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[Research Reports] The Biden Administration and the Middle East

Toru Onozawa (Professor, Kyoto University)
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'Middle East and Africa' Research Group # 9

The "Research Reports" are compiled by participants of 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.

Since its inauguration, the Biden administration has been rapidly changing Trump administration's policies in both domestic and foreign affairs. The extension of the New START with Russia, the return to the Paris Agreement and the suspension of support for Saudi Arabia's intervention in the Yemeni civil war are just some of the pledges that Biden made during his presidential campaign. The new US administration seems to be on a steady track to make changes it deems necessary.

The Biden administration has recruited a number of former Obama administration officials, prompting some to call it the "third Obama administration". For example, the direction of the new administration in rebuilding a multilateral framework centering on the United States can be said to be a return to the policies of the Obama administration. However, it goes without saying that the world and the United States have changed in many ways during the four years of the Trump administration, and it is necessary to consider the overall direction of foreign policy separately from specific policies concerning individual countries, regions and issues. Thus, the individual policies of the new administration require careful examination.

The Middle East is an area where the Biden administration is likely to make major changes to the policies of the previous administration. As far as we can infer from the discussions of Middle East policy experts close to the Democratic Party, however, the Biden administration does not intend to return to the Obama administration's Middle East policy. These experts are aiming for a drastic policy change that will realize the withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East and the reduction of US responsibilities and burdens in the region by narrowing the US interests and goals. If US interests and goals in the Middle East are actually narrowed, it will be the first time since the latter half of the Cold War. Under the Biden administration, US-Middle East relations may face a historic turning point.

Escape from "Purgatory"

Over the past two years, foreign policy experts affiliated with the Democratic Party have been reexamining policies with a view to the post-Trump era. Apparently, the most important work in predicting the Biden administration's Middle East policy is a paper entitled "America's Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less" (hereinafter referred to as "the Purgatory Paper")1, which was published in Foreign Affairs in 2019. Its co-authors, Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and State, respectively, in the Obama administration and have since been with the Brookings Institution (Karlin works part-time), which is close to the Democratic Party.

The Purgatory Paper points out that the US in the Middle East is "too distracted by regional crises to pivot to other global priorities but not invested enough to move the region in a better direction". The authors call such a worst-of-both-worlds situation "purgatory". The main reason the US is in this state of "purgatory" lies in the framework of its "Goldilocks" approach to Middle East policy. The Goldilocks approach is a policy framework in which the United States itself can "reduce its military presence while retaining a 'surge' capacity" by "relying more on local partners to deter threats and using aid and trade incentives to build coalitions among local actors to advance stabilizing policies such as conflict resolution" based on the assumption that there is a strategy that can maintain its influence in various issues in the region without being entangled in intraregional conflicts in the Middle East. In other words, the Goldilocks approach entails pursuing the optimal solution based on the premise that there exists "some kind of golden mean" for pursuing interests and goals in the Middle East as before while reducing the military and political burdens of the United States itself.

The first point made by the Purgatory Paper is that it is wrong to assume that a Goldilocks approach exists. The Obama and Trump administrations had the commonality in adopting the Goldilocks approach to find the optimal solution that would allow them to achieve traditional goals and interests with less resources committed, despite significant differences in individual policies--both failed. In practice, there is no such optimal solution. Since the American people do not tolerate devoting more resources to the Middle East any longer, means cannot be expanded to meet their goals and interests. The Purgatory Paper argues that the new administration must formulate its Middle East policy based on the premise that the region no longer has the importance and priority it once did in the global interests of the United States.

