just some arms sales. I’m not sure what their goals are, whether it’s to lean forward or pull back in the region. I’m not even sure if this trip isn’t an opportunity for the president to try to take credit for bringing down oil prices—even though his visit has absolutely nothing to do with that.

The administration’s public stance is incoherent, perhaps because they don’t want to admit how badly they’ve handled the region or simply that they don’t want people to notice they’re just continuing Trump’s policies. At the very least, I’d like to see them make their own policies clearer.

MK: I’ve seen reporting that the Arab NATO is really about stitching together a regional air and missile defense architecture. The United States and its regional partners have fielded related assets (radars, missile defense interceptors, etc.) in the region for years, but poor relations among regional states prevented the U.S. Defense Department from creating an integrated network. The defenses will work much better if the pieces can communicate with each other and act as an integrated system. I hope we move in that direction, especially as the Iranian missile and nuclear threat continues to grow.

EA: Well, you may be happy, but I doubt much of the Democratic Party is going to be happy with the continuing direction of Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly his decision to cozy back up to Saudi Arabia and to resist any further troop withdrawals. Still, I suppose that doesn’t differentiate it from almost every other policy area in recent months.

Here’s another parallel with the Nixon era: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this week that inflation is now over 9 percent. It will be interesting to see whether the U.S. public will tolerate an even more expansive foreign policy going forward in that kind of economic crunch.

But let’s finish this up next time. I’m going to go buy a sandwich for lunch while I still have enough money!

MK: Enjoy! But maybe you should make it a falafel in honor of the president’s trip? And maybe we should ask Foreign Policy about a cost-of-living adjustment to our fee for this column.

(Editor: Bring me a falafel, and we can talk.)

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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