How will a Biden administration engage the Middle East?
The Biden administration may likely see the necessity to pursue a different strategy based on the belief that the region remains important for American security and regional stability. Among the myriad of issues critical to American strategic calculus, four stand out: failing states, terrorism, Iran’s nuclear program, and Israeli-Palestinian-Arab relations.
An approach informed by the Quincy Institute’s Manifesto for Restrainers could help Biden put the region on a completely different trajectory that looks to the future rather than being stuck in the past. The Manifesto calls, among other things, for “U.S. economic and diplomatic re-engagement;” “realistic foreign policy goals;” “credible foreign commitments;” “business-like relations with all countries and special relations with none.” It also calls on the U.S. to “set a good example for others.”
Failing states. Several Middle East states are failing or on the verge of institutional collapse. Recent history has shown that state failure is often followed by chaos, internecine armed conflict, and a rush of malevolent actors to exploit internal instability. Furthermore, domestic conflict is frequently exported to neighboring countries and communities. Ethnicity, religion, economic disparities, and social upheavals coalesce to further destroy national cohesion. Other states in and outside the region, including the United States, rarely remain unscathed.
Syria, Yemen, and Libya are obvious examples of failed states, but we cannot ignore the economic, political, and institutional paralysis gripping Lebanon and the country’s potential collapse. The inability of Lebanon’s political elite to address the country’s endemic problems, especially institutional corruption, and its rejection of the people’s demands for reform, economic accountability, and social justice have led to yet another Prime Minister designee—Saad Hariri. Hariri is the epitome of Lebanon’s sickness. If he becomes Prime Minister, his rule would resurrect the corrupt and inept troika that has ruled Lebanon for decades.
For years, the Maronite President Michel Aoun, the Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the Shia Hezbollah Hasan Nasrallah have ruled Lebanon and divided the country’s spoils among themselves with no considerations for their people’s misery. Some had hoped that the previous Prime Minister Diab could break the hold the Aoun-Hariri-Nasrallah cabal had over the country, but he failed. Unless the international community, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, imposes strict accountability measures on Lebanon’s economic revitalization and institutional reform, Lebanon will most likely fail.
Terrorism. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and their affiliated and rebranded regional groups are still active in the Middle East and globally. Dozens of terrorist leaders have been liquidated in recent years, but the terrorist threat continues. Although changing, the threat remains. Loss of territory does not equate with defeating radical ideology, and fighting terrorism requires more than killing or neutralizing terrorist leaders. The factors that drove terrorism two decades ago still prevail today. Failed states and economically bankrupt and bankrupt dictators have been unable to pull their peoples out of poverty and other humanitarian disasters.
The ensuing psychological factors include helplessness, anger, frustration, isolation, a lack of belonging, and powerlessness to shape their future. Radicalization is still driven by regime-stoked sectarianism, foreign wars against Muslim countries, Islamophobia in non-Muslim countries, and social media. Finally, radical interpretations of Islam that promote millenarianism, conflict until the “final days,” and primacy of the Medina war-like Koranic suras over the universalist values of the Meccan suras.
The recent terrorist attacks in Nice, France, reflect the attacker’s radical interpretation of Islam and his sense of political disenfranchisement and economic grievances. Sadly, what happened in Nice could easily be replicated in other European and American cities.
Defeating the terrorist radical ideologies and organizations requires counterterrorism efforts to address the key factors driving them. The Biden administration will need to empower American diplomacy, relying on an all-government capacity, to pursue a long-term counterterrorism commitment.
Iran’s nuclear program. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (P5+1), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, was the singular foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. It imposed conditions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment for at least 10 years and imposed one of the most intrusive inspection regimes in the world. Iran accepted the deal because it wanted sanctions relief and an end to its international pariah status. The deal optimistically charted a path for further contentious issues, including missile development and Iran’s perceived terrorist activities. The negotiations conducted by then US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz were successful because they focused solely on the nuclear program. The agreement kept Iran from pushing its nuclear program toward a nuclear weapon.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement in May 2018 was not prompted by any serious strategic considerations or flaws in the agreement. Trump had already exhibited visceral animus toward President Barak Obama and his legacy. He also yielded to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal and to White House ultraconservative advisers and Iran bashers, including John Bolton.
The withdrawal isolated the United States from its allies, most of whom supported the nuclear deal with Iran. Consequently, Washington lost whatever leverage it had with Iran and with the UN Security council over the nuclear issue. In fact, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked the Security Council to support the American proposed resolution to re-impose “snapback” sanctions on Iran because of alleged violations of the nuclear deal, the Security Council rejected the resolution, thereby handing Pompeo an embarrassing defeat.
The Biden administration by re-engaging Iran through negotiations could lead to extending the nuclear break-out time for another decade or two, tackling Iran’s missile program, and addressing Iran’s belligerent actions across the region. Biden’s carrot would be the lifting of sanctions and opening up international technological and economic aid to Iran.
Israeli-Palestinian-Arab relations. The recent normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan were welcomed in many Western countries, denounced by the Palestinians, and viewed skeptically by others. Despite the differences, most Arab and non-Arab states, including Trump and his son in law Jared Kushner, who championed the normalization process, agree that the normalization between Israel and the three Arab countries were not about the Palestinians or ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Palestine. The agreements are essentially transactional, quid pro quo deals that gave the three Arab leaders something in return for normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
The probability of violence in the West Bank and Gaza will increase as Palestinians feel abandoned and as they lose all confidence in their leaders and in the traditional Arab support for their cause. Although the three leaders have pretended that “annexation” has been suspended, neither the Israeli leadership nor the Palestinians believe that. Netanyahu has stated on several occasions that annexation has only been “delayed.” Palestinians’ daily life of closed roads, more settlements, restrictions on commerce and travel embodies the reality of the annexation. Israel controls the West bank, and the two-state paradigm has vanished.
By jettisoning old approaches, the Biden administration could initiate an earnest conversation with the parties on a different future that would aim at finding a formula for the two peoples to live in peace, dignity, security, and equality under the law on one territory between the River and the Sea, The Biden administration could chair a committee made up of Israel, the Palestinian leadership, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar for the purpose of drawing up options within six months for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in Israel-Palestine.
Why should the Biden administration expend time, energy, and capital on tackling these issues? A fair question, but I think the answer is clear. Collapsing states will result in instability, conflict, and terrorism. A failing Lebanon, for example, will extend Iran’s and Hezbollah’s influence in that country. Syria and Russia most certainly will extend their control over that part of the Levant. Terrorist groups will feel empowered to aim at destabilizing Western countries.
Engaging Iran through a revival of the JCPOA and other agreements will enhance Gulf stability and by extension American national security. Concluding an Israeli-Palestinian deal will once and for all neutralize the century-old Israeli Palestinian conflict and will help integrate Israel as a technological giant into the Middle East. Middle Eastern peoples and America will be net winners.
This article has been republished with permission from The Cipher Brief.