Another argument presented in the Purgatory Paper is that the United States should escape from "purgatory" by narrowing its definitions of goals and interests in the Middle East, rather than by reducing its means. The Purgatory Paper cites only three elements as US' vital interests in the Middle East: (1) the maintenance of free navigation for US Navy and private vessels in the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb and the Suez Canal; (2) control of the threat of terrorism; and (3) the stability and security of regional partners. Moreover, because the interests in (1) and (2) are shared globally, the United States should pursue these interests by making the most of multilateral cooperation. It is no exaggeration to say that the definition of these interests is revolutionary in light of the historical development of the US' Middle East policy. Since the Cold War, the United States' list of key interests in the Middle East has never excluded a geopolitical interest of preventing hostile forces from gaining dominant influence in the Middle East as well as an economic interest of maintaining a stable oil supply from the Middle East.

The Purgatory Paper relegates these "traditional" interests to secondary ones. China and Russia seek only to maximize their commercial interests and establish friendly relations in the Middle East generally, and neither seeks to gain a position to replace the United States in the region. While petroleum remains a key global commodity, supply sources have become more diverse, and the significance of petroleum itself has been diminished in the course of addressing, and developing technology to address, environmental issues. The prominence of the Middle East as a source of oil and the ability of Middle Eastern producers to determine oil prices are both on the relative decline. Therefore, the United States does not need to pay as much attention to maintaining oil supplies from the Middle East as it has. Arguing in this way, the Purgatory Paper contends that the United States' traditional interests in the Middle East should be effectively discarded.

The logic justifying the narrowing of US' interests and goals in the Middle East seems to be rooted in deeper assumptions. In an essay published in Foreign Affairs in 2018, Jake Sullivan, now National Security Advisor to President Biden, argued roughly as follows2. Under the Trump administration, the international order centered on the United States - an institutionalized international order built around a group of countries that respect political freedom and the rule of law, as well as the US alliance system - was damaged, but its framework remains unscathed. After Trump, the United States should strive to reinvigorate this order by rebuilding alliances and returning to multilateral frameworks. Significantly, however, the Middle East is an exception. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, conflict and turmoil have been the constant feature of the Middle East. Therefore, the turmoil in the Middle East does not threaten the international order led by the United States. Sullivan argued that the United States should not try to solve problems in the Middle East, but instead pursue diplomacy aimed at preventing them from adversely affecting the outside world. We can surmise that behind the drastic argument to withdraw from the Middle East found in the Purgatory Paper lies an exceptionalism toward the Middle East delineated in the Sullivan Paper, which might be called "geopolitical Orientalism.".

Policy Recommendations for Specific Countries and Issues

Several proposals on Middle East policy based on the principle of narrowing US' interests and goals, in line with both the Sullivan Paper and the Purgatory Paper, have been published. Among these, the most comprehensive is a collection of policy proposals entitled Re-engaging the Middle East (hereinafter referred to as "the Re-engaging Collection"), edited by Dafna H. Rand and Andrew P. Miller and compiled by the Brookings Institution3.

The Re-engaging Collection warns against the danger of premature or excessive withdrawal, saying that the complete loss of interest in the Middle East and the complete withdrawal of the US therefrom will intensify instability and intraregional conflicts in the Middle East, and insists on strengthening the US' diplomatic engagement in the Middle East. However, as the editors explicitly accept the position of the Purgatory Paper on curtailed US interests in the Middle East - while postulating a somewhat more expansive definition of US interests than the Purgatory Paper - it is clear that the overall contention of the Re-engaging Collection points to discouraging excessive involvement and reducing US' responsibilities and burdens in the Middle East.

The Re-engaging Collection's policy proposals are diverse, but I would like to highlight two areas in which the policies of the Trump administration will be changed most drastically. The first is US policies toward pro-American Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt among others. With regard to Saudi Arabia, the goal is to bring an end to the political oppression and human rights violations typified by the killing of Khashoggi, and to obtain cooperation for intra-regional dialogue aimed at easing tensions with Iran, instead of adventurism that heightens intraregional confrontation as exemplified by Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen and its policy of isolating Qatar. If the Saudi side refuses to consent, hard bargaining that applies pressure by, for instance, gradually reducing strategic cooperation is recommended (as of February 2021, the Biden administration is already putting some of these into practice). The plan calls on Egypt to improve its governance and human rights situation, and to shift its military posture from one designed for large-scale conventional warfare to one consistent with the war on terrorism, using as a bargaining chip military assistance from the United States, which has been maintained almost automatically as a de facto reward for peace with Israel since the Camp David Accords.

