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Foreign Policy

A Middle East Mission for Biden

Dec 17, 2020
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

U.S. President-elect Joseph Biden will soon occupy the White House, so naturally there’s a lot of talk about what his policy posture will be in the critical region called the Middle East.

Biden and his advisers might make U.S. re-entry into the Iran nuclear deal a priority, which would be reasonable since the risk of nuclear proliferation is running high in that country. But there are other issues in the region waiting for resolute action by the United States, one of which should be restoring regional order based on the principle of sovereignty.

Order — a frequently used word in international politics — usually refers to stability in a specific region at a particular time. In the modern world, order usually results when the interactions of major countries reach a balance of power and follow the principle of sovereignty as a basic rule.

The last decade saw the Middle East in disarray as regional powers became more and more active in expanding their geopolitical influence in the region without regard to sovereignty, largely because of America’s reduced willingness to pour more resources into the region.

Iran constructed the so-called Shiite arc, which reaches from its borders to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In response, Saudi Arabia has endeavored to build its own alliances. Turkey established a military presence in Qatar, conducted frequent military actions in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria and set foot in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Israel has launched many military operations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and has orchestrated cooperation with some Arab countries in the Gulf region.

Even worse, the fundamental principle of sovereignty, which has been respected by most nation states in the modern era, has been virtually destroyed. As a result, the region has seen cross-border murders of political dissidents —  Jamal Khashoggi for instance — as well as assassinations of key figures, such as Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in late November. The head of government of another nation state has been under house arrest, and cross-border military action has become more frequent.

All these have worsened the security situation in the region, where people are literally living amid fire and blood. If the disorder continues, more blood will be shed in the region, and more damage will occur. The Middle East has contact not only with European countries but also with African, West Asian and South Asian areas. The turmoil is bound to spill over into neighboring regions. Because the region is integrated in global industrial chains, a destabilized Middle East will also hurt the global economy.

Major external powers are well aware of the serious challenges in the region and have declared their own proposals in recent years. The U.S. proposed to build a new coalition to patrol the Gulf in mid-2019 in case Iran might sabotage the Strait of Hormuz. France proposed independent patrols of the region from its military base in the United Arab Emirates at the same time. Russia initiated a dialogue mechanism including both regional and external powers in September 2019. Wang Yi, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister, also talked about forging a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security architecture in the Middle East in November last year, and initiated the building of a dialogue mechanism on security in the Gulf in September this year. These proposals indicate that major global powers are well aware of the serious challenges and of the necessity to reconstruct the regional order.

The U.S. remains the sole most important external player as it has the strongest economic, political and military presence in the region. Always ambitious to lead the Middle East into the future, the U.S. is expected to play a responsible role in reconstructing the regional order based on the principle of sovereignty.

The United States used to play a constructive role in maintaining the principle of sovereignty in the region. When Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait in 1990, it was the U.S. that led a coalition of forces to drive Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait, the U.S. not only restored the principle of sovereignty and bolstered regional order but also burnished its leadership role.

It is true that over the last three decades, things have changed greatly in the region, and too many regional powers have taken for granted that they can conduct military action across borders into neighboring countries. Some may even be willing to invite a stronger neighbor to get involved. But it will be widely welcomed if the U.S. would restrain regional powers from taking such actions and reestablish the principle of sovereignty.

The U.S. can establish a kind of dialogue that includes not only regional actors but also major external actors. China could support such a mechanism as it has been a consistent advocate of the principle and would like to see a stable Middle East. If the Biden administration puts this on the agenda, it could be a good opportunity for China and the U.S. to cooperate.

It’s worth mentioning that re-emphasizing the principle of sovereignty is actually in line with what appears likely to be Biden’s policy in the Middle East. According to his speeches before and during the U.S. election campaign, he opposed Iran’s proxy policies and expansion in the region, as well as the Saudi invasion into Yemen and the cross-border assassination of Khashoggi by Saudi agents. He also opposes Turkey’s aggressive policy in the neighborhood, although he is silent on Israel’s cross-border military operations. Or, to put it another way, Biden’s policy is in many ways actually maintaining the sovereignty principle. Then why not just declare this as policy?

Last but not least, any move to rebuild order in the region should respect the roles of regional actors, since order will, in the end, depend on whether they will sustain it. External powers, including the U.S., should persuade and push regional actors to respect sovereignty. Coercion, if necessary in some cases, should be undertaken only within the UN Security Council framework. The U.S. administration should set a good example in observing the principle instead of sabotaging it, as some previous administrations did.

It is urgent that the incoming Biden administration address the Iran nuclear issue to forestall proliferation. But it is equally urgent, if not more so, to address the issue of regional order. The Middle East has shed too much blood as it is.

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