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How US Middle East policy can and will change under President Biden

Biden has signaled constructive steps forward but there are also signs of a retreat to the pre-Trump status quo.

Analysis | Middle East

Joe Biden ran on a message of “Restore the Soul of America,” hoping to appeal to Americans who longed to return to the time before Donald Trump. In the foreign policy sphere, this largely corresponded to nostalgia for American leadership on the world stage. In the Middle East, “American leadership” has tended to mean military intervention. Therefore, the message of going back to the pre-Trump status quo should alarm Americans who are tired of endless wars in the region.

To be clear, for all his announcements about alleged troop withdrawals and despite his much vaunted “peace deals,” (which are more properly understood as arms deals), Trump left almost the same number of troops in the Middle East at the end of 2020 as were there four years ago. No one should be duped by his lies about ending endless wars. Still, he seemed to understand that Americans are tired of the massive waste of blood and treasure in the Middle East. According to public opinion polls, Americans want more diplomacy and less military action abroad. Viewing Biden’s election as a mandate to stay in the Middle East is the wrong message to take away. 

However, Biden inherits the interrelated domestic challenges of COVID-19 and economic collapse, so the new president will likely focus his energy on these crises, thus perhaps leaving international affairs to his foreign policy team, which will likely largely consist of DC’s foreign policy establishment, or “the Blob.”

A consensus among the Blob over the years has held that a large U.S. military presence in the Middle East provides greater stability for local people and more security for Americans. This view persists in the face of all contradictory evidence, including higher instances of terrorism, war, and authoritarianism.

Many of these same analysts view the United States as the best hope for protecting human rights in the Middle East, despite decades of propping up dictators. Academic research demonstrates that in the Middle East and North Africa "US support — military and general — tends to strengthen autocracy rather than oppose it.” As long as the U.S. government’s primary goal in the region remains military dominance, all other objectives will be secondary and too frequently sacrificed.

Still, some of Biden’s instincts towards the Middle East are encouraging. He said in the final presidential debate that he will make Saudi Arabia a pariah. Hopefully he means ending all U.S. support for the Saudis’ on-going brutal war on Yemen, as well as ending U.S. arms sales to the House of Saud.

However, he also needs to address the problematic behavior of the United Arab Emirates, which is equally culpable for Yemen’s misery. The UAE has been savvy about building an international reputation for toleration, with high-profile initiatives like establishing a Ministry of Tolerance in 2016, hosting Pope Francis in 2019, and cultivating a cosmopolitan image of openness and glamor. Yet the UAE has used the veneer of religious tolerance as a fig leaf to cover its violent crackdowns on dissent as well as any perceived expression of critique.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia tried to take a similar approach. MBS highlighted issues that Americans and Europeans tend to focus on, like allowing women to drive and opening cinemas, while violently repressing his population. Until news broke about the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it had looked as if MBS’s efforts would successfully transform Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. 

Biden and his team should treat the UAE and Saudi Arabia as two of a kind: committed to the status quo of monarchic dictatorship, which they maintain through any level of brutality necessary. The United States should cease all arms sales to both countries, including the controversial sale of F-35s to the UAE.

Relatedly, Biden and his team should end all financial support for Egypt’s increasingly repressive dictator, President Sisi. The United States currently gives $1.3 billion to Egypt annually, and has sent massive amounts of military aid every year since 1987. The Obama administration suspended payments after Sisi and the military staged a coup against democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, yet restored the aid the following year. U.S. military aid to Egypt is a legacy of Egypt’s peace deal with Israel, yet under contemporary circumstances, it is no longer necessary to bribe the Egyptian government to keep the peace with Israel: the two are close strategic partners.

Biden and his team will not do so, but a future administration should end U.S. aid to Israel. Israel arguably possesses the region’s most powerful military, thanks to its not-so-secret nuclear weapons, as well as decades of U.S. aid. The recent normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan demonstrate that Israel is no longer surrounded by enemies threatening to destroy it. Even some prominent members of the DC establishment acknowledge that Israel no longer needs the United States to prop it up. At the very least, the Biden administration should make U.S. aid to Israel conditional on meaningful efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Until a sustainable peace is achieved, Israeli security will remain tenuous and the heinous abuse of Palestinians will continue.

However, the policy change that would assist in accomplishing all of these objectives — ending U.S. support for brutal dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, supporting peace between Israel and Palestine, protecting human rights — would be curtailing the inordinate influence of arms manufacturers upon the decisions of the U.S. government. Cutting the Pentagon budget is an important first step. But overhauling campaign finance and closing the revolving door between lobbying firms and government positions is crucial not only for supporting a more peaceful future in the Middle East, but also the future of democracy in the United States.

Trump’s win in 2016 and his near loss in 2020 reiterate the American public’s frustration with Washington. A Biden presidency offers an opportunity to reset America’s role in the Middle East and the world. This opportunity will be squandered if the DC establishment tries to revert to the failed policies of the past.

Photo: US Embassy, Tel Aviv
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