The question diplomatic historians will one day ask is: How much credit should be afforded to the Trump administration for mediating the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan?
The normalization of relations between historic enemies in the Middle East manifested in the shadow of polling numbers that repeatedly indicated the election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. Therefore, were these momentous regional developments a product of President Trump’s diplomatic acumen? Or were they reflective of growing concerns in the Middle East about a Biden presidency? Were these Arab states and Israel hedging their bets on a 2nd Trump term and sought an insurance policy against a Biden presidency?
U.S. allies in the Middle East are justified to fear and loath President-elect Joe Biden. The Biden Presidency is a reminder of a tumultuous past with the United States. Furthermore, while on the campaign trail, Biden promoted problematic strategies and policies. His statements suggest a willingness to place key regional allies in precarious situations. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and others, the Biden administration is an indifferent and somewhat caustic ally.
Joe Biden’s repeated referencing of former President Barack Obama while on the campaign trail dredges up bad memories for U.S. allies in the Middle East. Obama’s interaction with the region is remarkably unimpressive. U.S. relations with traditional regional allies greatly deteriorated under Obama. Instability increased. Islamic terrorism grew. Divisions deepened. Democratic processes failed. Iranian interference in Arab countries continued. Threats against Israel went largely unabated.
Accentuating the bad memories is Biden’s willingness to surround himself with former Obama administration officials. This group includes Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Colin Kahl, Julianne Smith, Ely Ratner, Nicolas Burns, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Daniel Benaim, and Jeffrey Prescott. These individuals were often complicit in Obama’s deficient policies in the Middle East.
Despite the evidence, these advisors appear intent on resurrecting Obama’s ineffective ideas for the Middle East. Antony Blinken, Biden’s National Security Advisor and the former Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, maintained in the New York Times the advantages of Obama-era thinking and policy. Blinken advocates smart diplomacy, the merits of the Iran nuclear deal, and the continued armament of nonstate actors like the Syrian Kurds (i.e. YPG). Jeffrey Prescott, a former Senior Director on the National Security in the Obama administration and one of Biden’s current foreign policy advisors, emphasizes in Foreign Policy the importance of institutions and alternative forms of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
In addition to referencing Barack Obama and hiring former Obama officials, Biden’s statements and approaches to the region are outright troubling for Middle Eastern allies. The former Vice President envisions “rebalancing” tools, “engaging in dialogue,” and “resetting relations.” Biden is inferring a change is coming in how the U.S. views the region and interacts with its allies – a change for the worse from the perspective of allies. These are measures that will be viewed as disruptive, unfriendly, and threatening by U.S. allies who were supported and generally enjoyed cordial relations with the Trump administration.
One concern of Middle Eastern allies is the prominence of democracy and human rights in Biden’s foreign policy discourse. Biden and his advisors appear to view U.S. relations with Middle Eastern countries (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel) as much as a liability as a necessary and critical partner in the implementation and upholding of U.S. policy. Biden’s discourse reflects a tendency to critique behavior and develop an appetite to punish or marginalize regional allies whose democracy and human rights records are less than stellar.
Take for example his comments about Saudi Arabia. Biden wants Saudi Arabia to “pay a price” for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and civilian casualties in Yemen. During a debate, he expressed a willingness to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.” The President-elect seeks to terminate U.S. support of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and drastically curtail arms deals to the Kingdom.
Turkey is another example. Biden has called for openly intervening in domestic Turkish politics. Similar to Saudi Arabia, the President-elect believes Turkish President Erdogan “must pay a price.” Biden is also critical of Turkey’s handling of its Kurdish population and its crackdown on Turkish civil society.
Egypt is noticeably absent from the former VP’s statements and the writings of his advisors. The most populous Arab country and longtime U.S. ally plays no particular role in Biden’s regional plans. It is not surprising. Former Field Marshal and current President Abdel Fattah Sisi is responsible for the demise of Egypt’s burgeoning democracy, worsening human rights record, and suppressing civil society. Egypt’s absence suggests Sisi is likely to be persona non-grata at the White House for the next four years.
Biden’s comments toward Israel are considerably more measured than his views on Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but his proposed policies raise valid concerns. The President-elect repeatedly emphasizes that he is a friend of Israel, however, Biden intends to “restore” U.S.-Palestinian diplomatic ties and provide assistance to the Palestinian people. Does this approach coupled with an emphasis on human rights open up avenues to pressure Israel regarding its presence in the West Bank? Will he use it to push Israel to the negotiating table?
The other concern of allies is Biden’s relative indifference to their security. This is demonstrated by Biden’s enthusiastic support of Kurdish militias in Syria and rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Allies diametrically oppose both policies and have been opposed to them for quite some time, yet the President-elect appears intent on pursuing them.
Biden and his advisors believe the continued support of Kurdish militias (i.e. the People’s Protection Units (YPG)) in northeastern Syria is critical to ensuring a U.S. role in the termination of the war and the realization of a new government in Syria. It is a policy that causes great friction in U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkish authorities view the YPG as a terrorist organization because of their ties to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish citizens during the last four decades.
The JCPOA is a central component of the President-elect’s foreign policy agenda. The Biden administration expects to re-enter the JCPOA provided Iran returns to strict compliance with the deal. The agreement represents the methods and outcomes (e.g. diplomacy, the consensus of allies) that Biden endorses and hopes to pursue during the next four years.
Biden’s enthusiasm for the JCPOA is not shared by U.S. allies in the region. Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others view Iran as an existential threat. The JCPOA is an insufficient solution to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and Iran’s aggressive regional behavior.
The former VP’s support for re-entering the JCPOA is further evidence of indifference to the security concerns of regional allies. Biden is willing to impose a highly unpopular and deficient agreement on the region – expecting the very people being threatened by Iran to co-exist with Iran. The attitude also manifests in his call to end U.S. support of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Iranian-inspired and funded militias operate just south of the Saudi border and Biden is unwilling to support Saudi Arabia’s desire to defend itself. Would a Biden administration tolerate the existence of al-Qaeda or ISIS just south of the U.S. border? It is not surprising that when Biden speaks of working with allies on Iran, he is not referring to regional allies, he is referring to European allies.
Biden’s criticisms of Middle Eastern allies, his distaste for their leadership, and relative indifference to their security make a compelling case as to why U.S. Middle Eastern allies are fearing and loathing a Biden Presidency. Biden’s association with Obama, his comments, and policies will not get things off on the right foot.
One would be remiss not to believe that the possibility of a Biden presidency played a role in the recent normalization of ties between Israel and several Arab states. If rumored reports of the imminent normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia prove to be true, it will provide further credence to the belief. U.S. regional allies seek cooperation among themselves as a means to protect themselves from an indifferent and somewhat caustic Biden administration. Until the documents are declassified, we will just have to speculate as to how much of a role the possibility of a Biden administration played in the historic normalization of relations in the Middle East.