As former vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. has emerged as the uncontested Democratic Party nominee for president to face incumbent Donald J. Trump in November, Gulf countries are increasingly analyzing what a Biden policy toward the Middle East might involve. This task is necessarily speculative. The situation facing both the United States and the Middle East, including the Gulf region, will look very different in November, not to mention January 2021, when the next presidential term formally begins.
Numerous factors shape U.S. policy, which most agree is in a period of transition. Nonetheless, as Trump has arguably discovered, there are some persistent consensus views and perceptions of the national interest that push back against a rapid and radical change of course. And the personal views of the president are likely to be a major factor, particularly one with a deep well of experience, which certainly would be true of Biden, should he be elected.
When examining evidence of where candidates’ inclinations, experience, past positions, and recent policy statements – as well as the broader atmosphere within their party and the country as a whole – may lead them, it is essential to keep in mind some obvious caveats. Past positions were adopted at a different time and with a different set of calculations in mind. Direct personal responsibility for the conduct and consequences of foreign policy, and above all, the use of force, is a unique burden that cannot be easily simulated or imagined.
Even positions Biden espoused as vice president were produced under different circumstances and without the direct personal responsibility of the presidency. The primary goal of most politicians is, naturally, to get elected. It is only after the candidate has won the White House and been inaugurated that the full brunt of the president’s responsibilities become clear.
Therefore, it is reasonable to look at the candidates’ current and past positions and their senior advisors for some guidance as to what they might do. In doing so, however, it is essential to emphasize the apparent limitations of such analysis. It can help in hypothesizing about what might be coming, but nothing more than that. Nonetheless, Biden has a long track record and numerous recent statements worth consulting for an indication of what his foreign policy might look like.
It’s tempting to assume he would try to simply turn the clock back four years and resume where he and, in particular, former President Barack Obama left off, and Trump took over. But even if Biden wanted to do that, assuming he wins, it’s not possible. Too much has changed in the interim. He is not Obama, and making that clear via policy differences will be both necessary and important to Biden, should he be elected. For that and numerous other reasons, the wholesale reinstatement of Obama-era policies would be both impossible and undesirable.
While it may seem like an eternity in domestic politics, January is not far off in the context of international relations. So, here’s a quick evaluation of what Middle East and Gulf policies under a potential Biden administration might look like on several issues that are likely to remain central nine months from now.
Iran and the JCPOA
The standard line during the Democratic primaries from almost all candidates was pledging to return to the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Trump abandoned in 2018. In August 2019, Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations that, “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would reenter the JCPOA” and use that as a starting point to address “Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.” That’s probably what most Democratic voters, viewing the JCPOA as Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, and deeply resenting Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, wanted to hear. But while the JCPOA functions on paper, in reality it is a dead letter. Between the U.S. “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign and Iran’s own abandonment of its commitments under the deal, any effort to revive it would, in effect, require a wholesale renegotiation of it. So even if Biden and his team were to announce a “return to the JCPOA,” what they would really seek is a new understanding based on that model.
One of Biden’s chief foreign policy advisors, Jake Sullivan, who was also one of the key architects of the nuclear deal, seems keenly aware of the need for an approach that goes beyond maximum pressure and an effort to turn back the clock. While he admits he did not think sanctions would be effective without international consensus and cooperation, he acknowledges that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has had a major impact: “Actually, those sanctions have been very effective in the narrow sense of causing deep economic pain on Iran.” At the same time, he observes these effective sanctions were not a “magic bullet” and have not resolved U.S. differences with Iran.
This is a strong indication that the Biden camp is moving beyond campaign rhetoric about “reentering the JCPOA” and is evaluating the present situation. It would include analyzing the leverage that sanctions have given U.S. policymakers in dealing with Iran, as well as the shortcomings of a policy that may have lacked the necessary diplomatic and political components to translate such leverage into strategic gains. Sullivan said the next step would be “to establish something along the lines of the [JCPOA], but immediately begin the process of negotiating a follow-on agreement.” In other words, a Biden policy would seek to reengage on the nuclear deal, mainly to look past it to a stronger agreement with expanded timelines that would address what Sullivan calls the “other elements that we learned subsequently could be strengthened.”
