Baran Ayguven

Biden’s grand strategy for Middle East

Biden’s first years in office have been difficult as the administration has struggled with crucial problems. High inflation, a cost-of-living crisis, a growing threat in the Middle East, China, and an expansionist Russia have plagued Biden’s first term. Under the shadow of these bigger issues, the Biden administration has focused their main strategy on withdrawing troops from the Middle East. This is in line with previous administrations attempts to end the perception of unending US presence, and to avoid another crisis burning Biden’s political capital. In line with these aims, the US withdrew troops from Afghanistan, ended combat missions in Iraq and is now focusing more on diplomatic cooperation to stabilize the region. Diplomatic efforts have thus far included attempting to moderate an Israel-Saudi Arabia rapprochement with hopes that the two regional hegemons would support each other in their proxy conflicts with Iran. With this, Biden seems to be trying to take a risky bet by hoping that this will be the step to accelerate the normalisation between the rest of the Arab States and Israel. Biden has also worked on reviving the Iran Nuclear deal in the hope that sanctions relief and new negotiations may convince Tehran to abandon nuclear ambitions.

So far, Biden has not had much luck in translating his foreign policy hopes into reality. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was so chaotic that when the world witnessed the fall of Kabul on live television, the only comparisons being made were to the infamous Saigon evacuation that scars memories of the Vietnam War. The disastrous withdrawal saw $7 billion dollars worth of military equipment left behind, the deaths of 13 US service members and Afghanistan falling back into the hands of the Taliban, an unstable radical Islamist government that the US has spent 20 years fighting against.

The Middle East has also descended back into conflict after the October 7th attacks. The Israeli military campaign to destroy Hamas and rescue its hostages, along with further border clashes with Hezbollah, is currently risking further escalation of conflict. In this situation of heightened tension in the region, it is not hard to see how the loss of deterrence and American credibility might have resulted in increased attacks on American bases over the past year. This lack of deterrence has also contributed to the Houthi Rebels daring to disrupt Western maritime shipping passing through the Red Sea whilst allowing Russian and Chinese ships safe passage. Iran has actively continued enriching uranium and is thus only a week away from weapons-grade enrichment according to the Institute for Science and International Security. While the cyberattack on the Natanz Enrichment Complex in 2021 set back Iran’s nuclear weapons development program it is debatable if such operations are enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons by the end of this decade.

Given that the Middle East has turned back to a familiar crisis situation, the Biden administration has been avoiding any bold moves or significant changes to its earlier grand strategy. The administration’s failure to respond to changing dynamics and the failed results of their earlier policies need to be comprehended faster, as extended non-reaction has only led to a growth in tensions in the region. Biden needs a new grand strategy and a foreign policy rhetoric that is more adaptable to changes and focuses more on solving issues rather than trying to engage in short-term political manoeuvres. His grand strategy of stabilizing the region through being cautious which is read by the enemies as weakness, needs to be replaced by a more daring policy.

The Biden administration’s retaliation against Iranian proxies has shown that attacks against US bases can be stopped if there is the will and American deterrence in the region can be restored. According to the New York Times, since the retaliation attacks, there have been only two attacks on US bases in around one month compared to 170 in the past four months. Continuing such a strategy and potentially expanding these attacks to Iranian grey zones could be a bold but potentially beneficial long-term strategy that could deter Iran from freely supporting proxies in the region. While the Houthis continue their terror in the Red Sea, the coalition forces are mostly limiting themselves to protecting maritime transportation and not punishing the responsible parties.

Furthermore, using regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are or have been significantly affected by Houthi activities, to legitimize accelerated action against the insurgent group could be a path to an actual solution in the Red Sea. Unlike the current maritime defensive strategy, which is too expensive, non-sustainable in the long term, and failing to deter, the Biden administration needs to use diplomacy to legitimise the acceleration of the conflict. This would allow the administration to aim for a resolution, unlike the current short-term political manoeuvres.

Biden’s Middle East woes seem to have gone from bad to worse with the recent direct attack on Israel from Iran following the assassination of senior IRGC leaders in Damascus. The Biden administration is playing a difficult balancing game with Jerusalem as it has offered “ironclad” support and assisted with the defence of Israel whilst also firmly opposing Israeli retaliation. At the time of writing, the full impact of the Israeli response in the early hours of April 19th is not known. Whatever the extent of the damage, it is clear that the Biden-Netanyahu relationship is frayed as the US has been unable to convince Israel not to respond.

For hopes of a sustainable long-term peace between Israel and Gaza, the Biden administration seems to be putting its hopes on Benny Gantz taking office soon. While he does not exactly align wholly with the US perspective regarding the way to handle the Arab-Israeli conflict, he is still expected to be more solution-focused than Netanyahu. Furthermore, his speech after the Iranian missile shows great similarity to the US regional grand strategy underlining the desire to create a regional coalition against Iran while avoiding impulsive/impatient reactions. But unless there is a change of government, Biden will likely continue to struggle between restraining Netanyahu and continuing a deterrence strategy for Iranian proxies.

In conclusion, the reassessing of Biden’s Middle East Grand Strategy so far states the need for a more adaptive and proactive approach. It is needed to acknowledge the failures of past policies and move towards a strategy that addresses evolving challenges in the region. This includes remaking of the American deterrence in the region, trying to persuade other regional actors to contribute, and prioritizing actual solutions from the root over short-term political gains. If the administration decides to show the necessary daring and capacity to solve the issues when they arise it can lead towards a more stable and peaceful Middle East. Such a development would allow the US to concentrate back on its priorities of challenging China in the East without the stress of a potential new crisis overstretching its forces every day. While such a deterrence is needed for now US will be walking a tightrope to balance between an impulsive administration and a need to show deterrence.

About the Author
Baran Ayguven is a student at the King’s College London War Studies Department and a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech.
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