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President Biden’s Historic Wartime Visit to the Middle East
America engages the Middle East as it is, not the one it wishes it had.
All eyes will be on President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East tomorrow.
This trip wasn’t planned until the horrific October 7 terror attack against Israel, an atrocity that set into motion a chain of events in the region that could still spiral further out of control. Biden’s visit to Israel will underscore the strong show of support already given to Israel’s defense in the face of ongoing threats, and he will also reinforce multiple diplomatic efforts to secure the release of hostages and protect innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of a new Middle East war.
In navigating this challenge, the Biden team needs to make the domestic political case for a steadier, long-term approach in America’s Middle East policy—a difficult challenge in ordinary circumstances, but one all the more complicated at a time when far too many voices at on both left and right seem inclined to deny the humanity of one side of the conflict or another.
The Biden administration has mostly ignored the calls from the far left and right in America to disengage from the Middle East altogether over the past three years. But at the same time, the Biden team has not implemented a fully coherent approach of strategic re-engagement in the region. This crisis offers an opportunity to bring strategic and moral clarity to America’s engagement in the Middle East, something that has been missing in action for decades in both Democratic and Republican administrations. But the current moment is fraught with risks, too.
Right now, the United States faces the central challenge of devising a set of coherent, realistic medium- and long-term goals for the region as it seeks to address the immediate challenges of the war in Gaza and the potential for wider escalation.
That’s a tall order, one that’s eluded every American presidential administration since the end of the Cold War. It’s made even more difficult by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and continued tensions with China over Taiwan. Though it has done well so far, the Biden administration will need to continue to make the case for American engagement in the Middle East as the region enters an uncertain and risky period ahead.
Military moves and regional security measures
Since October 7, the Pentagon surged ships and aircraft to the Middle East in a clear effort to deter Iran and its regional allies from intervening in the conflict between Israel and Hamas or otherwise taking advantage of it to advance their own interests. Two aircraft carrier strike groups have been ordered to the eastern Mediterranean, while additional Air Force F-15E and A-10 fighters have been sent to bases across the Middle East. Of the eleven aircraft carriers currently in service, four are now deployed or set to be deployed—two to the Mediterranean and two in the Pacific.
These moves do not appear to have strained the U.S. military too much, at least in the near term. The USS Gerald R. Ford—the aircraft carrier currently in the eastern Mediterranean—was in the midst of a routine deployment that began in May, for instance, while the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower—the second carrier ordered to the region by the Pentagon—was scheduled to go to sea before the current crisis. However, questions about the overuse of America’s carrier fleet over the past decade and the U.S. Navy’s ongoing ship maintenance issues will further exacerbate worries about America’s ability to deter or confront multiple worldwide crises over the long haul.
Of greater immediate concern is America’s capacity to produce sufficient arms and ammunition for its allies. The war in Ukraine exposed dangerous shortcomings in America’s ability to mass produce all sorts of weapons, most notably artillery shells. The United States has already shipped additional Iron Dome air defense interceptors and precision-guided weapons to Israel, and the Biden administration is calling on Congress to pass an emergency security assistance package for both Israel and Ukraine.
A diplomatic surge seeks to reinforce U.S relationships at a time of uncertainty
The Biden administration complemented these military deployments with a round of crisis diplomacy led by Secretary of State Blinken, who engaged some of America’s closest partners including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and several Arab Gulf states. The main goal of this diplomacy was to try and forge cooperation on some key issues including humanitarian aid and support to Palestinian civilians, as well as plan for the next phases of this unpredictable conflict.
President Biden’s visit to Israel was confirmed only after hours of intensive diplomacy by Secretary Blinken in recent days to secure commitments on a set of humanitarian measures to address the growing security challenges for millions of Gazans caught in harm’s way by efforts to eliminate the threats posed by Hamas. Biden will also travel to Jordan to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi—three leaders central to forging a diplomatic pathway forward to deal with the fallout from the war and start working on a more sustainable end game.
As the United States steps up its diplomatic role in the region in response to this crisis, it should start outlining the contours of the desired end state of all of this engagement. One risk in reactive, crisis diplomacy is that it can often lose sight of the bigger picture—simply eliminating Hamas, as Israel seeks to do, is incomplete and insufficient.
The Biden team should quietly start working with its partners in the region on a plan for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that brings together the other elements of its Middle East policy agenda before this war started, including the possible Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, an effort to help countries of the region integrate their security and economic policies, and a massive effort to create infrastructure projects linking the region together and with the rest of the world. War will dominate the next few weeks or months, but thinking and planning for the aftermath should begin now.
Forging a new domestic consensus on foreign policy on the Middle East
As it manages the crisis in the region and works to build a new framework for U.S. engagement, the Biden team should continue communicating clearing to the American public, a key center of gravity in any major foreign policy initiative like the one underway now.
