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Foreign Policy

Falling Short in the Middle East

Jul 27, 2022
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

On July 16, U.S. President Joe Biden concluded his first trip to the Middle East since taking office. He wrote in The Washington Post a week earlier that he would travel to the Middle East to “start a new and more promising chapter.” Although the visit shows that Biden’s diplomacy tends to be pragmatic, it has generated more criticism and controversy than expected. Why did it fall short of expectations? There are at least four reasons.

First, the expected goals of the trip were too high. From Biden’s earlier article it can be seen that the trip had four main goals:

• to “reorient” U.S.-Saudi relations to ease high international oil prices resulting from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine;

• to pressure Iran to accept a new nuclear deal;

• to promote the integration of the Middle East region and start building a Middle East version of NATO; and

• to encourage allies in the Middle East to participate in the major-power rivalry of the United States against China and Russia.

In addition, Biden had an unspoken domestic political goal, namely to score points for the November midterm elections.

All these goals were clearly overly optimistic when one considers the complex history and realities of the Middle East. In the case of the Iranian nuclear issue alone, the Biden administration had not provided sufficient economic or political assurances, despite the goodwill it had projected in the early negotiations. For Iran, once the Biden administration enters a lame duck period or is not re-elected, how can Iran be assured that the deal will not end up like the last one?

Second, the Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy is out of step with the times. His trip was full of demands, but he ignored the priorities. For example, he hoped that Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries in the Gulf would quickly boost production to suppress international oil prices; but then he raised the case of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Perhaps, for the Biden team, this was seen as more moderate than Democratic Party radicals’ demand to include Saudi Arabia on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and other negative characterizations, but it was not destined yield a positive response from the Saudi authorities. For the Saudis, it was hypocritical and ridiculous for the Biden administration to continue to pursue the Khashoggi case without saying anything about the death of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, for example.

Whatever the reason for Biden’s reiteration of the old human rights rhetoric, it will not help achieve his diplomatic goals in Saudi Arabia, nor will it help make up for the growing trust deficit between that country and the United States. It is important to note that the U.S. abandonment of the Mubarak regime in the Arab Spring and its calls for Saudi accountability for the September 11 attacks in recent years have left Saudi leaders with doubts: Is the U.S. still worth trusting and relying upon?

Third, the timing of Biden’s trip to the Middle East was not ideal. On March 15, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a prominent American-Jewish group, announced its list of candidate endorsements for the midterm congressional elections, including 40 Republicans who are staunch supporters of Donald Trump. In addition, a Rasmussen poll found that only 37 percent of respondents approved of Biden’s job performance, already below Trump’s low of 38 percent. Clearly, Biden went to the Middle East in the face of intense domestic political pressure.

But for America’s Middle East allies, the trip did not add much to their confidence or change their impression that the U.S. is shrinking from, withdrawing from or ignoring the Middle East, as Biden had shown scant interest in the region during his first year and a half in office. Moreover, after more than a year of fruitless negotiations with Iran, Biden’s turn to join forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia — the most vocal opponents of Iran — is not only likely to undo the Iranian nuclear negotiations but also unlikely to change the bad impression of domestic voters about the lack of success, or even outright failure, of America’s Middle East policy.

Finally, Biden’s trip to the Middle East did not escape the spell of major-power rivalry. Before the trip, Biden claimed that he would counter Russian “aggression” and would be in a good position to compete with China. But he apparently overlooked the new fact that U.S. dominance in the Middle East, a region where the post-Cold War transformation of the international order began earlier, is coming to an end. Today, the Middle East has formed a security dichotomy between the U.S. and Russia, as well as a pluralistic economic pattern involving China, the U.S. and Europe. In the face of China’s rapid rise, U.S. allies in the Middle East have begun to look eastward in an attempt to learn from China’s experience and come aboard its express train of economic development. Many expect China to become more involved in Middle East affairs and to become their largest trading partner and investor.

In short, while the U.S. has never left the Middle East, its hegemony in the region is not what it used to be. Continuing to force its allies to choose sides is likely to backfire, especially in the context of the U.S. contraction in the Middle East. If the Biden administration had recognized this early, America’s Middle East diplomacy would have been less embarrassing and more rewarding.

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