As President Joe Biden’s term in office heads into its third year, a disturbing set of trends emerge regarding his approach to the Middle East (hereby defined as: the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq): an indifference to the region, a neglect of long-standing American partners, and a lack of a coherent strategy. Combined, these currents have already undermined a measure of the hard-wrought security and stability in this critical part of the world. The remainder of the Biden term threatens to erode security further while endangering American interests in the region.
The Biden administration’s focus away from the Middle East is hardly surprising, as it closely aligns with the policies of the Obama presidency, under which key officials in the current administration served, among them National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, and Special Envoy to Iran Rob Malley. The approach is also consistent with presidential campaign statements on foreign policy: candidate Biden promised to decrease American presence in the Middle East for a more robust stance on China and increased focus on reassuring European allies. Clearly with the close of America’s long and largely fruitless wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) in this part of the world, a more pragmatic approach for US national security in the region is commendable. Further, time, attention, and resources are finite; the administration is correct to intensify its focus on the Indo-Pacific region and the on-going war in Ukraine. However, it does so without a thoughtful strategy for the limited resources remaining in the Middle East.
The administration’s approach to the Middle East has seen successes. For example, the September 2022 US-brokered agreement to resolve the long-standing maritime boundary dispute between Israel and Lebanon serves the region’s stability and advances American interests. Similarly, the UN-brokered truce in Yemen, in which the administration’s envoy played a critical role, was the kind of diplomatic success that can generate momentum — should it serve a regional grand strategy.
The administration’s firm hand with the Saudis has sometimes yielded a net positive. Specific cases are the February 2021 public release of a US intelligence report proving Mohammed bin Salman’s complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; the September 2011 declassification of intelligence on 9/11 implicating the Saudis; and the pausing of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh for its war in Yemen. Each case demonstrates that the United States places American interests and regional security ahead of its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, these actions remain untethered from a thoughtful strategy for American interests in the region.
The National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, unveiled in 2022, underscore the Biden administration’s shifting priorities away from the Middle East. In the introduction to the National Security Strategy, the president primarily emphasizes partnerships in East Asia and Europe, with no explicit reference to the Middle East. This strategic document dedicates a substantial section to the imperative of “out-competing China and constraining Russia,” and identifies climate change as “the paramount challenge of our era.” In contrast, the Middle East features notably in the hierarchy, placed not only behind the Indo-Pacific and Europe, but also trailing the Western Hemisphere in strategic importance.
Beyond minimizing American presence, it is hard to tell where the administration stands on most matters in the Middle East. Biden vacillated between an initial tough stance on Saudi Arabia and a subsequent and sudden eagerness to mend relations with Mohammed bin Salman to stabilize energy costs, and advance Israeli-Arab reconciliation. Similarly, he promised to extricate the United States from the Yemeni civil conflict, only to recommit American resources to the ongoing war.
The choice to pay little heed to the Middle East has always seemed equal parts political and strategic: administration officials are keenly aware that the United States citizenry has grown exhausted with costly and bloody American endeavors in the region. In line with the divided public to which they cater, American media outlets have significantly slimmed down their bureaus in and coverage of the Middle East. Ukraine and China now dominate national security coverage within the American press, with scant coverage of Iran, Syria, and Iraq. As long as American national media attention and public sentiment remain elsewhere, it is politically advisable for the administration to ignore the Middle East and hope everyone else in the country does as well.
Thus, the administration operates without consideration for the long-term risk to American standing in this part of the world, a wholly shortsighted view. Pivoting resources and attention towards China identified as a pacing challenge for US security interests — an accomplishment that largely eluded President Trump — is commendable. Ignoring the Middle East is reckless. This neglect alienates traditional regional partners, pushing them towards closer ties with China. For example, China brokered the surprising March 2023 deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years. Washington, DC was not involved in the negotiations at all.
Iran continues to serve as the region’s most destabilizing force, and Iranian materiel support to Russia remains virtually the only action in the Middle East covered in mainstream American reporting. Here, the lack of an organized and consistent strategy is most apparent and treacherous for the region and the world.
Furthermore, in the lead-up to his election, Biden and his team continually signaled a desire to rejoin the nuclear deal that many of them brought to a successful implementation in 2015. Before taking office, the Biden team put onerous stipulations on Iran. First, negotiations would be contingent on a complete reversal of all of Iran’s JCPOA violations. This newer, aspirationally better (for the region) deal would address the two critical elements the original JCPOA did not: Iran’s ballistic missile development and support to terror groups. Finally, the administration emphasized the participation of key allies, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Israel, in any discussions. Once in office, the administration abandoned all three stipulations, opening communications with Tehran through Europe, without regional partners and without assurance that Iran dropped below JCPOA enrichment thresholds.
Just last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that Iran has made no progress in compliance with its nuclear program, including the simple installation of surveillance cameras to allow monitoring. Even more alarming, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is 18 times the limit established within the 2015 accord.
If the Biden administration has a fixed policy on Iran, its tenets are hard to discern. However, it rests on a faulty assumption: that American diplomacy, with or without regional powers, can persuade Tehran to change its decades-long behavior. This view has yielded nothing for the Middle East and may have worsened the US position in the region. Had the administration taken a consistently hard stance alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it might have made more significant progress in curbing Tehran’s enrichment program and ballistic missile development.
In Afghanistan, the reduction in the collection, analytical resources, and intelligence assets allows the threats posed by Al Qaeda and ISIS Khorasan to fester. ISIS-Khorasan has increased attacks in the region and desires to export those attacks beyond Afghanistan to include the US homeland and our interests abroad.
Decreasing direct US involvement in the Middle East to invest in competition with China is a critical effort and the administration’s focus on this endeavor is admirable. A US-led security realignment led by regional forces with minimal American presence would force Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE to handle Iran’s malign behavior with minimal US assistance. Doing so, however, requires a coherent and articulated strategic approach with the goal of a regional security architecture that fosters deterrence and border security. Ignoring the Middle East has long been perilous for American presidents. If the United States does not lead through a new locally-organized security partnership in the region, someone else will.