Washington’s Middle East policy is unlikely to see major change regardless of the outcome of the US presidential elections in November, analysts and former US government officials say.
While Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and incumbent President Donald Trump have already set out contrasting visions for the country ahead of the November 3 election date, US foreign policy in the Middle East has not been the campaign focus so far.
According to experts, Middle East policy is likely to see little change whether under a Trump or Biden administration – although there are some policy differences between two candidates.
A range of policy analysts and experts told Al Arabiya English that Washington’s policy toward Iran might be the most significant difference.
Biden has said that he would return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, reached during the Obama administration but later abandoned by the Trump administration, which accuses Iran of failing to halt its destabilizing regional activities.
But Biden’s approach is not guaranteed to change Iran’s behavior or policies vis-à-vis the use of its proxies and militias in foreign countries.
His approach will depend on Iran’s reaction, according to Robert Danin, a former senior State Department and National Security Council official.
“It will have to be played out,” said Danin, a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
In contrast, a second Trump term would mean maintaining the current maximum pressure sanctions campaign against Iran.
According to Paul Salem, president of the DC-based Middle East Institute, this approach could force Iran to negotiate “because they can’t survive” under the current circumstances.
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates
The difference between the Democratic and Republican approach to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is “not profound,” said Salem.
“[The US and Gulf countries] need each other and there are common interests between the sides,” he said, adding that there will be no significant change.
“There are enduring US interests that are facts of life, which no US president can reinvent or fully ignore,” Salem said.
He cites the continued importance of trade and energy flows through the Gulf, Red Sea, and Suez Canal “regardless of how much shale the US produces.”
But Karen Young, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said that a Biden presidency and Democrat-majority Senate might have different policy priorities in the region.
Former US Ambassador to Morocco Ed Gabriel echoed Young that there would be a different emphasis and “balance of interests” for US policy in the Arabian Gulf if Biden were elected.
Danin, like Salem, said that US interests endure in Gulf security and Saudi Arabia’s stability.
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon
The officials and analysts do not see a major shift in counterterrorism tactics and expect the war on terrorism to remain a challenge.
Both Trump and Biden see the best thing for the US – in agreement with Iraq – is to maintain a limited but significant presence in Iraq to counterbalance Iran, Salem says.
Young believes that both Trump and Biden are weary of US military engagement in the region and “both are hesitant to commit more military or economic resources to Iraq.”
As for Syria and Lebanon, Young says neither Trump nor Biden have indicated much interest.
The recent announcement of the US Caesar Act, which looks to cut off revenues from reaching the Assad regime and his allies, went into effect on June 17.
And with the bipartisan support for the sanctions legislation, there appears to be little variation between Trump and Biden’s approach. There is currently no pathway for any future US administration to undo the legislation.
Last July, Biden pledged to end “forever wars” that the US was involved in. However, Obama, Trump, and their predecessors all vowed to do the same. Therefore, it appears likely that there will be some continuity despite this rhetoric.
“There has been some shared reluctance to want to continue US involvement in open-ended conflicts in the region,” Danin said.
In Lebanon, sanctions will continue under either president. Republicans have tended to argue for a more aggressive sanctions policy, although the Trump administration has held back on sanctions beyond Hezbollah.
The threat of this changing remains.
Gabriel pointed to the current administration’s activeness, “putting forth strong proposals for Lebanon and its sovereignty.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s widely criticized plans to annex the West Bank are set to begin July 1. If they go ahead, little will remain to be discussed on the US mediating role.
Biden has hinted that he would be less tolerant of Israeli land-grabs, but while he may change the “way he talks … there will be no real movement there,” Salem said.
Resuming talks with the Palestinian Authority and reversing Trump’s decision to stop funding the UN refugee agency for Palestinians might be all that Biden could salvage if elected.
“This is a strange, unprecedented and unusual period in American diplomacy,” said Danin, adding that under Biden, there would be a return to “a more traditional US position somewhere between both sides.”
Post COVID-19 America and more focus on domestic issues
The US that entered the COVID-19 pandemic will be different and more inward looking, noted the analysts.
According to Salem, economic recovery and jobs will be the focus with no appetite in Congress or among the public for international aid adventures. “Policy will be limited,” he said.
Danin – who served under every administration from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama – has seen transitions from campaigning to governing, which is “very sobering.”
“You campaign against your predecessor’s policies, come into power and realize it’s much murkier and you realize you have to govern, not get elected,” he said. “I saw it under Obama and every other president.”
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