January marked the end of US President Joe Biden’s first year in office. The month’s events in the Middle East, such as Houthi strikes against the UAE and militia strikes targeting US troops in Syria and Iraq, also highlighted the ongoing risks in the region.
The Biden administration came into office with a clear intention to shift focus to East Asia and Europe. Many Americans are tired of years of focus on the Middle East. The Obama and Trump administrations also tried to pivot focus to East Asia, but with limited success.
Biden’s policy toward the Middle East has focused on diplomacy, partnerships with key states and focusing on top priorities, such as nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism. While Biden and senior officials often cite the importance of promoting human rights and democracy, they have taken a pragmatic approach to the region that has not placed a strong emphasis on those issues. Steven Cook persuasively argued in a recent Foreign Policy article that the Biden team has pursued a strategy of “ruthless pragmatism” toward the Middle East — with a clear-eyed focus on pursuing US interests in the region while recognizing resource constraints.
Biden has focused specifically on what the US can reasonably achieve in the region with limited costs. In a November speech, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, said that the US remains committed to engagement in the Middle East, but that the Biden administration is rejecting the “maximalist” aims of the last three presidents. He described a plan to get “back to basics” in the region, focusing on alliances, “sound strategy,” “clear aims,” and the “finite base of resources.” The administration has specifically rejected the concept of “regime change.”
In addition to its strategic approach, the administration has specific policy goals for 2022. These include assisting Iraqi military forces and maintaining a small US military presence in Syria to prevent the reemergence of Daesh. The White House supports the Abraham Accords, initiated by Donald Trump’s administration, and hopes to promote normalized relations between Israel and other Arab states. The Biden team has repeatedly stated its “ironclad” support for Israel, while restoring some aid to the Palestinians. Although Biden has expressed support for a two-state solution, the administration has little interest in devoting political capital to pursuing that goal. Another objective, as stated by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, is to help “Gulf partners defend themselves against threats from Houthi forces.”
Iran is likely to be the top regional priority for 2022. Talks designed to return Iran and the US to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are currently in their eighth round. While diplomats have expressed some limited optimism, experts are divided on the likelihood of a deal. The White House has said that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and that all options are on the table if talks fail. However, the reality is that few in the administration or the American public want another war in the Middle East. If talks fail, the Biden team will have no good options, but it would likely continue a strictly pragmatic approach intended to deter Iranian aggression in the region, while limiting risks and costs.
The White House prefers to pursue quiet diplomacy backed by limited military actions in its approach to the Middle East this year. The Biden team hopes to work with regional partners and support current trends toward de-escalation. The president does not intend to ignore the region, but he wants to focus attention and resources elsewhere.
However, no one controls all events in the Middle East, as previous US presidents have experienced. Multiple factors could disrupt Biden’s intended approach to the region. Talks with Iran could fail. Daesh, Al-Qaeda or another violent extremist group could arise. The war in Yemen has already spilled beyond its borders and could become a greater threat to Yemen’s neighbors and shipping. While the Biden administration might be wise to acknowledge that Washington cannot solve the root causes of the Syrian war, the reality that those root causes remain unaddressed will continue to fuel dangers. Several countries in the region, such as Lebanon and Iraq, face serious risks of political instability. A new crisis between Israel and the Palestinians could easily thwart the White House’s desire to avoid the issue. Any of these threats — and others — would affect US interests.
There also are global risks that could undermine Biden’s ability to pursue his intended policies in the Middle East. The most immediate foreign policy peril is the situation in Ukraine, which is demanding the focus of senior officials in Washington. The White House’s intention to focus on East Asia stems from real dangers; managing relations and risks with China will require extensive US focus and resources. Russia and China together could take up all the oxygen in the foreign policy space, leaving little room for other priorities. Meanwhile, Biden must continue to deal with the consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Middle East also offers opportunities, if Biden’s team has the time to focus on leveraging them. Regional powers’ recent efforts to improve their relations and de-escalate tensions creates more breathing room for addressing a range of concerns. An agreement with Iran could go a long way toward stabilizing strategic risks. The region’s young population and geostrategic position offer political, economic and cultural opportunities. The question will be whether Washington has sufficient bandwidth to pursue its policies and foster opportunities in the Middle East.
-- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
[The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BasNews.]