In a nutshell, it is envisioned that the US will take full advantage of its existing bargaining cards vis-à-vis these pro-American Arab states, i.e., by only strengthening diplomatic engagement without increasing the resources it invests, to steer their actions in a direction consistent with the interests of the United States. It is interesting to note that the hardline bargaining stance toward pro-American Arab countries mentioned above is in contrast to the proposed conciliatory policy toward Israel.

The biggest shift suggested by the Re-engaging Collection is to the Trump administration's policy toward Iran. The top priority in the Iran policy is to prevent Iran from going nuclear. As a first step to that end, the Collection argues, the United States should strive to resuscitate the JCPOA or reach some other agreement along similar lines. However, the time left for this is limited. Iran's presidential election is scheduled for June 2021, and some agreement must be reached during the term of the moderate Rouhani administration. Therefore, rather than seeking a more desirable agreement than the JCPOA, the United States must first concentrate on reaching a minimal agreement with Iran that could in some way restrain Iran's nuclear development. Concurrently, the United States must urgently rebuild the multilateral framework destroyed under the Trump administration and convince pro-American and anti-Iranian countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel that an agreement with Iran is consistent with their long-term interests. Restructuring the multilateral framework is also necessary to maintain pressure on Iran, including enforcement of economic sanctions.4

While the above points in the policy proposals for Iran largely refer to a return to the framework of the Obama administration, the Re-engaging collection further recommends a comprehensive review of US policy toward Iran. The review should analyze Iran's foreign policy and identify areas in which deterrence against Iran is necessary, areas that have little adverse impact on US interests and areas in which the US and Iran share overlapping interests. Based on these analyses, the review should consider the US' goals and presence in the Middle East as a whole, including its relationship with other regional powers. In other words, the review of Iran policy may well lead to a comprehensive reexamination of US policy for the entire Middle East, which has so far been predicated on the conventional hostility toward Iran, and result in a substantial revision of the US' involvement in and relationship with the whole region.

If we take an overall view of the Re-engaging Collection with this in mind, we find that policy proposals on various countries and issues point to a policy of pursuing détente with Iran. This is most evident in the policy toward Iraq. In short, the Re-engaging Collection's policy proposal for Iraq aims to maintain the status quo in which the United States and Iran share influence on the country. The United States and Iran, along with Iraq itself, share an interest in Iraq's stability and there is no merit in destroying it. Meanwhile, the United States should maintain a certain level of US forces in Iraq, while at the same time focusing on the execution of its policies through diplomatic means, and should pursue improvement of governance, including reform of Iraq's security organizations, as well as democratization and economic development. A similar direction can be found in the policy toward Yemen. In the process of pursuing an end to the civil war in Yemen, the United States may encourage the Houthis, who work with Iran, to participate in the Yemeni government in the future. A Yemeni government incorporating the Houthis may have characteristics somewhat similar to the existing government of Iraq, on which the US and Iran share influence.

Iran also appears in the policy proposal toward Syria, albeit in a somewhat different context. The Re-engaging Collection's policy proposal for Syria fails to provide either plausible prospects for the future political development of the country or cohesive policy options to deal with possible developments detrimental to US interests; it suggests that the United States has lost interest in the future of Syria as well as the means to influence the course of events there. The proposal, however, rather passingly mentions a possibility of linking the lifting of sanctions against Iran with its behavior in Syria. This may not be a far-fetched idea, given Iran's support for the Assad regime. However, the fact that a Syrian policy proposal with no clear overall vision ended up focusing on Iran seems to symbolize the importance of Iran in a new US Middle East policy.