Public opinion data on unexpected, ongoing events like the Hamas terrorist attack and the subsequent conflict in Gaza will necessarily be incomplete. But the polls that do exist indicate strong support for Israel and its response among the American public alongside sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people.
In an October 12-13 CNN/SSRS poll, for instance, half of all Americans viewed Israel’s military response as “fully justified,” with a further 21 percent calling it “partially justified.” Likewise, in an October 11 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll two-thirds of Americans said the United States should publicly support Israel—with just eight percent saying the United States should publicly criticize Israel.
At the same time, 87 percent of Americans in the CNN/SSRS poll said they felt either “a lot” (41 percent) or “some” (46 percent) sympathy for the Palestinian people. These results tend to hold across party lines in the same poll, with just over three-quarters of Republicans expressing at least some sympathy for the Palestinian people and 69 percent of Democrats feeling that Israel’s military response to Hamas atrocities is at least partially justified.
While its voters remain generally more supportive of Israel, the Republican Party has found itself unable to maintain a coherent position on the conflict. The party’s frontrunner, former president Donald Trump, used the occasion to attack Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly insufficient Israeli support for the U.S. strike against Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in 2020 and repeatedly proclaimed Lebanese Hezbollah to be “very smart.” Chaos in the GOP-led House of Representatives as it chooses a new speaker will make it even more difficult than usual to pass an emergency security assistance package for Israel.
For their part, Democrats have enjoyed the political advantage of holding the presidency and therefore being able to articulate a coherent position on the conflict. President Biden has taken a strong line in support of Israel, and for the most part Democrats have not challenged it. The seemingly gleeful reaction by many on the fringe left to the grotesque atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, moreover, has left these voices even more marginalized in U.S. politics, at least for the time being. But the death and destruction involved in an Israeli military campaign in Gaza could make the debate on the left more complicated.
Right now, though, the American public broadly supports Israel while maintaining sympathy for the Palestinian people. This remains a very uncertain moment, however, and American public opinion could change substantially given developments on the ground in Israel, Gaza, and indeed the region as a whole. But there does seem to be a pathway to build political support from the center—the American people by and large do not agree with extreme views on the conflict that attribute all blame to one side and given the other a complete pass for whatever actions they may or may not take. This crisis has exposed just how unreliable and out-of-step different parts of the U.S. political spectrum, both left and right, are on this issue.
Next steps for U.S. policy
In the immediate term, U.S. policy toward this crisis should have four main components:
Security and military. The United States should continue to send the message through both words and actions that America has the back of its partners across the region as they face threats. America’s goal here is to deter Iran, Hezbollah, and other actors from intervening directly in the conflict between Israel and Hamas or opening up other fronts across the region—in short, to prevent the current crisis from escalating into a wider regional war. No other global power is either willing or capable of playing this role; Europe remains rightly focused on the threat posed by Russia, Moscow itself has clearly aligned with Iran and its supporters, and China does not possess the ability or inclination to do so. Similarly, it stands in contrast to many in the self-proclaimed progressive camp who would prefer the United States abdicate any and all responsibilities it has for regional and indeed global security.
Diplomacy. The Biden administration will need to shift focus away the proactive agenda of Saudi-Israel normalization and the IMEC regional infrastructure scheme and towards the management of the immediate crises. Some key components of this diplomatic push include: a joint political and diplomatic strategy between the U.S. and its regional to address how Hamas and other affiliated groups are discussed and dealt with as the war moves ahead; prioritizing support for the Palestinian Authority and creating pathways for Palestinian leaders who seek to respond to their people’s concerns through non-violent means; and inoculating against Iranian attempts to undercut the fragile cohesion among America’s regional partners.
Humanitarian relief. The appointment of veteran diplomat David Satterfield as special envoy for regional humanitarian issues marks an important step in the right direction, but humanitarian needs will continue to grow exponentially—meaning a regional and international framework to support Palestinians and others displaced or affected by the fighting needs to be incorporated into any diplomatic push. However, re-opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to allow Palestinians to flee from and humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza should remain a top immediate priority for Satterfield and his team.
Long-term policy planning. As it navigates the complicated currents of the present moment, the Biden team should set a policy planning effort into motion that envisions a clearer end state for regional stability and prosperity—one that outlines what a two-state solution might look like, who would govern the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and how this vision might connect with the regional normalization and integration projects the administration was working on prior to this war.
The Biden administration didn’t anticipate spending so much time on another Middle East war or dealing with its aftershocks, but events have forced it to increase its engagement in the region. Ten days into this crisis, it has responded capably and prepared the American public for a risky, uncertain period ahead. But it needs to continue clearly communicating its moves to the American public and outlining what’s at stake in order to maintain support for U.S. involvement.
President Biden’s visit and its outcomes can set a new framework to address long-standing challenges and threats as it deals with the immediate crisis, but it comes with many risks at an uncertain geopolitical time.