How Joe Biden can avoid mistakes with his Middle East foreign policy

How Joe Biden can avoid mistakes with his Middle East foreign policy
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The administration has properly issued interim national security strategic guidance to shape its foreign policy in the longer term. The guidance for the Middle East is sensible, in general, to back Israel and other American partners, defend the global security system, move broadly with Iran, and combat terrorism. A formal Middle East policy based on this guidance is urgent with new challenges in the region. Otherwise, American reaction for events will appear unpredictable, then episodic responses will define policy. As the first step, the administration should focus on the strategic issues of threats, interests, and resources to avoid repeating mistakes in this region, which has been the graveyard for much foreign policy.

Several threats stand out in the region. The first is endemic instability as a driver of terrorism, failed states, and outside intervention. Western efforts to deal with such instability have not succeeded and have been effectively abandoned. Iran threatens American interests by striving for hegemony in the region with terrorism, the nuclear program, and missile development. Russia meanwhile seeks military and diplomatic influence for failed states such as Syria and Libya to advance a model inimical to the global security system fueled by the United States. Terrorism has been largely contained, save for Afghanistan, due mainly to factors specific in the conflict.

The administration must tackle these issues. Will American interests be served by a hands off approach to instability? Should the United States commit serious resources toward the underlying problems in the region, including to the issues of Israel and Palestine? Is Iran, as Henry Kissinger once asked, a country or a cause? The answer should determine means and priorities to deal with such multifaceted threats. Should the United States ignore or resist Russia as it moves into the region? Can terrorism within the region truly be eradicated? Could the United States still lead the military campaign against terrorism given the resource costs?


American interests, as President Biden notes, should serve the American people. It includes preserving jobs and avoiding forever wars but also, as the guidance declares, advancing security, prosperity, and freedom. This is an indirect effort over the longer term and is not easily translatable into sound bites. The Middle East is not as important as Asia or Europe today, with neither the same higher level of military and economic alliances nor the existential threats which characterize those areas of the world.

Trade is well below that with other areas, and countries in the region have low diplomatic or security effects outside the region. Traditional American interests include assuring oil exports, defeating terrorism, and slowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The United States maintains a collective security system for the Middle East to support its interests and to advance global stability that is so often affected by crises there.

What impact on the United States and its global partners, and on climate policy, could be driven by unfriendly control of oil resources, disruptions in oil flows, or dramatically fluctuating oil prices? What other deleterious “exports” from the region, ranging from terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to refugee flows, could impact vital global interests? How central is the security maintenance in the Middle East for confidence in the international commitments of the United States?

Resources are defined by both supply and demand to address the threats. American resources allocated for the Middle East are extensive, including over 50,000 forces, the most security assistance grants valued at around $10 billion annually, and the greatest share for arms sales. The region is a relatively less important trade partner because the financial market there does not lend itself to geopolitical priorities with the United States.

The main diplomatic resource is the engagement of key officials, with only enough for one to three serious international issues in a term. The second diplomatic resource is partners in the Middle East, which include a dozen countries with military relationships with the United States, and our allies in Europe whose national interests have been exposed for the region. Are military presences and programs now sufficient or not enough to protect American interests? What is the balance between the military availability elsewhere and the geopolitical cost of withdrawal from the region?

To which handful of Middle East issues is our leadership willing to devote time and capital? Is it realistic for partners in the region and in Europe to balance or replace American efforts? Can the United States compromise other interests, including improving the internal behavior for allies in the region, to obtain such support? The administration must address each of these critical issues for a semblance of success in the Middle East.

James Jeffrey is chair of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and served as the special representative with Syria engagement.