In the face of heightened uncertainty, it is safe to say that even US President-elect Joe Biden himself is unsure about the details of the policies he will adopt to address the challenges awaiting him upon taking office on January 20.
While no one can deny that all seasoned statesmen have their firm convictions that cannot be dismissed overnight, and that Biden has held the second most senior position in the world’s most powerful office for eight years after serving in the US Senate between 1973 and 2009; we must remember that Biden has been unwavering in his pragmatic approach to politics and he has never been driven by ideological agendas.
Moreover, no matter how experienced a leader is, it would be widely unrealistic to assume that he will have all the answers regarding all the details of his domestic and foreign policies. This is why senior advisors play vital roles in ‘influencing’ and crystallizing the president’s decisions. We have witnessed this with previous presidents in the past; for instance, George W. Bush, was greatly influenced by his Vice President Dick Cheney.
Furthermore, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Democratic Senator George Mitchell, the Senate majority leader, have both shaped many of Bill Clinton’s views, and even before that, during George H. W. Bush’s presidency we have noted the influence of James Baker and General Brent Scowcroft in addition to many other prominent figures.
For this reason, it is important to pay attention to the team Biden is assembling particularly in the area of foreign affairs. It is noteworthy that the president-elect previously chaired the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee between 2007 and 2009.
Biden, who is of Irish origin and Catholic faith, has close relations with European leaders, and he has considerable experience in Middle Eastern matters.
So far, it seems clear that Joe Biden will not follow in the footsteps of Donald Trump and he will disregard Trump’s dangerous isolationism represented by his temperamental “America First” policy that failed to follow a solid strategy based on the data at hand.
Upon analyzing the statements made by the elected president, some of his advisers and those close to him, it shows that he is planning on turning over a new leaf by reinstating positive relations with the US’s traditional European allies.
In my opinion, Europe will serve as the first telling indicator that will reveal Washington’s new policies. In this regard, the European Union, which expanded in the aftermath of the Cold War, is facing a worrying rise of a new Russia. This has been noted in Ukraine, Georgia, and even in Syria, not to mention the cyberwarfare Moscow is waging against Western societies by interfering in their elections and sponsoring radical organizations.
Personally, I believe that the new Democratic administration will pay more attention to strengthening US-EU relations especially when it comes to dealing with the Russian challenge. The same will apply to Biden’s dealings with the Far East regarding the Chinese challenge.
In an interesting turn of events, a few days ago, the Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe warned that China poses the biggest threat to America’s national security and that the US needs to take this ‘threat’ more seriously.
Indeed, the Chinese growing presence in the Far East and Africa is tangible and it is expanding rapidly and steadily elsewhere in the world.
Following Russia and China, the third area of strategic importance for the United States outside the Western Hemisphere, is the Middle East and North Africa. In this regard, there are several key issues that are a top priority for the US, the most prominent of which are: oil, Israel’s security, terrorism, and immigration.
Perhaps those well-versed in the region’s affairs are well aware that the main key to these four major issues is controlled, firstly by the four regional powers, namely: Arab states - despite their long-standing divisions - Israel, Iran and Turkey; and secondly by the Russian and Chinese intervention in the region.
During the Obama administration, in which Joe Biden played an important role, many difficult decisions were made, some were right; however, there is no denying that the majority were grave mistakes with disastrous consequences that far outweigh any victory the administration claimed to achieve.
The Obama administration took a major gamble by striking a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, mistakenly assuming that it was relatively moderate.
However, this deal was highly flawed for several reasons, the most important of which is Obama’s ill-informed, unfounded presumption of Iran’s democracy and moderation completely disregarding the expansionist policies of the theocratic regime with its heavy reliance on militia groups.
This deal turned a blind eye to Iran’s long history of breaching agreements and lying to the international community about the details of their nuclear project.
The Iran nuclear deal focused on purely technical issues while completely disregarding the political implications of this nuclear project. Consequently, the Obama administration handed Iran the key to achieving its political aspirations on a silver platter by granting it the opportunity to rapidly acquire nuclear weapons.
By serving the interests of Tehran and its sectarian expansionist aspirations that seek to spread its hegemony from Iraq to Yemen through Syria and Lebanon, Washington has made an enemy of the Sunni majority in these countries and others in the Arab world.
This animosity has resulted in fortifying the radicalization of “Sunni political Islam.” In order to justify its deal with Tehran, the US has demonized political Islam including Hamas.
This opened the door for the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to enter the arena in defense of the “oppressed Sunnis.” It also shattered the image of Palestinian moderation - and with it the chances for a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian cause. This pushed the Israeli right-wing Likud to justify its intransigence and aggression by claiming the need to confront Iranian expansionism.
As we know, in stark contrast to the bitter disappointment of the Obama era, Donald Trump has come up with a completely new and different approach, at least on the surface. The first step was what could be understood as “disciplinary” strikes in Syria, followed by statements that revealed no intentions of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Then, the second and much stronger blow against Iran, was the US’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the tightening of sanctions. Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran continued and early in 2020, we witnessed the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the “Quds Force,” a wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and finally the assassination of the senior nuclear official, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Regarding Iran, some might say that the Trump administration has taken the right approach. However, Trump’s firm adoption of Likud policies, including his support for Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights; his decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; as well as ensuring that the US’s friendly relations are limited to Arab states that maintain good relations with Benjamin Netanyahu on a personal level instead of the Israeli government as a whole has greatly contributed to deepening Iran’s political gains.
This approach allowed Iran to compensate politically for what it has lost economically. Consequently, Trump’s adoption of Likud policies has cost both Arabs and Israelis their chances of reaching an agreement and establishing real lasting peace based on the concept of coexistence.
With his approach, Trump has planted many landmines in the region, and defusing them will prove to be very tricky in the future.
For this reason, many analysts have pinned their hopes on the Biden administration avoiding making the same mistakes by steering away from extremism in all its forms in the region, whether it comes from the Iranian, Arab, Israeli or Turkish side.
Under the Biden administration, we are hoping that the values of coexistence, tolerance, mutual respect, and acceptance will be highlighted while completely abandoning hegemonic aspirations promoted under the pretext of religious “legitimacy.”
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.