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Biden’s vision for U.S. Middle East policy — a view from Europe

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s remarkable resurgence as the probable Democratic presidential nominee has invited fresh scrutiny of his foreign policy views – not only in the United States, but across the world, including in Europe. When Biden recently presented his foreign policy vision, there were encouraging ideas about a return to diplomacy as a first, not last, resort of statecraft.

Biden’s pledge to renew America’s historical alliances, notably with the European Union (EU), which has been badly damaged by President Donald Trump, is also reassuring. But he also offered a boilerplate of platitudes on the virtues of American leadership, with little self-reflection on where it went wrong. And on the region where it arguably failed the most, the Middle East, Biden is at his most unimaginative and conservative — not in an ideological sense, but in terms of unreflecting continuity. That promises more friction with the EU.

For example, Biden claims the need to “sustain our ironclad commitment to Israel´s security.” Considering his track record, which includes statements like “no daylight should exist between the U.S. and Israel,” this is hardly surprising. What is deeply disappointing is that a candidate ostensibly planning to “rescue American foreign policy from Trump” didn´t consider it necessary to add even a cursory reference to a credible “two-state solution,” a standard U.S. position pre-Trump. Nor is there any commitment to reverse all the unilateral concessions the Trump administration bestowed on Israel’s right-wing government in terms of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel and lack of any criticism of expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian territories. Biden also doesn’t commit to review Trump’s one-sided Israeli-Palestinian “peace plan.” The EU, by contrast, clearly rejected that plan as departing from internationally agreed parameters and warned that any steps towards the annexation of the occupied Palestinian lands “could not pass unchallenged.”

On Iran, Biden sees only threats of nuclear proliferation and regional destabilization, not a country in the Middle East that, while pursuing problematic policies, may also have its own legitimate security interests. It’s not apparent that he intends to explore possible paths of engagement with Iran. Europeans would welcome his readiness to rejoin the nuclear agreement that Trump recklessly abandoned. However, his intention to do so only if Tehran returns to “strict compliance” is getting the sequence wrong. It is the U.S. that violated the deal when Iran was respecting it. Iran’s reduced compliance is a reaction to U.S. actions. By the time the prospective Biden administration settles in, Iran will be immersed in its own presidential campaign of 2021. It would be inconceivable for any Iranian leader to return to the deal without a clear commitment by the U.S. to lift the nuclear-related sanctions first.

Where Biden does refer to diplomacy in the Iranian context, it is not to engage with Iran, but “to work with our allies to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing actions.” This, in essence, is not very different from the scheme pushed by Sens. Lindsay Graham and Robert Menendez to get the European allies on board to build a “new and better” deal that would also address Iran’s ballistic missiles program and its regional policies. Even if the European trio of Britain, France, and Germany would work with a Biden administration on such a deal, the prospects of its success are low, as Iran will not give up what it sees as vital pillars of its defence strategy. A far better strategy for Biden would be to work with the European allies to build a new regional security framework in the Persian Gulf, as suggested by the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Where Biden might distance himself from Trump most visibly would be in relations with Saudi Arabia. He called on the U.S. to stop supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He also dedicated some harsh remarks to the Saudi kingdom elsewhere, at one point treating it as a “pariah state.” The reality of governing, of course, is very different from a campaign rhetoric, and an actual Biden administration could very well strike a much more moderate tone. But Trump’s extraordinarily tight embrace of Saudi Arabia does make the task of distancing the U.S. from Saudi Arabia easier for Biden. Yet, at the same time, this distancing could also involve more symbolic measures rather than a fundamental rethink of a relationship that many in Washington have come to recognize as toxic.

Then there is also a matter of Biden’s voting record in the Senate, notably his support for one of the most disastrous blunders of American foreign policy – the war in Iraq. That puts him to the right of Obama, and makes his vow to “end forever wars” scarcely credible.

These grave reservations notwithstanding, a Biden administration’s unimaginative conservatism would still be amply preferable to Trump’s disruptive transactionalism. It would likely borrow from professionals who served in the Obama administration (although it should consider moving beyond the usual suspects), and re-install some sense of process and direction in American foreign policymaking. Yet it would be nothing like a transformative presidency Bernie Sanders’ election could bring. That means that whatever adjustments Biden would be able to make, they’ll be at risk of being swept away in four or eight years by another Republican president.

The EU is taking good note and increasingly realizing the need to emancipate itself from the vagaries of American electoral cycles. Biden’s election could mend transatlantic ties, but at the end of the day, the EU must act as a strategically autonomous power. Nowhere more so as in the Middle East, where ill-advised American interventions exacerbated security threats Europe is facing.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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