Eric Bordenkircher
Eric Bordenkircher

Obama² : The Biden Administration and refining failure in the Middle East

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the case of Joe Biden imitating Barack Obama in the Middle East, employing the adage that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is more accurate.

After 100 days in office, the Biden administration is not just repeating the failures of the Obama foreign policy handbook in the Middle East, Biden is perfecting failure. President Biden is becoming the master of destructive virtue signaling, further complicating critical matters, conceding leverage, and burning bridges. Before his term is up, Biden will exceed his “good friend” Barack Obama in undermining U.S. interests, irreparably damaging relations, and exacerbating conflict in the Middle East.

This dismal prognosis should come as no surprise.

Biden nominated many former Obama officials to his administration who were central in producing Obama’s remarkably unimpressive record in the Middle East. Take for example Samantha Powers, Biden’s head of USAID. As a member of Obama’s National Security Council, Powers encouraged the President’s spectacularly disastrous decision to intervene in Libya. Powers, the champion of the responsibility to protect doctrine, helped destabilize an entire region, produce a civil war, proliferate extremist groups, and create a humanitarian disaster including slavery.

President Biden’s willingness to reward Obama acolytes for their failures does not just re-introduce the ill-conceived Obama agenda to the Middle East, he emboldens the agenda and its proponents. Biden and his advisors are invoking rhetoric and pursuing policies that Obama only dreamed about.

Unlike his former boss, Biden throws caution to the wind and ignores the centrality of Saudi cooperation in the realization of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). The administration is choosing to damage relations, threaten security, and facilitate the proliferation of nuclear capabilities. Instead, the former VP is concerned with feelings, perceptions, and placating progressives regarding Saudi Arabia.

The President postponed the delivery arms to the Kingdom. He terminated US-support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. His most inane act was to publicly castigate Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The declassification of a two and half year-old intelligence report implicated the de-facto ruler in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi for no other reason than to put him “on notice.”

Biden shot himself in the foot with NATO ally Turkey. The President’s recognition of the 106-year-old Armenian Genocide only complicates already tenuous Turkish-U.S. relations. It also further estranges a critical ally in the implementation and maintenance of regional policy.

How does the recognition of the genocide serve U.S. interests? So, Biden can be on the “right side of history after 100 years?” Sadly, Biden’s “courage” to officially recognize a century-old event will exacerbate the contemporary suffering of the Syrian people. Biden inconceivably fails to recognize the necessity of Turkish cooperation for resolving the 10-year-old conflict in Syria.

The administration’s handling of the conflict in Yemen is beyond confounding. To appease Congressional critics and humanitarians, Biden terminated U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention. He also removed the Houthis, a Yemeni Shia social-political movement/militia, from the list of foreign terrorist organizations to help resolve the conflict.

The moves spectacularly backfired.

No negotiations ensued. The humanitarian disaster worsened. An intractable conflict escalated. The Houthis attacked on the city of Marib and increased drone strikes on Saudi Arabia. Similar to the Obama administration, Biden demonstrates a naiveté about the dynamics of conflict in the region. However, unlike Obama, Biden has effectively burned the bridge with Saudi cooperation in Yemen.

The supposed crown jewel of Biden’s policy in the Middle East – the return to the JCPOA – is a textbook example on how to concede all leverage for a flawed agreement. As each day passes, the administration makes additional concessions to get Iran to the negotiating table. It occurs while Iran enriches uranium and attacks U.S. forces and allies.

To add insult to these injuries is President Biden’s treatment of the leadership of key U.S. allies and strategic partners. Taking a page from the failed Obama playbook on how to ignore allies, Biden is refining it by creating deeper distrust.

Vice President Kamala Harris, not President Biden, conducted the administration’s first call with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden snubbed the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince bin Salman, in his first phone call to the Kingdom. The President did not speak with NATO ally Turkish President Recep Erdogan until the eve of his recognition of the Armenian genocide.

President Biden’s first 100 days in the Middle East is not Obama 2.0. It is worse. It’s Obama squared (Obama²). The administration is not just emulating the Obama era; they are refining Obama’s ill-conceived policies and beliefs. They ignore the linkage of issues. They openly treat critical allies with contempt. They knowingly undermine U.S. interests. They willingly sacrifice leverage. It is a testament to the weak leadership by President Biden.

U.S. relations with regional allies and strategic partners are in a precipitous decline. Regional instability heightens. The proliferation of nuclear capabilities accelerates. The Biden administration’s involvement in the Middle East is having devastating consequences that will far exceed the damage inflicted by the Obama administration.

About the Author
Eric Bordenkircher is currently a Research Fellow at UCLA's Center for Middle East Development (CMED). He is a former Visiting Assistant Professor at Claremont McKenna College and Pepperdine University. And a former Lecturer in the Political Science Department at UCLA.
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