President Joe Biden has been characterized in U.S. media — rather sarcastically — as “the first president to have successfully pivoted from the Middle East in the sense that the region has occupied far less of his schedule than those of his predecessors.” Yet his recent high-profile trip to the Middle East, with stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as his attendance on the occasion of the GCC+3 summit, seem to be intended to make up for this inadequacy and even aimed at resetting relations in the region.
The importance of Middle East has decreased gradually on the strategic chessboard of the United States starting in the Obama years under his Asia pivot policy, which put the Asia-Pacific region ahead of Europe and the Middle East to become the focus of a grand U.S. strategy. At the same time, the fact that the U.S. had realized energy independence, which loosened its dependence on Middle East oil, reinforces the trend.
Decades of military involvement in the region had not only cost the U.S. dearly but also provoked a sort of psychological fatigue across the country, making the desire to escape from the mess a virtual instinct for U.S. leaders. Donald Trump inherited this retrenchment strategy on the Middle East based on his “America first” slogan, letting regional partners shoulder more responsibility so as to attain more geopolitical latitude and enhance the U.S. role of ultimate arbiter.
To some extent, Biden has inherited a weak hand from his predecessors, since U.S. engagement with the Middle East has declined dramatically over the past decades. On one hand, there is some apparent continuity between Biden and Trump on issues such as U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as sticking to the rule that the U.S. will use force only when Americans are targeted.
Biden also builds upon the dramatic, though still nascent changes stemming from the Abraham Accords, which were signed on Trump’s watch, trying to make Israel and Arab countries cooperate on limited mutual defense as part of a mature relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East.
On the other hand, however, as a Democratic president who has put rivalry with China and Russia at the center of national security, Biden needs to recalibrate America’s Middle East policy using the same lens. As he put it in remarks at the GCC+3 summit, “efforts can be seen around the world as well as in the Middle East to undermine the rules-based order.”
He cited China’s “increasingly coercive actions in the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” Russia’s “brutal and unprovoked war” against Ukraine” and Iran’s destabilizing activities. The U.S. “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran … based on “active, principled American leadership,” he said.
Given this, Biden put forward a new framework for the Middle East that has five key principles:
First, the U.S. will “support and strengthen partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order” and “make sure that these countries can defend themselves against foreign threats.”
Safeguarding and sustaining the so-called rule-based international order seems to constitute a central pillar of Biden’s foreign policy, based on a national security strategy to compete with China and Russia. For Middle Eastern countries, this rhetoric is not only implied for a condemnation of Russia in Ukraine but also for China’s potential action in Taiwan. He also broadened the concept into a larger degree of global leadership revolving around such issues as food, energy, climate, supply chains and infrastructure security. In so doing, Biden seeks victory over China and Russia through a sort of institutional hegemony.
Second, the U.S. “will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways.” The U.S. has “established a new naval task force to use multi-manned surface vessels and artificial intelligence technology to enhance maritime awareness, and also integrating air defenses and early warning systems to ensure the defeat of airborne threats.” By this Biden not only intends to deter Iran but also China and Russia militarily.
Third, the U.S. “will actively engage in talks and negotiations to reduce tensions, de-escalate and end conflicts” — for example, working with Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, and the U.N to forge a truce in Yemen. On Iran, the U.S. will continue to counter perceived threats, while pursuing diplomacy to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. Although this Democratic government embodied by Biden emphasizes the importance of diplomacy as a priority, diplomacy can only work based on the precondition of serving the U.S. interest.
One can hardly expect Iran will cooperate in a new nuclear deal under the U.S. coercion, which is also the case for China, as the U.S. dreams of China’s cooperation while sticking to fierce competition — and even confrontation — on major fronts.
Fourth, the U.S. “will build political, economic, and security connections between the partners” under the theme of integration and interconnection, such as promoting new energy projects linking the region, a new free trade deal and investments between neighbors —Saudi investments in Egypt and Jordan, for example. Letting other countries alienate China’s investment and infrastructure is certainly an important goal for Biden, similar to what he has done in Europe and Asia. Yet the lack of funds and lagging economy growth will doom his limited efforts in this regard.
Fifth, the U.S. “will always promote human rights and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.” As a loud champion of human rights, the U.S. will find it hard to reconcile the strategic goal for wooing such countries as Saudi Arabia to help resolve regional issues with its instinct to scold the country as a “pariah state” that lacks a decent record of human rights according to the U.S. standard.