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[Research Reports] US-Middle East Relations in Biden's First Year

Toru Onozawa (Professor, Kyoto University)
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Research Group on 'The Middle East and Africa' FY2021-#11

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.


Except for the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, the first year of the Biden administration saw little movement on the part of the United States in the Middle East. There was no active debate on Middle East policy among foreign policy experts outside the administration either. The year 2021 proved the year in which the United States showed least interest in the Middle East since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

By utilizing Middle East policy proposals published by foreign policy experts close to the US Democratic Party (hereinafter referred to as "the Democratic experts") as a guide, this paper analyzes the Biden administration's Middle East policy and its implementation, and considers probable future developments.

1. The Biden Administration's Middle East Policy

It was an article entitled "America's Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less" (hereafter referred to as 'the Purgatory Paper') published in Foreign Affairs in 2019 that established the foundation and basic contour of Middle East policy proposals that were to be developed by Democratic experts1. The main points of the Purgatory Paper can be summarized as follows. The first is that there is no possibility that the United States will be able to maintain its influence or create a favorable political situation in the Middle East at a level of burden acceptable to the American people, and therefore the United States should reduce its military burdens and responsibilities in the region unilaterally in accord with its own definition of interests, regardless of the regional political situations. The other is that the interests of the United States in the Middle East should be limited to the following three: (1) the maintenance of free navigation of international waterways, (2) the suppression of terrorist threats, and (3) the stability of friendly countries in the region.

The Purgatory Paper argues that the United States should drastically curtail its traditional definition of interests in the Middle East that has been sustained since the Cold War: the geopolitical interest of preventing the expansion of the influence of hostile forces in the Middle East and the economic interest of maintaining a stable supply of oil and natural gas therefrom. The Purgatory Paper presents an analysis that China and Russia, rivals of the United States at the global level, are mainly pursuing transactional interests in the Middle East by building friendly relations with all powers in the region, and thus argues that superpower relations need not be viewed as a zero-sum game in the regional context. In addition, it points out that the US has diversified its petroleum sources and the relative importance of petroleum as a primary energy is declining, concluding that the US need not pay as much attention to maintaining oil supply from the Middle East as it has done in the past. Based on these analyses, the Purgatory Paper argued that the United States should accelerate its withdrawal from the Middle East as long as its core partners or its narrowly-defined interests are not threatened.

The Democratic experts, centered around the Brookings Institution, with which the coauthors of the Purgatory Paper were affiliated, developed a systematic Middle East policy proposals that included concrete policy options on individual countries and issues2. The main issues are as follows:

  • Halting the "maximum pressure" policy against Iran and instead using diplomacy, information-sharing, and economic and military means to deter and disrupt Iran's subversive activities, while offering incentives for Iran to accept a nuclear deal

  • Having the Department of Defense review US force presence in the Persian Gulf on a zero-basis

  • Stepping away from the Trump administration's policy of giving a blank check to the behavior of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Instead explaining the US interests to these partner states and urging them to refrain from actions contrary to US interests

  • Making diplomatic efforts to resolve the civil wars in Yemen and Libya

  • Encouraging the resumption of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, and discouraging unilateral actions by either side that could destabilize the situation, while keeping in mind that the Palestinian problem is not a priority issue, but that a long-term solution is the goal

  • Maintaining a small US military presence in Syria and Iraq, thereby aiming to secure a certain level of influence over the Assad regime

The new Biden administration's basic foreign policy was set out in the "Interim National Security Strategy Guidance (INSSG 2021)" announced in March 20213. It is difficult to discern the specific courses of action that the new administration intends to take solely from the descriptions given in INSSG 2021, a document intended for public viewing. However, the sections of INSSG 2021 dealing with policies relating to the Middle East closely correspond with the Democratic experts' policy proposals. This strongly suggests that the Biden administration has adopted a set of policy for the Middle East that borrows heavily from the recommendations of Democratic experts almost without modification.

The same applies to the "Global Posture Review (hereinafter, "GPR2021")", which was submitted to the president by the Department of Defense and whose recommendations were approved in November4. Although GPR2021 itself is not available to the public, fragmentary information, including a press conference by Assistant Secretary of Defense Mara Karlin, a co-author of the Purgatory Paper, suggests again that the Biden administration intends to pursue a Middle East policy in line with the ideas of the Democratic experts5. On the other hand, almost a year after the inauguration of the new administration, the military withdrawal from the Middle East, which had been the focus of the Democratic experts' plan, is still under consideration within the Department of Defense, and it appears that the diplomatic preparations for the withdrawal have not been set in motion.

2. Actions of the Biden Administration

What actions has the Biden administration actually taken? Brief observations on the implementation of the Biden administration's policies toward Afghanistan, Iran, and pro-American Arab countries are provided below.

