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Biden's foreign policy failure in the Middle East

Biden's foreign policy failure in the Middle East
7 min read
31 October, 2023
Analysis: With Israel's war on Gaza, the administration's regional security strategy has crumbled. Will Biden continue down a path that risks the US' reputation and his own re-election?

“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” asserted US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on 29 September.

“Now challenges remain, but the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11 is significantly reduced.”

Sullivan’s comments have aged horribly. Just eight days later, Hamas waged its incursion into southern Israel, triggering a brutal Israeli campaign of bombardment of Gaza. The fighting since 7 October has thus far killed more than 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza and 1,400 Israelis.

The violence has spilled into Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Egypt. At this point, the escalating crisis risks spreading to other parts of the Middle East, possibly entailing direct US and Iranian involvement.

Now a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of Gaza looms and Palestinians are concerned about a ‘Nakba 2.0’. Considering rhetoric coming from high-ranking Israeli officials and Tel Aviv’s plans and actions this month, such concerns are entirely valid. As usual, the US has not put any real pressure on Israel to change its destructive and destabilising behaviour.

The timing of this crisis is also particularly horrible given that President Joe Biden, who is seeking re-election next year, doesn’t want to appear to be giving Israel anything less than ironclad support.

As the world witnesses Israel’s war crimes in Gaza carried out with Washington’s blessing, the US’s capacity to be taken seriously when criticising Russia’s rogue behaviour in Ukraine has been severely, and most likely permanently, damaged.

Looking ahead, it will be increasingly difficult to imagine the Global South taking the Biden administration’s rhetoric about human rights with anything more than a grain of salt. The hypocrisy from America is just too great.

“It’s been an unseemly spectacle to see Washington and its European allies support Israel as it cuts off aid, water, and food to besieged civilians in Gaza,” Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International and a Middle East analyst, told The New Arab.

“It is exactly what these same nations denounced the Syrian regime for doing in Homs, Ghouta, Aleppo, and other places. They didn’t mince words when Russia stepped up to support Damascus and vetoed UN condemnations. Now when their own ally blocked aid and food in the same way, they couldn’t muster even mild criticism,” added Lund.

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A foreign policy blunder

It is increasingly difficult to deny the major failures of Washington’s foreign policy in the Middle East. While continuing many aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to the region, the Biden administration has made expanding the scope of the Abraham Accords central to its agenda in the Arab world.

The White House naively believed it could bring Libya into a normalisation deal with Israel, which backfired disastrously.

The Biden administration has also invested massive amounts of diplomatic energy into trying to pull Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords - something that no expert can imagine happening any time soon given ongoing developments in Israel and Palestine.

“The recent events have punched a giant hole into the paper-thin superficial Biden administration policy on the Middle East, which has deluded itself into believing that establishing close ties with apartheid Israel and dictatorships in the Middle East is some kind of recipe for stability,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told TNA.

Protesters held up bloodied hands as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared before Congress to ask for $105 billion to support Israel, signalling the administrations unwavering support for Israel's war on Gaza. [Getty]

What is being painfully demonstrated is that lasting peace and security for Israel will not come from diplomatic deals with Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which were arguably never confrontational toward Israel.

It can only come from a lasting solution to the unresolved Palestinian question. Attempts to bury the Palestinian issue based on the assumption that the Palestinian cause stopped mattering to the Arab world have proven extremely misguided.

“As with Israel, one of the assumptions of US foreign policy in the Middle East has been annihilated in the past three weeks: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be contained, and that the region could move on,” said Dr Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, in an interview with TNA.

“This was predictably an unsustainable assumption, but it was one of the premises of American foreign policy under Biden (and Trump) nevertheless. There are still some positive elements to the Abraham Accords - the stabilisation of relations among Israel and key Arab states - but to be sustainable, it needs to be accompanied by genuine, not fictitious, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front,” added Dr Juneau.

Arab backlash

Anger at the US is growing in the Middle East. Large scale protests in capitals from Amman to Manama, Sana‘a to Baghdad, and Rabat to Beirut speak to the widespread support that the Palestinians are receiving across the Arab world.

In response to public opinion in their own countries, Arab leaders and policymakers have had no choice but to strongly condemn Israel and express support for the Palestinian cause.

Each Arab government faces slightly different circumstances given differences in these countries’ relationships with the US and Israel. Yet, the dynamics across the region are putting pressure on all of them to speak up in defence of the Palestinians and, at least in the case of most Arab states, refrain from directly criticising Hamas.

It was notable that Saudi Arabia, which only several weeks ago was flirting with normalisation with Israel, referred to Israelis as “occupation forces” in its response to Hamas’ Operation al-Aqsa Flood on 7 October.

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Despite the Abraham Accords, the UAE, in its capacity as the only Arab state currently on the UN Security Council, has been highly critical of Israel and condemned various aspects of its response to Hamas’ surprise attack. As the humanitarian suffering in Gaza worsens, it’s safe to assume that such criticisms from the UAE will increase.

However, this appears to be about safeguarding regimes from internal legitimacy crises rather than a true commitment to the well-being of the Palestinians.

“It is heartening to see that kind of a pretty united Arab response, but I think it probably has more to do with their concerns about popular unrest in their own countries and wanting to temper that than any pure or genuine concern for Palestinians,” Whitson said.

“All Arab states want Washington to be more mindful of Palestinian and Arab interests, but they’re not equally vocal about it,” explained Lund.

The failure of Biden's Middle East foreign policy threatens to undermine US standing in the region as well as the US president's position in the upcoming election. [Getty]

“Governments like that in Syria, which is already hostile to the United States, delight in the opportunity to denounce Washington’s support for Israeli policies," Lund added.

"Some Arab states, including US-allied nations in the Gulf and states that normalised their ties with Israel, mainly seem to be turning up the volume on Palestine for domestic reasons, or to avoid exposing themselves to criticism from rivals.”

Lund explained how many of these Washington-friendly Arab states are not comfortable confronting the Biden administration about their problems with blind support for Israel.

“You see them criticising Israel in harsher terms than on a normal day, but they haven’t said much about the US support that enables Israel’s actions,” noted Lund.

“On the other hand, I think most realise that if this situation is going to be de-escalated somehow in the future, it’ll have to be the United States that leads the way.”

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A time to reassess US foreign policy

When it comes to the White House’s approach to the Middle East, the Biden administration would be wise to change course and ask some tough questions about how we arrived here. But this is unlikely for two principal reasons, said Whitson.

First, Team Biden, “continues to calculate based on short-term interests - namely the upcoming elections - and continues to believe that [Biden’s] victory in the polls is tied to demonstrating extreme support for Israel,” which Whitson sees as a “growing miscalculation”.

Second, the “deeply held personal biases of the Biden administration, of people in the State Department who are not approaching this conflict with clear eyes, with independent thinking, with thinking that prioritises the interests of the American people,” explained Whitson.

“Rather, as Secretary Blinken amply demonstrated during his visit to Israel, their approach to Israel is driven by their own personal, familial feelings of affinity for Israel.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero