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Want insight into Biden’s Middle East policy? Read Obama’s memoir

Middle East pundits have been trying to read the tea leaves to gain insight into how Joe Biden’s foreign policy team understands the region, particularly regarding Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since so many of the president-elect’s nominees served in senior positions in the Obama White House, it is natural to assume they will bring a good deal of their previous understanding of the region to their new jobs. President Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land,” credits their advice, and his policies reflected their worldview. 

Biden spent eight years as vice president, a loyal servant to Obama’s foreign policy without ever expressing a public objection, even during his four years after leaving office. Biden was an influential voice on Obama-era foreign policy decisions. From the secret negotiations with Iran on nuclear issues — hidden from Israeli eyes despite its existential implications for them — to the favoritism toward the Palestinian position culminating in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 that made Israeli settlements a war crime, Biden was an important voice in the room.   

Will the Biden foreign policy team’s strategy be close to their former boss’s thinking, or will they smell the coffee of the new Middle East, reevaluate long-held positions and learn from past mistakes? Based on Biden’s recent comments in an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times, his foreign policy may be titled “Back to the Future.”  

“The bottom line is that we can’t allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” Biden said. That sounds good, and echoes Obama after the Iran nuclear agreement went into force — except that the deal Biden wants to rejoin belies that goal, guaranteeing Iran an industrial-sized nuclear weapons program with international approval if they are just a little patient. Biden’s reassurance that, after rejoining the deal and ending sanctions, he will be able to renegotiate and lengthen the agreement is fanciful. There would be zero incentive for Iran to take on any new obligations once it has reaped all the financial benefits coming to it in the deal.   

Like Obama, who refused to link Iran’s malevolent behavior to the nuclear agreement, Biden believes regional stability is primarily about Iran’s nuclear program; he minimizes the risk of their proliferation of precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah and ignores the devastating missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last year. He seems to have been daydreaming for four years; immediately after the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran’s support of terrorism, supplying weaponry to Hezbollah, advanced missile development, and human rights abuses dramatically increased. This was more than three years before President Trump withdrew from the deal. 

Perhaps a better insight to understand the Biden foreign policy team’s thinking is to read Obama’s memoir. Since the team members left his administration, they have not found fault with his policies and have remained strong defenders of his administration in interviews and their writings. Obama’s book credits many foreign policy team members who are now nominated to take even more critical jobs in the Biden administration. Perhaps most importantly, Obama himself may be Biden’s most influential adviser, so his current words may be what he whispers into his friend’s ear when asked for advice. 

An excellent place to begin is Obama’s chapter on Middle East history to understand his and perhaps Biden’s worldview. In 1947, as “Britain withdrew, the two sides (Israeli and Arabs) quickly fell into war.” There is a lot to unpack here. Israel did not fall into war when the British left Palestine. They were attacked by five Arab armies whose goal was to exterminate them and their fledgling state. It is telling that the words of Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Nasser — “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. …We will not accept any … coexistence with Israel” — are wholly omitted.

Obama said that “Jews emigrating from the West to Israel still shared … (an) appearance with their white Christian brethren, and in comparison to Arabs, they still enjoyed far more sympathy from the American public.” This politically correct narrative implying that Israel is a white state plays well with the anti-Zionist intersectional community, but it is false. Omitted from Obama’s story are the 850,000 “Jews of color” from Arab and Muslim states who were ethnically cleansed by their Muslim countries. If Israel were politically in fashion with the progressive left, it would be considered to have a majority of non-white citizens. 

His revisionist narrative claims the Camp David/Taba peace talks in 2000-2001 “collapsed in recrimination.” What Obama left out was President Clinton’s account blaming Yasser Arafat for the negotiations’ failure and that there is solid proof that Arafat planned the Second Intifada. Obama’s Second Intifada (2000-2005) account reeks of blind moral equivalence. According to historian Gil Troy, Obama’s book “sanitizes the Palestinian turn from negotiation toward terrorism in 2000 by describing a mutual ‘lure of violence’ while underplaying how the terrorism Palestinians initiated betrayed and traumatized Israelis.”   

Reading about Obama’s empathy for the protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, at the beginning of the Arab Winter in 2011, makes one question why his administration, two years earlier, choose to abandon millions of Iranians who poured into the streets against the repressive anti-American Iranian government during the Green Revolution, a regime whose fall would have advanced American interests more than almost anything else in the Middle East. Obama waxed poetic in sympathy for the Egyptian protestors, but it was far worse for the Iranians. 

He abandoned them again in 2015 when he refused to link human rights with his legacy nuclear agreement. He claimed, “Activists inside Iran feared that any supportive statements … would be seized upon to discredit their movement.” It strains credulity that most activists didn’t want help. Biden and others from the Obama administration were at the table when these decisions were made. Is this how Biden will approach restarting any deal with Iran?

So, can we connect the dots from Obama to Biden’s foreign policy team? Time will tell, but the best reason to read “A Promised Land” is that Biden’s most trusted adviser on the Middle East just may be his former boss.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.

Tags Barack Obama Biden foreign policy Donald Trump Iran JCPOA Joe Biden Middle East Politics of Iran

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