The Middle East braces for Biden shift

Biden can be expected to lower the flames of the overheated global conversation, but it is in the Middle East where real change might be immediate.

President Donald Trump talks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the Truman Balcony at the White House during the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, Sept. 15, 2020 (photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES/JTA)
President Donald Trump talks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the Truman Balcony at the White House during the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, Sept. 15, 2020
The transition to a President Biden will bring a dramatic shift to America’s relationship with allies and adversaries all over the world, but perhaps nowhere will the impact be felt as strongly as in the Middle East.
That’s because while President Trump’s sneering at allies such as the European Union and coddling of dictators from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong Un could be seen as mostly (if shockingly) rhetorical, he actually upended decades of US policy in the world’s most combustible region.
Trump was transformative on issues from the Israel-Palestine conflict to Arab democracy, ignored human rights concerns like none before him, binned global conventions and US obligations, and projected the idea that under his watch and in his America, all that mattered was transaction.
The results are mixed, and not as uniformly horrific as his detractors would claim.
When Trump took office in 2017, much of the region was in flames. The Islamic State terrorist group was in control of swaths of Iraq and Syria, war raged in Yemen, militias controlled much of Libya, and terrorists had the run of Sinai.
Four years later, Islamic State has been routed and across the region there is somewhat more stability, of the sort that attaches to authoritarian suppression. Iran’s dangerous Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Islamic State’s demonic leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are gone and not widely missed. Three Muslim nations are now at peace with Israel, whose dangerous plans to annex parts of the West Bank were shelved in exchange.
That’s not a good record if one is living under the boot of the Russia-supported Bashar Assad regime in Syria, where Trump did nothing to prevent a dictator from laying waste to his country in a furious bid to stay in power. But overall, considering Trump’s amorality and disinterest in details, it could have been worse.
Biden can be expected to lower the flames of the overheated global conversation and start acting like a friend to allies and as a rival to adversaries, but it is in the Middle East where real change might be immediate. Here are some ways that might happen.
Human rights will matter again
The United States was never quite as much the force for good in the world that some Americans like to think, and Trump was not the first US leader to let his view of US interests drive his actions. But few presidents before him were quite so comfortable projecting that principles are for losers and decency is for suckers.
This opened the door to strongman politics all over, including in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi brought economic reforms and social stability while stamping out opposition and jailing critics (inspiring Trump, in a rare display of humor, to dub him “my favorite dictator”).
Pressure to tolerate dissent will almost certainly resume across the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can expect demands for an end-game in the war against Houthis in Yemen, a protracted and messy affair that has proved a humanitarian disaster. It comes at an interesting time, when internal pressure for reform is already growing, and the new generation of Gulf leaders is more open.
Biden is not likely to resume the Obama administration’s flirtation with political Islam – a policy driven by acquiescence to the perceived preference of the Arab street but widely misunderstood in the region as reflecting a bias for the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, expect hope that the youth, desperate for jobs, will choose liberalism as the antidote to stifling tradition, however, that’s a hope that might be dashed.
Back to engaging Iran
Trump’s obsession for walking away from the world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (known by the unwieldy title Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was probably motivated by an irrepressible desire to be the anti-Obama (a goal which has been impressively attained).
The main argument against the deal was the problematic hypothesis that the 10-year time-frame (and 15 years for some provisions) meant approval for Iran to thereafter build a bomb (even though the intention, obviously, was to extend the deal). Trump’s decision to walk away from a US commitment harmed America’s credibility and gave Iran moral high ground to resume enrichment. That’s why Israel’s security establishment tended to reluctantly support the deal.
Biden is likely to try to revive the deal, aiming for a longer time-frame and tighter inspection. It’s not clear if Iran will play along, and the move will risk upsetting America’s allies in the Gulf and across the Sunni world (arms deals will continue unabated, though perhaps with less of the inelegant relish). He should also take care to not encourage stepped-up Iranian shenanigans in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.
Back to the future: The two-state solution
The two-state solution for Israel-Palestine is much misunderstood, contributing to its failure. Journalists and diplomats present partition of the Holy Land as justice for the Palestinians, but mainly it’s a device to save Israel. That’s because Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza make up a natural territorial unit that at present houses 14 million people evenly split between Jews and Arabs, and it will eventually have an Arab majority that could hope to wrest power from the Zionists.
That is why while the Palestinians complain bitterly about Israel’s undemocratic and often cruel occupation, even moderates among them never rush to accept Israeli offers to end it. It’s why the most strategic Israeli nationalists – including virtually the entire security establishment and intelligentsia – support partition.
Partition is opposed in Israel by the super-religious, for whom the West Bank is God-given; the undemocratic, for whom the Palestinians can forever be vassals: and people traumatized by the prospect of rockets from the West Bank, a fear that should not be dismissed. Trump has supported this coalition without question.
Unlike presidents Clinton and Obama, Trump wasted no breath explaining to Israelis what’s good for them, cared not a fig for the outrage of Palestinians used to at least lip service for their cause, and was happy to please his Christian Evangelical base by advancing the End of Days, which for now requires support for the suicidal Israeli Right.
No new wars
What will probably not change is the disinterest in starting new wars.
If anything, Biden might accelerate Trump’s own efforts to wind down the US military’s two decades in Afghanistan, even if the price is acquiescence to a large governance role for the Taliban.
Trumpism was isolationist at its core. Biden is more of a globalist shaped by America’s role in rebuilding civilization after the destruction of World War II. He might find himself in greater conflict with Russia, considering the competing interests in the region and the coming end of Trump’s bizarre acquiescence to Putin.
But he will probably be profoundly aware that America’s divisions and dysfunctions leave little energy for fighting other people’s wars in deserts half a world away.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press; he served as the chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem, and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him on Twitter at @Perry_Dan.