As mentioned above, the references to Iran everywhere in the Re-engaging Collection are about détente with Iran--far from the containment pursued by successive US administrations since the Islamic Revolution, let alone the Trump administration's rollback policy. If we read the policy recommendations of the Re-engaging Collection straightforwardly, they argue that the United States needs to reach some sort of agreement with Iran on regional détente in order to bring an end to the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars, to stabilize Iraq and the Persian Gulf, as well as to change the belligerent foreign attitudes of the Saudis and the UAE. However, if we look into it deeper and reverse this logical order, a more consistent and coherent regional policy would emerge; in order to realize a degree of mutual understanding with Iran on regional politics, the US will seek anti-Iranian countries such as Saudi Arabia to exercise self-restraint toward Iran and accept a certain level of Iranian influence in the region. Such a policy, equivalent to a de facto agreement with Iran on spheres of influence, is not only difficult to implement but, if put forward squarely, is likely to provoke a political backlash in the United States, where anti-Iranian bias is still prevalent. Presumably, it is for this reason that the idea of a de facto agreement with Iran on spheres of influences has not been openly discussed but remained a latent though discernible thesis in the Re-engaging Collection.


Judging from discussions by Middle East policy experts close to the Democratic Party, it is likely that the Biden administration will seek to withdraw from the region by narrowing the definition of US interests, recognizing that the region is no longer as vital to the US as it used to be. If the United States narrows its interests and goals in the Middle East, it will mark a historic turning point in US-Middle East relations.

Behind such policies lies geopolitical Orientalism that regards confusion and instability as a normal condition in the Middle East. Such a proposition leads to a real question of whether the United States will be able to withdraw unilaterally from the Middle East when regional conflicts and turmoil intensify. Here, the key is Iran. Admittedly it is just my interpretation that the Re-engaging Collection's concealed thesis is an agreement with Iran on de facto spheres of influence; even if this interpretation is correct, we cannot know for sure at this point whether it will be accepted by the Biden administration. However, the following can surely be said. If one accepts the premises of the Purgatory Paper and the Re-engaging Collection that China and Russia do not threaten US geopolitical interests in the Middle East, then Iran poses the only threat. If the US can build some understanding with Iran to reduce its potential geopolitical threat--even an understanding comparable to the January 1973 Paris Agreement that allowed the US to withdraw from Vietnam--a US withdrawal from the Middle East would be facilitated. On the other hand, if Iran does not sign on to a nuclear agreement or aims to change the status quo within the region without showing interest in easing tensions and stabilizing intra-regional balance of power, for example, by intensifying offensives by pro-Iranian forces, it will be difficult to persuade pro-American regional powers to exercise self-restraint, and many of the policy recommendations of the Re-engaging Collection will be irrelevant. Faced with such a situation, will the Biden administration go ahead and withdraw from the Middle East in keeping with geopolitical Orientalism, or reconsider it? In any case, the administration will undoubtedly be faced with a very tough choice.

In order to avoid being forced into such a situation, the Biden administration cannot but expedite some sort of agreement with Iran. However, very little time remains. If there is no result before Iran's presidential election in June 2021--reported to be dominated by conservatives as of February, chances of US agreement with Iran will be slim. In reality, whether or not an agreement with Iran can be realized in the first 100 days of the Biden administration will determine not only the course of its policy toward Iran but also the course of its overall Middle East policy.

(The original Japanese version of this paper is dated February 23, 2021.)

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 Jake Sullivan, "The World after Trump: How the System Can Endure," Foreign Affairs, vol. 97, no.2, (Mar/Apr 2018), pp.10-19.

3 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).

4 This is consistent with a policy recommendation on Iran that was published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) around the same time: Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa C. Ewers, and Kaleigh Thomas, Reengaging Iran (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, August 2020). The CNAS's policy recommendation also emphasizes the importance of aiming for an agreement with Iran before the Iranian presidential election. However, it features more commitments in the direction of détente with Iran than the Re-engaging Collection; it suggests simultaneous negotiations on both nuclear development issues and regional politics, together with the US unilaterally beginning to lift sanctions against Iran to realize regional détente, etc.