The Biden administration confirmed the Donald J. Trump administration's agreement with the Taliban but postponed the scheduled withdrawal of US troops until the end of August. In his speeches on April 14 and July 8 regarding Afghanistan, Biden expressed confidence in the continuation of the Afghan government, whose army had grown to 300,000 troops with the support of the United States and other countries, and indicated that he would withdraw all US forces regardless of political developments in Afghanistan6. Even as the Taliban expanded its area of control after July, the Biden administration stuck to the stipulated schedule for a complete withdrawal. Meanwhile, consultation with NATO allies consisted essentially of unilateral notification of established policy by the United States. There was no change in US policy after the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, and the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan was completed on the last day of August7.

The complete withdrawal, which was carried out unilaterally and without regard for the situation on the ground, strongly suggests that the Biden administration faithfully followed the policy of the Democratic experts. However, the way the withdrawal was implemented resulted in the restoration of the Taliban regime, the virtual abandonment of local partners, including Americans, and increased dissatisfaction among NATO countries. The Afghan withdrawal turned out to be a major political setback for the Biden administration8. It is not clear yet what effect this will have on the administration's Middle East policy based on the Democratic experts' suggestions.

The Democratic experts have been unanimous in pushing for the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal. Though acknowledged only implicitly by Democratic experts, an agreement with Iran, which would curtail the strategic threat and reduce the source of regional instability, constitutes a key to the success of their entire Middle East policy, which envisages the combination of reduced intra-regional tensions and a withdrawal of US forces. The Biden administration began indirect negotiations with Iran in April aimed at reconstituting the nuclear deal. By the time negotiations were suspended in June before the Iranian presidential election, a draft agreement was reportedly "70 to 80%" completed through compromises from both sides. When the indirect negotiations were resumed at the end of November with the conservative government of Ebrahim Raisi, however, the Iranians effectively withdrew their previous concessions9.

In the meantime, Iran has been pursuing uranium enrichment up to a 60% level, which allows for easy diversion to the production of nuclear weapons. The time needed to generate this highly enriched uranium in a quantity capable of producing nuclear weapons on short notice is generally considered the practical time limit for the negotiations. The Biden administration is putting pressure on Iran by suggesting it may resort to "other options" if negotiations fail, but prospects for an agreement remains remote10. As a result, the Biden administration found itself continuing the previous administration's "maximum pressure" policy throughout its first year. If the confrontation with Iran intensifies, there is a strong possibility that the administration's Middle East policy may need drastic revisions.

Withdrawing the carte blanche policy toward the pro-American Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, which had been conspicuous under the Trump administration, and restraining these countries from acting against US national interests and values was another pillar of the policy recommendations of the Democratic experts. The Biden administration conveyed its concerns to the Saudi leadership, including King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and Saudi intervention in Yemen's civil war. The United States suspended assistance to Saudi Arabia for its intervention in Yemen that it judged to be "offensive" in nature, withdrew some of the US forces that had been dispatched for border security, and froze some of its exports of military supplies11. However, the pressure from the United States on Saudi Arabia does not seem to have reached the level of intensity that Democratic experts had envisaged. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration's policy toward Saudi Arabia is at a stage where US officials are still closely monitoring Saudi behavior or they are resigned to accept the status quo.

The Biden administration's policy toward Egypt has been mixed but moderate on balance. While the administration has pressed for improvements in Egypt's internal governance and human rights situation by partially suspending military aid, it has also shown a high regard for that country's foreign policy. This resulted from the administration's appreciation of Egypt's expanding cooperative relations and exchanges with Israel, its negotiating channel with Hamas that helped bring about a ceasefire in the military clash between Israel and Hamas in May, and its important role in humanitarian assistance to Gaza. The Biden administration has shown that it will not take issue with Egypt's diversification of foreign relations, including the expansion of arms imports from Russia and France12. Contrary to the assumption of the Democratic experts, the value of Egypt to the United States appears to exceed that of the United States to Egypt.

3. Criticism of the Democratic Experts' Middle East Policy

Although public discussion on the Middle East policies continues to be subdued, criticisms and objections to the Middle East policy proposals of the Democratic experts have been raised, albeit in limited numbers13. The most fundamental criticism has come from Anthony H. Cordesman. He argues that the United States should retain its influence on partner countries in the Middle East and North Africa region and its ability to guarantee stable oil supplies therefrom as assets that could be employed as a leverage in its global strategic competition with China. Cordesman rejects the basic assumptions shared by the Democratic experts that expansion of the influence of China and Russia in the Middle East needs not be seen from a zero-sum game perspective, and that the strategic importance of the region should be downgraded in light of the growing diversity of sources of oil supply. In short, he insists that the traditional US definition of its interests in the Middle East be maintained instead.

