President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE comes into office with a wealth of experience in foreign policy and a foreign policy team that is knowledgeable about the Middle East and world affairs. These are all good signs for the new administration and its ability to hit the ground running. However, as they approach the Middle East, Biden’s advisers will face a series of challenges — from Iranian threats to Turkey’s recent aggressive behavior — as well as ongoing wars. It’s important that the administration act as a stakeholder of the region’s stability, exercising “buy-in” to build on those areas that are pushing peace and stability.
Pushing “stability” sounds like a generalized talking point but it has very real ramifications in a region that has weathered decades of war and extremism. From the war against ISIS to conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, turmoil continues in many parts of the region. The past two U.S. administrations have presented this as a “blood-stained” region suffering from “millennia” of feuds. U.S. national defense strategy seeks to pivot from decades of fighting a global war on terror to confronting large “near-peer” adversaries Russia and China. This signaled to many in the Middle East that the U.S. is drawing down forces and locals may be left to fight it out.
This mentality — in which the U.S. appeared to not have buy-in with the region — meant that countries such as Iran and Turkey went ahead with military operations, supporting proxies and militias in Iraq and Syria. Other countries, including Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, played an increasing role in places such as Libya and Yemen.
Where the U.S. did show that it was a stakeholder over the past several years, it made progress. For example, the Abraham Accords brought Israel, the UAE and Bahrain together. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said he will support keeping some policies that the Trump administration pushed. With the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and Israel’s new friends in the Gulf, the new administration appears to be buying in. The U.S. will consult Israel and allies in relation to any new nuclear deal with Iran, and views Israel’s normalization with countries in the region as a positive development, Blinken has said.
Making stability a bedrock of a Biden doctrine for the Middle East will enable the U.S. to link up well with allies in the region. This includes the UAE, which has pushed regional stability for years and wants to play a greater role in projecting that stability, and it can mean reinvesting in eastern Syria and parts of Iraq. For example, Brett McGurk — a diplomat who most recently was Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL — has been tapped by Biden for a major role overseeing Middle East strategy. McGurk has worked on such issues as developing the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria, as well as encouraging Iraq and Saudi Arabia to improve relations.
If the U.S. frames the region through the lens of “stability v. instability” and demands that countries stick to stability, those who are inflaming tensions — whether in Lebanon, Yemen, Libya or Iraq — will be the odd one out. The problem for decades in the Middle East has been the struggle between countries that want their populations to work and profit peacefully, and those that have sought to overturn things, whether through rebellions or by pushing sectarian and religious extremism.
Buy-in for the Biden administration also means listening to allies and partners. The administration can reach out to the Gulf states and Israel early, to share Washington’s views with locals. Biden and his team can show serious diplomatic engagement by rebuilding alliances, exercising restraint and not zigzagging back and forth on foreign policy as the Obama and Trump administrations appeared to do at times. That means that, where Obama’s administration was perceived as rushing toward the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and enabling pro-Iranian groups such as Hezbollah to feel empowered, Trump’s administration seemed to go too far in the other direction, even twice claiming it would abandon key U.S. partners among the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria.
There will be voices in the new U.S. administration who criticize U.S. partners, such as expressing concern about Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. There are others who rightly should be concerned about Turkey’s empowerment of extremists in northern Syria. That push-pull on how the U.S. deals with some of its traditional friends in the region is healthy. The U.S. can demand changes among partners, as long as those friends believe America is committed and buying in, rather than walking away.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.