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Biden’s Middle East policy cannot be anti-Trump or an Obama repeat


An expectation that Biden’s presidency will amount to the foreign policy equivalent of a third Obama administration is shared by supporters of Biden who yearn for those days as well as critics of Obama who regret them. The new president’s appointment of senior veterans of the Obama White House would seem to validate their forecast. 

But to effectively reduce President Biden to a steward of his former boss is to forget that of the two, Obama was the political rookie and his vice president the seasoned Washingtonian. Then as now, Biden harbors a lifetime of leadership experience and a mind of his own. The assumption that Obama stalwarts who work for him will push the same policies, moreover, precludes their drawing lessons from the past. Quite to the contrary, seasoned diplomats Bill Burns and Tony Blinken and security and intelligence pros Jake Sullivan and Avril Haines share a history of growth and evolution throughout their careers.

Graver cause for concern lies in whether disdain for the Trump legacy becomes its own guiding light. Should Biden and his team default to doing the opposite of the administration they defeated, they risk rolling back some positive achievements as well as weakening the United States by showing the world that its policies don’t last. Amid cascading international crises, the new leadership must consider all worthy precedents without regard to who set them, find ways to signal continuity where possible and chart a course uniquely suited to the moment.

Consider the fraught debate over administration policies toward Iran. All indications point to a desire by the president to rejoin the Iranian nuclear agreement Obama helped craft, as candidate Biden promised to do. Indications that Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy has not hindered Tehran’s nuclear program support the case for a return to the status quo ante. It is natural, in light of this reality and given the opportunity to signal a fresh start for Biden to test the efficacy of diplomacy. Yet the evidence is also strong that the nuclear deal Obama struck only emboldened Iranian proxy militias across the region — whereas the Trump hard line deterred such behavior in some respects. Vital U.S. allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all targets of the Mullahs and their fighters, share a valid concern about any American course of action that would strengthen the proxies while effectively legitimizing the path to an Iranian bomb.

If Washington does renew direct or European-brokered diplomacy with Tehran, the lessons of two administrations call for a new, holistic approach. Obama’s satisfaction with limiting the scope of negotiation to the nuclear file should be replaced with a Biden determination to expand it to include the range of issues threatening the region. These include Iranian proxy wars on Arab countries and Israel, as well as the Iranian people’s aspiration to human rights, democracy and a new partnership with the West. 

The ongoing war in Yemen, for its part, has fed off the excesses of both prior administrations. On the one hand, under Obama, Iranian interventionism in the country grew intolerable and bolstered the case for war from a Saudi and Gulf perspective. On the other hand, the disastrous war that followed became a humanitarian catastrophe on Trump’s watch, in part because he declined to check the excesses of the Saudi-led alliance, let alone pursue an end to the war through diplomacy. Recent weeks have shown how difficult such diplomacy will prove, however: U.S. overtures to the Houthi side have failed to inhibit drone attacks on Saudi population centers. For the new U.S. envoy to Yemen to succeed in his diplomatic mission, he will require a mandate to walk away from the table if the Houthis prove unwilling to speak a language other than force. Encouragingly, the White House attack on an Iranian proxy in Syria last month showcased a Biden willingness to speak that language too — a boon to the kind of diplomacy that may actually work.

The Yemen quagmire relates, in turn, to the fraught future of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Riyadh can be forgiven for feeling whiplash after the Obama administration’s coolness toward the kingdom gave way to an unprecedented embrace by the Trump administration, then a new “Saudi reset” under Biden. But the Kingdom must shoulder its share of the responsibility for these shifts. The rashness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman manifested tragically on a massive scale in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, giving cause for grave concern about what decades of his rule will yet bring. Americans experienced the phenomenon more intimately and viscerally with the brutal killing of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Biden was right to reintroduce human rights principles into the discussion of Saudi policy and send a tough message to the monarchy about Mohammed bin Salman’s penchant for brutality.

At the same time, recent years have also shown the prince’s commitment to unprecedented social reforms in Saudi Arabia, from his assault on extremist teaching and preaching to support for the advancement of Saudi women. He backed the new wave of peace deals between his closest Arab allies and Israel. He has been fighting to end Saudi Arabia’s economic dependency on oil and open its society to the outside world. Some of Mohammed bin Salman’s American critics have been touting other Saudi princes as preferable alternatives — none of whom would likely maintain the reforms program at its present pace. A U.S. attempt to influence Saudi succession would in any case likely backfire — and there is a point where American pressure on the kingdom drives it into the arms of Moscow and Beijing. A more sound American policy would strive instead to reform the kingdom’s chief reformist, balancing pressure and incentives to check his darker instincts while also supporting his finer aspirations. 

The cascading Arab-Israeli peace accords which Mohammed bin Salman supported, owe more, of course, to the Arab state that pioneered them: the United Arab Emirates. But they are also the Trump administration’s signature policy achievement in the region and indeed a historic breakthrough. Consider that in less than one year, four Arab countries joined the circle of peace with Israel — at that, a “warm peace” without precedent. More than 130,000 Israelis have visited the UAE alone since that treaty was signed. People-to-people partnerships from business to the arts have developed on a scale that dwarfs the equivalent in cold peace Jordan or Egypt. It will be much harder to forge the same gains in the more populous Arab countries — particularly if the Biden administration does not actively support the process. Failure to do so will deny millions of young people the promise of a better future that partnership with Israel and its allies can bring. The present administration can seize the moment and deliver these benefits economic incentives and structures that help realize this promise. Doing so will inspire young Arabs in the Red Sea basin and Sahel, where conditions are ripe for Arab-Israeli diplomacy, to demand that their rulers join the circle of peace. 

Biden’s aspiration to forge a Palestinian-Israeli breakthrough, moreover, can further encourage such progress in a way that Trump would not have been able or willing to do. If instead the White House disdains or disowns the Abraham Accords, as some supporters of Biden want, the rollback may nix a historic breakthrough and diminish American credibility in the region.

Nowhere is this concern greater than in Morocco, the latest country to come to terms with Israel and one of the most strategically crucial states on the African continent. For the many Moroccans who long yearned for a formal treaty with Israel, the new treaty signified a double victory for peace. That is because it was also accompanied by a Trump administration commitment to join other countries in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty in the Sahara. Doing so brought the promise of accelerating a resolution to the country’s 40-year conflict with the Polisario militia, which seeks to establish a new military junta in the area, by consecrating Morocco’s autonomy plan for the people who live there. Yet some supporters of the Biden administration call instead for reneging on the Trump commitment. Such a choice would weaken the peace process, compromise the U.S.-Morocco alliance and violate the credibility of American’s word.

To navigate these issues will entail an unenviable balancing act by the administration. Commitments to foreign allies and promises to American supporters may at times collide and the vicissitudes of a troubled region will confound old assumptions continuously. But countless friends of the United States around the world believe that Biden and his team are up to the challenge.

Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, a board of Trustees member of International Crisis Group, an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for the National Interest in Washington and Global Board of Advisors at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security in Jerusalem.

Tags Avril Haines Bill Burns Donald Trump foreign relations Government International relations Iran–Israel proxy conflict Israel–United States relations Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Joe Biden Mohammed bin Salman Presidency of Donald Trump Presidency of Joe Biden United Arab Emirates–United States relations

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