Some policy specialists seem to caution against the Democratic experts' somewhat extreme reformist inclination. Jon B. Alterman points out that, after the Arab Spring, the Arab world extending from Tunisia to Jordan witnessed the development of a new governance framework that is characterized by its design to expand social safety nets, relax religious strictures and allow diversity, liberalize social spaces, and revitalize the private economic sector, while maintaining authoritarian governance. Alterman considers that this governance framework, which he calls a "GCC Consensus", can be expected to prevent the spread of political discontent that would threaten the stability of friendly regimes, while pointing out the inherent risks of retarding innovation and irresponsible rule14. Alterman's argument is a de facto criticism of the Democratic experts' proposal to pressure authoritarian Arab states to reform their governance, and he favors more conservative standpoint, which is certainly shared by Cordesman, who argues for the maintenance of traditional definitions of interests.


The Biden administration, just after its inauguration, seems to have adopted a set of policies toward the Middle East that almost fully accepted the recommendations proposed by the Democratic experts. However, it is already questionable whether the administration can carry through on this policy to bring about its desired outcomes. The military withdrawal was carried out in Afghanistan in such a way as to conform with Democratic experts' recommendations, but it proved a political setback for the Biden administration. Additional withdrawals from the Middle East still remain under consideration within the Defense Department, and no concrete moves are in sight. A nuclear deal with Iran, on which the Democratic experts' Middle East policy was actually predicated, is not foreseeable either. Although the administration put some pressure on authoritarian pro-American Arab leadership for improved governance and human rights protection, relations with pro-American Arab countries have tended to drift toward maintaining the status quo.

Criticisms of the Democratic experts' Middle East policies from a conservative standpoint, such as those calling for adherence to the traditional definition of interests in the Middle East or those encouraging the maintenance of the status quo in pro-American Arab countries, remain in the minority. However, if the Biden administration's policy implementation fails to reverse the current stagnation, such conservative options may become more compelling. Furthermore, if confrontation and competition with Russia and China escalate at the global level, the impact could extend to the Middle East. For example, it is uncertain whether the argument that expanded Chinese and Russian influence need not be regarded as a geopolitical threat in the Middle East will remain politically convincing. Moreover, the more the Biden administration is forced to devote its attention and energy to superpower relations, the fewer resources and less time it will have to implement the sweeping changes in US-Middle East relations envisioned by Democratic experts. If policy implementation continues to stagnate, the possibility that US policy toward the Middle East will drift toward the conservative status quo will increase as a result of inaction rather than rational choice.

(The original Japanese version of this paper is dated February 11, 2022.)

1 Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, "America's Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less," Foreign Affairs, vol. 98, no.1, (Jan/Feb 2019), pp.88-100.

2 Dafna H. Rand and Andrew P. Miller, eds., Re-Engaging the Middle East: A New Vision for U.S. Policy (Washington D.C: Brookings Institution, 2020); Tamara Cofman Wittes, "What to Do---and What Not to Do---in the Middle East," Jan. 25, 2021. <>

3 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, March 2021. <>

U.S. Department of Defense, Release, "DoD Concludes 2021 Global Posture Review," Nov. 29, 2021. <>

4 U.S. Department of Defense, Release, "DoD Concludes 2021 Global Posture Review," Nov. 29, 2021. <>

5 U.S. Department of Defense, DOD News by Jim Garamone, "Biden Approves Global Posture Review Recommendations," Nov. 29, 2021. <>

7 Steven Erlanger, "Afghan Fiasco Shows Fault Lines in NATO," NYT, August 24, 2021; Mark Landler and Michael D. Shear, "Rebuffing Allies, Biden is Sticking to Exit Deadline," NYT, August 25, 2021.

8 Roger Cohen, "Post-9/11 Era Ends Painfully, For America and Afghanistan," NYT, August 18, 2021; Peter Baker, "Biden Plays the Long Game As He Justifies the End of the 'Forever War',"

NYT, August 31, 2021.

9 Steven Erlanger, "Iran Nuclear Talks Head for Collapse," NYT, Dec 4, 2021: A.8.

10 Jennifer Hansler, "Biden officials warn of turning to 'other options' if diplomacy fails as nuclear talks resume in Vienna," CNN, December 10, 2021, accessed on Dec. 21, 2021.


11 Christopher M. Blanchard, "Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations," (CRS Report RL33533) Updated October 5, 2021.

12 Jeremy M. Sharp, "Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations," (CRS Report RL33003) Updated September 30, 2021.

13 Anthony H. Cordesman, "China, Asia, and the Changing Strategic Importance of the Gulf and MENA Region," October 15, 2021


14 Jon B. Alterman, "The End of History in the Middle East," Nov. 22, 2021. < >. For a similar argument, see also Bruce Riedel, "Playing a Weak Hand Well: Jordan's Hashemite Kings and the United States," September 27, 2021.