Biden needs a Middle East strategy to avoid new crises
Despite the necessity of focusing on domestic affairs first, and great-power relations second, the Biden administration has so far managed to keep the Middle Eastern pot from boiling over.
It has stood fast on the Iranian nuclear deal, refusing to accept Tehran’s more outlandish demands. At a time when the U.S. Congress is not in the giving vein, the Biden team has found creative ways to demonstrate renewed American commitment to Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi of Iraq, who desperately needs Washington’s support if he is going to fight spiraling corruption and creeping Iranian domination.
They have walked the tightrope of penalizing Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi murder while recognizing our stakes in the Saudi kingdom and making clear that Washington won’t abandon the Saudis. Likewise, during the latest fighting in Gaza, the administration vouchsafed Israel’s right of self-defense even as it worked to promote a quick ceasefire and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.
That’s not bad under the circumstances.
Unfortunately, the Middle East has a way of imposing itself and, while the Biden team has reacted well to the regional challenges it has been hit with, it still lacks a clear region-wide strategy that our friends and partners understand.
Over the past two months, between the two of us, we have traveled to Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia and met with some of the senior-most leaders in all three countries. Everywhere, we have encountered both hope and doubts about the administration’s approach to the region.
The one constant we encountered, however, was confusion about what the administration is seeking to achieve in the region, with a feeling that its policies are reactive and geared only to each individual country. If Washington is going to overcome that confusion, it will have to articulate an overarching concept that integrates all of the country-specific strategies to accomplish a larger set of goals.
Comprehensive strategies are never easy to formulate and can’t simply be reduced to slogans. Yet they are important to reassure our friends and deter our adversaries and competitors, especially now, given the legacy of the past 12 years under Obama and Trump, in which the United States steadily disengaged from the Middle East.
The resulting vacuum contributed greatly to a steadily deteriorating situation in which we witnessed civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen; internal conflict in Egypt, Iraq and Turkey; the rise and fall of ISIS; the reemergence of authoritarianism after the hope of the Arab Spring; hundreds of thousands killed, and millions of refugees; and through it all, the steady advance of Iran and its proxies, who saw openings to exploit even as they added to the misery of those in the region.
The good news is that Biden and his team have convinced America’s Middle Eastern partners that he is not simply going to forsake the region, nor will he acquiesce in further Iranian aggression and expansion — unlike both Obama and Trump. But he hasn’t told them how he is going to do so, nor the roles he envisions them playing in that scheme.
It will be a difficult strategy to craft because Iran has made significant gains across the region, and the U.S. and its allies need to find ways to push back on it without employing massive resources. Simultaneously, such a strategy will need to include initiatives to help the many U.S. regional partners struggling to cope with the impact of the pandemic, the information revolution, the new international energy market, the changing global balance of power, and the transformation of their own societies.
But — hard as it may be — failing to do so will come with a high cost. Absent such a comprehensive strategy, no Middle Eastern state will understand what the U.S. expects from them, what the U.S. intends to deliver for them, or what regional end state the U.S. seeks to create — and whether it is an end state that will meet their own needs.
As one high-ranking Middle Eastern leader fretted to us, the United States is signaling to the region, “Don’t follow me, I’m lost.”
If America’s allies don’t feel like they know where the United States plans to lead them, or will do little or nothing in the face of what they see as threats, they will go off on their own — and often those actions may preclude alternative courses which the U.S. would prefer, or risk sparking new regional disasters.
This is exactly what happened throughout the Obama and Trump administrations, when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) invaded Yemen; Turkey, the UAE, Egypt and Qatar intervened in Libya; Turkey intervened in Syria and northern Iraq — and, of course, external powers like Russia became far more interventionist. Meanwhile, Israel chose to meet the threats from Iran’s advancing nuclear program and burgeoning presence in Syria with a sustained air campaign in the latter and lethal covert operations against the former.
The United States may not always be able to restrain our allies from precipitate action even if we do have a clear, comprehensive strategy for the region. But without one, it is almost certain that countries in the region will pursue unilateral courses that rarely will be as effective as those made in concert with the U.S., and that could spark a wider conflict between them and Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” that even they don’t want.
The Biden administration seems to have learned the lesson that while the U.S. may not want to make the Middle East a priority, it cannot afford to ignore it, either. Without a comprehensive strategy for the region, however, Washington runs the risk of having the region explode in ways that will force the U.S. to make it a priority. And that is the last thing that President Biden needs.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Director of Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council. He is the author most recently of Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.
Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.