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In Search of Purple Rain in the Middle East
Why the only effective pathway for US policy in the region combines blue and red approaches.
On August 10th, the press reported that President Biden had struck a tentative deal with Iran that would lead to the release of five Americans wrongfully imprisoned in Tehran. In return for releasing these hostages, the Biden administration arranged for South Korea to transfer $6 billion that it owes Iran to a Qatari bank. The Iranians would, in turn, be allowed to draw on those funds to pay for food and medicine only.
The response to the agreement was almost immediate and—with few exceptions—predictable. Democrats, who remain supportive of President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—aka the Iran nuclear deal) and President Biden’s efforts to revive the agreement after his predecessor pulled out of it were enthusiastic about bringing Americans home and limiting the sanctions relief the Iranians would enjoy. For Republicans, the deal amounted to little more than an elaborate ransom payment.
Both narratives conveniently overlook some inconvenient facts: First, Democrats surely understand that money is fungible—meaning the whatever resources the Iranian leadership does not have to spend on, say, food and medicine can be spent on whatever Ayatollah Khamenei wants including support for groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and pro-Tehran Iraqi militias. On the flip side, Republicans should know that George W. Bush’s administration oversaw the transfer of $300,000 of “private funds” in a failed attempt to win the release of two missionaries in the Philippines in 2002. For his part, Ronald Reagan regularly exchanged money, military hardware, and prisoners for hostages: he pushed the Israeli government to release hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian militants in exchange for 39 Americans held hostage on a Trans World Airways flight in Beirut in the summer of 1985, for instance, and about a year later his national security advisor showed up at Tehran’s airport with a cake and plane load of spare military parts intended to help free Americans that Iran’s allies were holding in Lebanon.
The reaction to Biden’s effort exemplified an unfortunate, under-appreciated dynamic in domestic debates over America’s role in the world, especially in the Middle East—namely that there’s little to recommend in the warring comms strategies that reflect Washington’s own political sectarianism grafted onto the contingent, complex, sliding-scale-shades-of-gray actual world.
This has produced an odd situation in which relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel as well as policies like pressuring Iran have become associated with Republicans while the JCPOA, improving relations with Iran, and addressing the Palestinian issue (if not support for the Palestinian cause itself) are identified with Democrats. Without a doubt, domestic politics and worldview have and always will influence the policies that elected leaders pursue, but for decades Washington’s approach to the Middle East was nevertheless often consistent from one administration to the other, allowing for modest differences in emphasis. Now, not only has the consensus around America’s traditional goals—ensuring the free flow of energy resources, supporting Israel, and preventing challenges to these interests—weakened, but there is very little room for deviation from closely held inside-the-Beltway orthodoxies.
Woe betide the young foreign policy analyst who also happens to be a Democrat and who publicly levels even mild criticism of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran! Similarly, there would likely be professional consequences for her Republican analogue who sees value in the JCPOA. Neither would likely be welcome among Washington’s tribal divisions which produce—to paraphrase from one of President Obama’s most stirring and famous lines—a Republican foreign policy and a Democratic foreign policy, but not an American foreign policy.
The result is a wild swing in the American approach to the region. The United States was in the JCPOA before being out of it, only to then try to get back into the deal. Likewise, Washington sought distance from its authoritarian partners in the region before it embraced them, but then once again sought to de-emphasize the region and these countries. That America’s political divide gets in the way of a constructive foreign policy should be self-evident in the litany of American failures in the Middle East in recent decades.
When President Biden took the oath of office, he seemed to accept the logic of the red-blue dynamic in his approach to the Middle East. He sought to re-enter the JCPOA, essentially declared Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) persona non-grata in Washington, kept other regional partners at arm’s length, and made a point of emphasizing that American values would be central to his administration’s approach to the world. To Republicans, President Biden was appeasing Iran and weakening Washington’s allies in the region. For Democrats, however, this was a constructive and rational approach to the Middle East, especially in comparison to the chaos of the previous administration, which seemed to have a strange yen for the region’s authoritarians, enabled the worst instincts of the Israeli right, and alternately talked tough about Iran, shied away from confrontation with Tehran, and provoked the Iranians.
President Biden deserves credit for trying to render his foreign policy consistent with the values and principles that shape American life. In an odd yet unfortunate way, though, this proved to be an obstacle to achieving Washington’s goals in the region. Indeed, it turns out that sometimes you need to deal with unsavory people. In May 2021, Biden relied on Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to help secure a ceasefire after 11 days of bombing and rocket attacks between Israel and Hamas. A few months later, Biden turned to MBS for help when oil and gasoline prices spiked beginning in the summer of 2021 and his parochial political interests intersected with America’s national interests.
When it came to great power competition in the region, the administration’s early emphasis on human rights combined with the loose talk in Washington about de-emphasizing the region to provide an opening for both Moscow and Beijing to deepen and extend their regional influence. No American president will give up public rhetoric about freedom and democracy, but there are ways to get the message across that Washington disapproves of the human rights records and practices of its regional partners without antagonizing those same said partners who the White House sought to enlist to contain Russian and Chinese power. The resulting tension encouraged the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and even to some extent, Israelis—none of whom were enthusiastic about choosing sides—to hedge with Moscow and Beijing. Under these circumstances, the odds of the United States prevailing in a regional competition with these major powers was low.
Since mid-2022, President Biden has clearly come to understand that, given Washington’s goals in the region, it was critical to eschew the red-blue frame for his Middle East policy. The White House has moved to repair relations with the Saudis, sought to security cooperation regionally, pushed normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and invested in telecommunications technology to discourage Washington’s partners from closer ties with Chinese companies. Some of this offends the sensibilities of human rights defenders, activists, and members of Congress, and rightly so. But it is a smart shift and is more likely to yield positive results than an ideologically-fueled approach that’s good for social media point scoring but unhelpful when it comes to protecting U.S. national interests.
Hard as it may be to admit, in the past Washington has been more successful in achieving its goals in the Middle East at the intersection of strategically tenable but morally challenging. Perhaps with domestic changes in politics, economics, technology, and culture, America’s interest in the Middle East will shift and policy in the region will not be so fraught.
In the meantime, President Biden’s recent initiative with Iran deserves to be debated. Too bad that won’t happen.
Steven A. Cook (@stevenacook) is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of several books on the Middle East. His next book, The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, comes out next year.