There is no indication yet how a Biden administration would seek to counter Iran’s malign regional behavior, particularly its support of armed sectarian militias in neighboring countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria – although that issue has become more pressing and deadly since the last election. It’s also unclear whether, or under what terms, Biden would be willing to consent to recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium, which many observers credit as the breakthrough U.S. concession that made the nuclear agreement possible.
Biden has been frequently criticized for supposedly suggesting the partition of Iraq into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish states, but that is an exaggeration and even a distortion of what he actually called for. In a 2006 New York Times commentary and a 2007 Washington Post op-ed, both coauthored with the journalist and commentator Leslie H. Gelb, Biden recommended the “soft partition” of Iraq – effectively along Bosnian lines – loosely held together by a weak central government in Baghdad. This concept was vilified and ridiculed at the time, but while the word partition remains anathema, the essential concept has subsequently gained adherents in Iraq and the region. Arguably, this is the federalist direction in which the country has been heading anyway, particularly in Kurdish and Shia areas that are effectively self-ruling while being nominally part of a broader, but decentralized, Iraqi state.
The larger question to be discussed during the campaign and determined by the next administration will be the scope and presence of the U.S. military in Iraq. Both Biden and Trump will undoubtedly continue to vow to bring the “forever wars” to an end, and both will probably try to repudiate their on-the-record support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (for Biden a vote in the Senate, for Trump comments on the Howard Stern radio show). But although Trump has frequently advocated for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East and other parts of the world, he has generally not pursued that policy. In contrast, Biden has said he does not support the wholesale withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East, and presumably would be even less inclined to draw down the U.S. military presence in Iraq to zero or anything close to that.
Biden’s international worldview is much closer to the traditional post-Cold War internationalism that Trump generally rejects. So, while he frequently argued against the use of force during the Obama administration (opposing the intervention in Libya, arguing against any major involvement in Syria, and even urging caution regarding the raid that killed Osama bin Laden), and might be very hesitant to be drawn into any military conflict, Biden might be more open than Trump to recognizing the broader strategic benefits in retaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Indeed, Biden has stated plainly he would leave U.S. forces in the Middle East, in particular to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which suggests a continued presence in Iraq. Indeed, Biden’s emphasis on continuing to combat ISIL has even led him to cite the “imperative to remain engaged” in Syria, possibly more than either Obama or Trump would have contemplated. Recent remarks by Antony Blinken, one of Biden’s top foreign policy advisors, strongly suggested the continued presence of U.S. forces on the ground would be essential to retaining leverage and hinted at regret that the Obama administration did not do more to help shape the outcome in Syria.
Military and Other Commitments to Gulf Countries
One of the clearest rhetorical differences between Biden and Trump has been their stated attitudes toward weapon sales to U.S. Gulf Arab partners. Trump appears to view Gulf Arab countries primarily as customers for U.S. military goods and services and, therefore, a source of profit for U.S. corporations and employment for workers. But, for a variety of reasons, the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE, has emerged as a significant partisan fault line between Democrats and Republicans. Support for Saudi Arabia has even become a contentious issue between some internationalist Senate Republicans, such as Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, who are normally supportive of Trump and the White House. The war in Yemen, in particular – exacerbated by the kiling of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, growing concerns about the treatment of dissidents in Saudi Arabia, and other sources of tension – turned Washington’s relationship with Riyadh into one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era.
Biden, along with many Democrats, has become increasingly outspoken about the war in Yemen and limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia while it continues. Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations, “I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” During a Democratic primary debate, Biden even referred to Saudi leaders as “pariahs” and said there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Still, to the Council on Foreign Relations he outlined the need for a continued, if altered, relationship with Riyadh, emphasizing that “I would want to hear how Saudi Arabia intends to change its approach to work with a more responsible U.S. administration.” This formulation, and much of the Democratic rhetoric about Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and similar issues during the Trump presidency, ultimately circles back to opposition to the current occupant of the White House. As with these comments, the implication is that a different president and U.S. foreign policy is the key to producing a “corrected” relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab partners.
