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Why U.S. Foreign Policy Needs More Coalition Building at Home
Biden’s re-engagement in the Middle East is more likely to achieve lasting results by trying to build, rather than fragment, domestic coalitions.
Media reports that the Biden administration is committing diplomatic efforts in trying to broker a deal to open up ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia while also making progress on the Palestinian front caught many by surprise, especially given where the Biden team started on the Middle East.
In his first major foreign policy address as president, Biden barely mentioned the Middle East and his administration was slow to staff up its Middle East policy team. When the 2021 Gaza war broke out, it was clear from its bare minimum-level response that the administration was paying more attention to the president’s first overseas trip to Europe and meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin than to that conflict and the Middle East writ large.
That was then, and this is now. More than two years later, the United States is stepping up security measures to reinforce stability in the Middle East. In addition, the Biden team is now seeking progress by brokering a new opening in the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. U.S. diplomatic efforts on the Israel-Saudi front face many challenges, with at least five factors shaping the chances for success, as I outlined in this separate analysis.
These moves by the Biden team, combined with the president’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia last year, go against the grain of where he started his time in office—and where many voices on the far left and right wanted the United States to head with its Middle East policy. While the rationale for strategic re-engagement in the Middle East has been sound for years—particularly given growing geopolitical competition with China and Russia—America’s own oft-blinkered debate dwelled on what the country shouldn’t do in that part of the world rather than what it should do. That’s led to missed opportunities to better integrate the region and link it more closely to the global grid in ways beyond energy exports and arms sales.
Crumbling dream palaces of advocacy campaigns on the left and right in America
The Biden administration’s stepped-up engagement in the Middle East, particularly with two countries that have generated so much controversy and heated political debates here at home in recent years, serves as a reminder of who’s winning and who’s losing in recent debates about U.S. policy in the Middle East—and it’s not those isolationist voices on the left and right calling for pulling back and retreating, at least for now.
As I watch this deepening diplomatic engagement, I’m reminded of a discussion in the fall of 2019, when a U.S.-based advocacy group hosted a roundtable that brought together former Obama administration officials, left-leaning think tank analysts and advocates, and some congressional staff in what was billed as a “strategy” meeting. But this gathering wound up as more of a therapy session with many participants venting about what they opposed rather than mapping out a clear plan for shaping the debate in America about the Middle East.
In that session, a former senior Obama administration official praised calls at the time by a handful Democratic presidential candidates to restrict some U.S. military aid to Israel in order to encourage the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and patted some advocacy voices on the head for having fundamentally “changed the debate.” Thinking back to that session and other similar discussions, articles, and advocacy efforts and then measuring all of that activity against what actually happened in the region during the past four years, it’s clear how disconnected from the realities of the Middle East region and America’s politics many left-leaning former officials, analysts, and advocates were. The phrase “getting high on their own supply” comes to mind.
In the second half of the Trump administration and first part of the Biden administration, self-styled progressives and right-leaning “restraint” voices made similar recommendations for U.S. policy in the Middle East:
Draw down U.S. troops and winnow (if not eliminate) America’s military presence in the region;
Immediately re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to establish a new regional equilibrium;
Downgrade ties with long-standing U.S. partners in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and selected partners in the Gulf;
Continue to do little or nothing about Syria’s civil war, even after years of atrocities killed hundreds of thousands of people and produced millions of refugees that reshaped politics in Europe;
Downplay the continued threats from terrorist networks like the Islamic State and instead shift the focus to domestic white supremacist extremist threats;
Use the leverage of cutting off military cooperation and ties with partners combined with more vocal criticisms to “end the war” in Yemen, resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and also improve the human rights records of these countries—all while America disengages from the region;
Challenge and work to undermine bipartisan support for U.S. foreign policy at home by engaging in tactics that undercut trust and relationships among the foreign policy expert class, sometimes derisively known as the “Blob.”
It’s not surprising that this formula didn’t achieve any tangible results or gains for the people of the region. That’s because it was so unmoored from the realities of the Middle East. In many ways, it was the apotheosis of neo-Orientalism: using the people and countries of the region as mere props in our own social and political debates at home. It also failed to forge a new consensus at home about America’s foreign policy.
In stepping up its diplomatic engagement in the Middle East while also making moves to enhance the security of partners in the region, the Biden administration is wisely ignoring the confused calls from those who offer abstract, academic ideas with little practical relevance for policymaking or the people of the region.
Toward a Long-Term Political Plan to Support U.S. Engagement
Efforts to achieve diplomatic progress in today’s Middle East remain fraught with many risks, and the odds of quick success are slim for reasons that I examined in detail here. But it’s important for the Biden team to make the attempt and do it right. That means building in enough time to let diplomacy play out while also charting a pathway that builds domestic political support in America, as Biden has mostly done for his policies on Russia and China.
The Biden team can shift gears so quickly on this front because the Middle East policy debate doesn’t matter as much as it used to with ordinary voters. Unless there’s a major conflict with huge costs to the United States, most voters simply aren’t paying attention to the Middle East the way they once did in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks or the 2003 Iraq war. Elite voices on campuses and advocacy groups centered in the DC Beltway may feel passionately about Iran, Yemen, Israel or Palestine, but most Americans are either indifferent or apathetic about the region. In any case, these loud and extreme voices often fail to achieve much because they know what they oppose rather than what they support and often aim to break down relationships and trust rather than building coalitions to get positive things done.
Even in the unlikely event that the Biden team achieves some meaningful progress between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it probably won’t offer an immediate payoff in terms of domestic political gains for Biden. Recall that Trump hosted a historic ceremony marking the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco just weeks before he lost his 2020 re-election bid.
America now has an opportunity to move beyond this past decade of excessive tribalism and sectarianism in its foreign policy, including the Middle East. It won’t be easy, and trying to do so between now and November 2024 is probably mission impossible. But a long-term strategy for building new coalitions at home for U.S. foreign policy is likely to achieve better results than those seeking to fragment and divide America. Many of the major achievements Biden has seen on the domestic and foreign policy fronts thus far have come from forging a modicum of bipartisan consensus on key issues. Given the sharp divisions within the Republican and Democratic parties, doing so these days requires a “trans-partisan” approach. If new efforts to forge such coalitions in America’s Middle East debates are grounded in the actual realities of the region and prioritize things often ignored in U.S. policy debates (like the people of the region, including Palestinians), then they might help produce progress on the ground.
A recent modest yet important effort to forge a bipartisan approach to U.S. policy in the Middle East is found in new legislation proposed by a group of prominent Democratic and Republican Senators to support U.S. diplomatic efforts advancing greater regional integration and cooperation. Introduced last month, the Regional Integration and Normalization Act offers small but practical steps for stepping up America’s diplomatic engagement in the Middle East. It’s an important proposal that could rebalance what has been a heavily militarized approach to the region, one worth serious consideration.
It will take many years to put the pieces in place for substantial progress in the broader Middle East, and the United States can play an important role despite its many missteps of the past few decades. But one key ingredient for long-term success starts at home: building relationship capital and trust across ideological and partisan lines and seeking to persuade others to change their views to accept another’s perspective.