So far, Biden seems to be trying to strike a balance between these two approaches – one that upholds America’s cherished principles while acknowledging cold realities, and that uses both diplomacy and military action. In a region where America’s commitment to its values is regularly challenged, it tries to forge an excruciatingly nuanced middle path. And while it has achieved that balance so far, it will prove extremely difficult to maintain as new challenges emerge in the region.
The tactical differences between Biden and his predecessors can be seen in the new administration’s handling of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
A key goal for Biden is to return to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which the Obama administration achieved in 2015. In order to move the deal forward, Obama has refrained from responding to provocations of Iran, to the frustration of critics who accused him of “appeasement”. Obama has made other controversial overtures to Iran on the way to a deal. For example, although he claimed that the negotiations did not prevent him from taking more aggressive action in Syria, an ally of Iran, there are reasons for skepticism.
Even though Trump rejected the deal with Iran and imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions on the Iranian regime, he also ignored multiple Iranian attacks. He did not respond in 2019, when Iranian allies in Yemen nearly crippled Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, or the following year, when Iranian-backed forces fired a missile barrage at troops. Americans in Iraq. He carried out a crucial operation, killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, but there was no coherent deterrence strategy. Many Iranian attacks have been ignored.
This is probably why Iran was caught off guard last week when Biden responded to a series of Iranian proxy attacks on US targets in Iraq. The US response – to strike Iranian targets in Syria – was not unleashed recklessly; it has been carefully calibrated to avoid problems for the Iraqi government. (Pro-Iranian forces in Iraq often exploit US action to agitate against America and the government in Baghdad.) The Biden administration also made sure to discuss strikes with its allies ahead of the operation. At the same time, the fact that Biden was ready to take military action allayed fears that, in his rush to revert to the Obama-era nuclear deal, Biden would turn a blind eye to Iran as his fighters allies would wreak havoc.
“Iranians Didn’t Realize Biden Is Not Obama,” Israeli Official Tells Axios with approval.
Saudi Arabia is also probably relieved that Biden isn’t Obama – although Riyadh still doesn’t know exactly who Biden is. The Saudis couldn’t wait for Obama to leave. They felt he had turned to Iran at their expense; he publicly called them “so-called” allies and said they should “share the neighborhood” with Iran. Then came Trump, who embraced the kingdom, dismissed any human rights concerns, and refused to release a U.S. intelligence report (as required by law) that concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ( MBS) was responsible for the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. .
This is where the threading of Biden’s needle is most visible. While the Trump administration preferred to communicate with MBS, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Biden last week called King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the president’s official counterpart. Communications with MBS, who is also Minister of Defense, have been reduced; he is now speaking with the US secretary of defense. With that, the Biden administration essentially withdrew MBS’s recognition as the leader of Saudi Arabia, while maintaining contact with him.
In the appeal with the king, Biden reaffirmed Washington’s long-standing commitment to Saudi defense, but he also stressed the need to improve human rights in Saudi Arabia and a solution. to the humanitarian disaster in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The next day, Biden released the intelligence report on Khashoggi, who formally accused MBS of the murder. On the one hand, the report burned a painful mark on the prince for the world to see. At the same time, Biden refused to sanction MBS, as he did for other Saudi officials involved in the murder. He has been rightly criticized for not punishing MBS harder, but Biden knows MBS is likely to become king and has chosen not to sacrifice the relationship.
On Israel, Biden is still neither Obama nor Trump. Obama left the Israelis traumatized. On one of his first trips abroad as president, he visited the Middle East but did not stop in Israel. Instead, he delivered a speech in Cairo, where, among other places, he publicly criticized Israeli settlements. Relations deteriorated from there. Trump, meanwhile, has let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu run free and sided entirely with him, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, supporting Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and looking away when Israel expanded the West Bank settlements.
Biden will leave the US Embassy in Jerusalem. But Israelis are concerned about his plans to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal, and other differences abound: In a call with Netanyahu last month, Biden spoke of the need to advance peace with the Palestinians. He also opposes the expansion of settlements. Nonetheless, in his appeal to Netanyahu, he reaffirmed his personal commitment to Israel’s security. And during the campaign, Biden made it clear that he would address disagreements with the Israeli prime minister in private.
Biden firmly believes in personal relationships as the foundation of foreign policy. All signs suggest that he will build on these relationships and continue to try to forge a middle way. With decades of foreign policy experience – far more than almost any of his predecessors – he comes to work with a unique understanding.
However, threading this needle will not be easy. Biden has indicated that he wants to make the Middle East a lower priority than in the past. Yet the region is a tangle of interconnected, often explosive conflicts, with a habit of suddenly requiring urgent attention. Events in the region also tend to generate a lot of interest from national ridings in the United States. This means Biden’s actions will be scrutinized – and criticized – at home.
Sooner or later, Biden will make a decision that will produce a sharp reaction. A time will come when this clever mix of realism and values will not hold up. Next, we’ll see the real test of what the Biden Doctrine is, and whether it can withstand the realities of the Middle East.