Nonetheless, some Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE, have become political footballs in the United States between partisan Republicans and Democrats and, more recently, between internationalist and “America first” Republicans. They have considerable work to do to rebuild ties to Democrats and internationalist Republicans, and this task would become more urgent in the context of a Biden presidency. But the threats of international terrorism, Iranian hegemony, and other shared concerns provide a solid basis for a revived, if recalibrated, partnership under Biden.
Israel and the Palestinians
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a central plank of U.S. foreign policy for domestic political reasons and is of deep concern to Gulf Arab countries, most of which are potentially open to developing closer ties to Israel. Of the Gulf states, only Kuwait has not demonstrated in recent years a clear interest in exploring the potential for a better relationship with Israel. While the reasons for this interest vary, significant improvements in bilateral relations with Israel are contingent on progress between Israel and the Palestinians on a two-state solution or, at the very least, easing the burden of occupation on the Palestinian people. Therefore, the Trump administration’s promotion of Israeli annexation of occupied territories and its systematic denigration of Palestinian aspirations and claims have been problematic for most of the Gulf Arab countries.
The looming prospect of additional large-scale Israeli annexations in the West Bank, as suggested by the Trump proposal issued in January, makes additional progress far more difficult. Gulf countries that have an interest in better relations with Israel, for whatever reason, must be extremely concerned about U.S. policies that promote Israeli conduct that would make such improved ties far more difficult, if not impossible, to secure. The Trump proposal suggested that Israel could annex most of the settlements, official or unofficial, in vast swaths of the West Bank, as well as the strategically crucial Jordan Valley.
Having effectively invited Israel to indulge in such annexation, the Trump administration has apparently sought to restrain Israel from acting immediately. However, the rise of Biden in the polls and the political difficulties Trump is facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and concomitant economic crisis appears to have prompted some in the Israeli government to view the coming months, particularly before November’s election, as an opportunity to act quickly to grab as much of the West Bank as possible before a Biden administration steps in to restrain them. The Trump administration has not publicly encouraged such a move, however, and there are hints of potential private reservations.
Biden, however, has made it clear he is opposed to annexation and remains committed to a two-state solution. Moreover, he has said that, if elected president, he will not be bound by whatever Trump recognizes in the coming months and may well reverse any such moves. Despite its strong basis of domestic support in both parties, Israel, too, is increasingly becoming a contentious issue between Republicans and Democrats and within both parties. Strong supporters of Palestinian rights are dismayed by Biden’s historic commitment to Israeli security and the “special relationship” between the two countries. But the specter of a Biden presidency is at least as much of a deterrent for a major Israeli land-grab in the Palestinian territories as it is a reason for the Israeli government to act quickly.
Most of the Gulf Arab countries had grave doubts about the Obama administration and welcomed the victory of Donald Trump almost four years ago. On that basis and because of some of the concerns outlined above, many of them may continue to fret about the potential of a Biden presidency. The primary lesson may be that it was a mistake to become excessively identified with the Republican Party and the Trump administration when the partnership they value is with the United States, in general. History has firmly established a cyclical pattern for the transfer of power in the United States. While some outside players, most notably Israel, can rely on solid bases of domestic political support, most, including all of the Gulf Arab countries, lack that assurance.
Besides, the general trend toward an attenuation of global U.S. leadership and military engagement, and broad conflict fatigue – especially in the Middle East – which is shared by the political classes, the armed forces, and the public at large, will be a key factor, no matter who wins in November. Even though several Gulf countries are happier with the “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran under Trump than they were with the JCPOA under Obama, the new policy has not resulted in the easing of tensions or any improvement in Iran’s behavior. A generalized sense of disappointment with the United States that has been building for over 15 years persisted under Trump and was augmented by a disturbing sense of unpredictability. And, while some Democrats advocate greater U.S. disengagement, there are signs from Biden and his advisors that his administration would treat the Middle East as a region of continued importance for the United States and could seek a new U.S. diplomatic push to lower tensions and enhance stability across the board. So, there’s potentially much to work with in a Biden administration despite some of the potential sources of tension. There is no reason that Gulf countries wouldn’t find themselves as well, or better, aligned with a Biden presidency than a Trump second term.