Washington DC – Early in his presidency, Joe Biden promised to break with his predecessor Donald Trump by posting “democratic values”And“ diplomatic leadership ”at the heart of United States foreign policy.
But as 2021 comes to an end, Biden’s first months in office are marked by what experts say is a passive Middle East policy that is more focused on managing the status quo than resolving major conflicts.
A senior Biden administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity earlier this month, apparently acknowledged this point and told reporters that Washington was not trying to “transform” the region.
“We are not trying to achieve the unattainable; we are not trying to transform the Middle East, “the official said on December 17. “We are focused on the interests that affect Americans and our national security, and the national security of our friends.”
Meanwhile, some of Biden’s leading initiatives in the region – the revival of the Iran’s nuclear deal and ends the war in Yemen Has not yet yielded results, as the Democratic president has largely focused on pressing domestic issues, from COVID-19 to a massive infrastructure bill.
With the pandemic still in full swing, foreign policy turns to competition with China, growing concern about Russia’s posture in Eastern Europe and the aftermath of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, analysts say Biden apparently does not pursue the “bandwidth” and willingness to pursue transformational policies in the Middle East.
“I do not think there is currently a broader Middle East policy. What’s there is managing the mess they inherited, ”said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, DC-based think tank.
Continuation of Trump policies?
After World War II, Washington began to play an active role in the Middle East, with policies focused on protecting the free flow of the region’s oil resources, building alliances with the Gulf monarchies, countering communism, and To protect Israel.
The approach shifted to the conquest of Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and in 2003, U.S. troops invaded Iraq under then-President George W Bush and expanded Washington’s military footprint in the region. When Trump took office in 2017, he pursued policies he considered to be in U.S. interests, strengthening ties with the Gulf and Israel.
Some rights advocates hoped that Biden, with his promise to prioritize human rights, would not only break with Trump, but with the decades-long U.S. policy in the region. While the administration is still in its infancy, observers in the Middle East say hopes are slowly fading that the president will keep his promise to the region.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said with the Iran nuclear deal “still in the air” and the ongoing war in Yemen, Biden’s approach to the Middle East “very similar” to that of Trump.
“The deeper inside, the substance, is not so different from what one could imagine. So, it’s more of a style, ”Ulrichsen told Al Jazeera.
Support for Israel
Analysts also point out that Biden has kept some of Trump’s most controversial policies in place – especially over Israel, a longtime US ally in the region.
Biden administration officials vehemently reject comparisons with policies advocated by Trump, a staunch defender of the Israeli government accused of undermining American values and eroding diplomacy with his tweets and bombastic rhetoric.
Train Biden decide to keep the US embassy in Jerusalem, which reaffirms the changed status quo established by the former administration, and its White House did not reverse Trump’s recognition of Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
The current administration also fully embraced Trump’s normalization efforts between Israel and Arab states. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan agreed last year to establish diplomatic ties with Israel as part of the Trump-mediated “Abraham agreements”.
“We will encourage more countries to follow the lead of the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in September. “We want to broaden the circle of peaceful diplomacy, because it is in the interests of countries across the region and around the world that Israel be treated like any other country.”
Israel’s security indeed remains the top priority for the Biden administration, which faced widespread public pressure in May to call for an end to Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip, says he would rather work behind the scenes to ensure a ceasefire.
“A basic, fundamental principle, for President Biden – as he often says: If Israel did not exist, we would have to find out. And the security of Israel is first and foremost in his mind and ours, “the senior Biden administration official told reporters this month.
Biden has restored some humanitarian aid to Palestinians cut off by Trump, and his administration said it supports a “two-state solution” to resolving the conflict.
But the US president has not kept his campaign promise to open a consulate for Palestinian affairs in East Jerusalem. open Israeli opposition to the move, and Biden and his top assistants mostly refrained from criticizing Israel in public – including on documented human rights violations against Palestine.
Instead, they often introduce slight opposition to Israeli policy – including settlement expansion and efforts to forcibly removed Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem – in statements that oppose “unilateral steps” on both sides that the administration says is fueling tensions.
Zogby said Biden’s approach to the Israel-Palestine issue illustrates how “small ball play does not add up” in Middle East policy.
“To be nice to the Israelis and a few meetings with Abu Mazen does not change the dynamics that are taking place on the ground, “he said, using a kunya for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
US-Saudi Arabia relations
Meanwhile, Washington’s warm relations with many authoritarian Arab governments have been a growing point of contention, with Democrats over the past few years expressing more in their criticism of especially ties between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Their criticism reached a fever after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and as the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen dragged on, leading to what the United Nations called the world worst humanitarian crisis.
Trump forged cozy band with the rulers of the kingdom, whom he visited on his first foreign trip as president in 2017. And when the campaign ended and the government began, Biden – who promised in 2019 to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” – did not call for a drastic change. in the alliance.
Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi-led “offensive operations” in Yemen, but he stressed that his administration was not abandoning the kingdom. “We will continue to support Saudi Arabia and help defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people,” the US president said in February.
His assistants also repeatedly praised Washington’s ties to Riyadh, and the U.S. administration gave the green light. $ 650 million sales of air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia as well as a $ 500m helicopter maintenance agreement.
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 to repel the country’s Houthi rebels, who have taken over most of the country, including the capital Sanaa, and to restore the Gulf-backed government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi .
Biden has appointed seasoned US diplomat Tim Lenderking as a special envoy for Yemen to focus on ending the war, but his diplomatic efforts and numerous trips to the region have not yet yielded positive results. Houthis reject US-backed Saudi proposal for a ceasefire, and insists that the Saudi – led air and sea blockade on Yemen be lifted before the fighting can end.
Iran, Egypt policy
Another key issue for the Biden administration in its first year was efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump withdrew the U.S. from the multilateral agreement in 2018 and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran, which in turn began to escalate its nuclear program. Although the Biden administration has started indirect conversations with Iran to restore the pact, he continued to enforce Trump’s sanctions regime and added his own sanctions.
“This is an issue where there has been more continuity than change between the two administrations,” Ulrichsen said.
He added that the easing of some sanctions could have been a “signal” to the Iranians early on that the new administration is committed to “changing the dynamics within these negotiations”, especially before the harsh Iranian president Ibrahim Raisi is elected in June. is.
Biden’s aides emphasize that – unlike Trump who alienated US partners by leaving the deal – they follow a multilateral approach to Iran and cooperate with European allies as well as rivals Russia and China, to push Tehran back to comply with the nuclear treaty.
On Egypt policy, while Pray promised shortly before the 2020 election “no more blank checks on Trump’s favorite dictator ‘” with reference to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the administration is Cairo’s role praised in the region and press to strengthen the US-Egypt partnership.
Law groups accuse El-Sisi’s government has imprisoned thousands of dissidents and banned virtually all forms of political opposition since he came to power in a coup in 2013, but the Egyptian president denies detaining political prisoners and says his government ” terrorism ”move.
Biden withheld $ 130 million from $ 1.3bn in annual aid to Egypt over human rights issues, but Ulrichsen said the move was more of a symbolic gesture than a consequent policy shift.
“It’s probably not going to send a strong message to the rest of the region,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s probably a sign that they’re doing something for the sake of being seen to do something.”