How America can avoid taking a road to nowhere in the Middle East (again)
Three things Biden can do to have an impact in a troubled region without wrecking his overall agenda at home and abroad
In his first 100 days in office, President Biden correctly focused on the most urgent priorities facing the nation at home: the twin crises of the pandemic and economic pain. In the world, he prioritized China and climate change. This overall posture actually reflected most Americans’ priorities, based on recent polling. But as they often do, events in the Middle East are threatening to intrude on Biden’s best laid plans to build what his team calls a “foreign policy for the middle class.”
President Biden now finds himself stepping up his administration’s engagement in the Middle East in reaction to events. We've seen this movie before: after his re-election in November 2012, President Obama and his secretaries of state and defense were on a trip in Asia as part of the broad "rebalance" effort that was aimed at auguring this signal to a new focus to the wider competition. Then a different crisis in Gaza happened and forced Secretary of State Clinton to break off from that Asia tour and become more deeply involved as a mediator.
Likewise with the rise of the Islamic State: first derided by Obama himself as the “JV team” early on, the group’s actions and security threat spurred a set of political demands at home that led American troops back into Iraq. The candidate who won the Democratic primary and got elected in 2008 in large part on a slogan of "ending the war in Iraq" and promising to "change the mindset" that got America into the Iraq war found himself sending the U.S. military back to Iraq before he left office.
America to the Middle East: We Wish We Knew How to Quit You
Why does America get pulled back in the Middle East? There are two main reasons:
First, real world events create public demands for U.S. involvement, like it or not. Also, there's a certain path dependency in U.S. foreign policy that's hard to break because America has a set of relationships and commitments with other countries, some more formal and developed than others. This all makes things said on the campaign trail or on social media harder to actually implement in practice. Think tank seminars have the luxury of sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring certain ugly realities like terrorist groups firing missiles at places where many Americans live or have business or family ties.
Second, the ideas of pivoting from one region to another or simply coming home behind a "gated community" mindset like Trump tried ignores the reality that the world is very much interconnected. Just look at the recent jam up in the Suez Canal and the impact that had on global trade, or the more obvious case, the pandemic. We can try to ignore the world, including the Middle East, but it tugs us back in because it's much more interlinked than even many foreign policy experts recognize. Over the past two decades, the Middle East has become a critical hinge point in the main engines of the global economy, Europe, Asia and the United States.
Today's world isn't like the board game Risk, played on a map of the world with armies. It's more like Jenga, the game where you have to pull out a block from a tower of blocks without making the whole tower tumble. The Middle East is the block in the Jenga tower that can cause the most damage and if it's not handled well, it could lead to wider problems.
How the team manages the current crisis in the Middle East will determine whether it can have a constructive impact in that region while keeping its broader priorities in order. Three things it should do:
1. Get serious about putting diplomacy first.
The current conflict between Hamas and Israel will be resolved through diplomacy, and America has an important role given its broad sets of relationships across the region. Egypt and Qatar have connections and relationships with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the United States should work with them, Israel, and anyone else to try to forge a ceasefire.
Beyond this immediate crisis, putting diplomacy first means working with Palestinians to help reconstruct their politics in a way that gives greater voice to their people with leaders who will protect their rights and respond to their needs. The cancellation of the Palestinian elections this month was part of the factor that motivated Hamas to turn back to violence once again to seek political advantage. U.S. diplomacy on the Palestinian front should focus on helping the Palestinian people get the leadership that they deserve.
Across the region, putting diplomacy first means having a full diplomatic team empowered to fan out across the region and work with all of the countries and actors trying to shape the landscape. Diplomacy is the key tool for prioritizing conflict resolution and human rights.
President Biden’s initial diplomacy steps on the region have been limited, and the deep shift towards a “diplomacy first” strategy hasn’t yet occurred. On Iran, the Biden team has thus far found that making progress through diplomacy is easier said than done. In addition, nuclear diplomacy conducted in isolation from the regional security concerns of America’s partners or Iran’s own negative actions is unlikely to produce lasting results.
Similarly, giving a speech claiming that America will end the war in Yemen and appointing an envoy are one thing. Getting different forces inside of Yemen and regional actors who are involved in that conflict to negotiate a political settlement is quite another. Building peace is much more difficult than passing a non-binding piece of legislation in Congress demanding that the war ends. Finally, three months later, the "recalibration" of U.S.-Saudi ties looks less like a real shift in America’s relationship with Riyadh than a signaling exercise directed at domestic political constituencies.
These situations, plus many others like Syria and Libya, are ripe for new diplomatic approaches, but it all needs to be nested in a regional strategy that seeks to deescalate conflict in ways that boost America’s friends and diminish the influence of America’s rivals and adversaries.
2. Back up diplomacy with a more balanced and reliable regional security policy.
Some of America’s rivals and adversaries actually want to kill Americans and some of their closest partners in the Middle East. It’s a fact some dispute and others would like to ignore. These actors use force, violence, and terror to gain advantage and expand their influence, which is a part of what is going on right now in the Gaza conflict.
The formula advanced by some who want big shifts in U.S. security strategy quite often actually doesn’t add up: demand regional security partners take up more responsibility for their own affairs and help protect Americans too, criticize them strongly and publicly for what they do, and then fade to the background and pretend like a new regional equilibrium will magically fall into place.
A better formula for a balanced U.S. regional security strategy would involve building more trust and confidence in those relationships, rather than downgrading them, but then use those trusted conversations to produce real progress on security, values, and human rights. A more balanced U.S. regional security strategy would mean ending the blank checks given to regional security partners who are flawed and commit horrible human rights abuses. Diplomacy backed by a balanced regional security strategy should go hand-in-hand.
3. Listen to critics and take suggestions, but don’t put much stock in them if they don’t have practical ideas.
One interesting feature in America's domestic foreign policy debate has appeared in recent years: an emerging coalition of voices on the left and right that has styled itself as the new vanguard of foreign policy thinking raging against the machine of the military industrial complex and calling for some form of retrenchment or "restraint." But when you look more closely at their ideas and move beyond the advocacy on Twitter you see that it's mostly a coalition of the confused that knows more what it's against than what it stands for in the real world. That’s especially true on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
This current episode in the Middle East - and Biden's handling of the region in the first 100 days - shows the limits of the approach advanced by "restraint" advocates and some on Biden’s own foreign policy team. In one acute irony, many of the voices who called for a policy of restraint in the Middle East are now the loudest for America to "do more" on this crisis, whether at the UN or by conjuring a ceasefire out of thin air via official press statements and criticisms of regional security partners just as their people are being attacked by extremist groups.
Governments, armed factions, and other political actors will test the limits of their power and do things to keep their people safe in ways that destabilize the situation and sometimes contradict our values. America often then wakes up and realizes it has to involve itself or things could get worse.
With the eruption of renewed conflict in the Middle East, the Biden administration is now scrambling and trying to play catch up and it finds itself in a posture that the Obama administration found itself in several times: a tactical, reactive, crisis management posture that makes it impossible to let the Middle East just take care of itself while America pivots to wider strategic challenges.
America’s real strategic challenge isn't whether to "engage" or "disengage" in the Middle East, but rather it's how to set the terms for a new type of engagement that produces greater stability in a way that is consistent with our values and improves the lives of the people in the region. That means putting diplomacy first – a diplomacy that’s backed by a balanced regional security approach.