Former democratic candidate Barack Obama met General David Petraeus in Iraq, and they had an important conversation that had serious repercussions later on. At the time, Obama had declared that, if he wins the presidency, he will withdraw US forces from Iraq within 16 months. Petraeus replied that this withdrawal would create a vacuum that would be filled by Iran and Iranian militias. The Democratic candidate answered at the time that he is well aware of the geopolitical situation; however, the war has proven to be too costly, and the focus should be shifted towards serving internal US interests.
This can be seen as a reflection of Obama’s pragmatic strategic vision, which was demonstrated through his policies later on. US politicians on both sides, democrats and republicans share this approach in their dealings with the Middle East. Both sides now believe that the Middle East is no longer as significant to the US as it used to be in the past, and that the time has come to withdraw from it in order to focus on addressing other challenges in the East, specifically China.
Countries in the region must cooperate and learn to co-exist without relying on American intervention. Unlike in the past, the international system the US created after World War II can be managed by multi-polar powers. As Obama implied in an interview in the Atlantic, after continuously rushing to the rescue of US allies, Washington was asking them to coexist with one another. By understanding this complex vision, we can explain many of the events that took place, including the Iran nuclear deal that was concluded without consulting regional allies, the non-interference in Syria despite Russian military presence there, the failure to stand with its ally former President Mubarak in Egypt, and the unprecedented dispute with Israel.
Former President Trump brought with him a completely different strategy. During his administration, it was very clear who were the allies and who were the enemies. He reestablished strong relations with allies while taking a firm stance against opponents; he withdrew from the nuclear deal, killed Qasem Soleimani, and imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran. The hawks of the Trump administration clearly had plans to achieve their visions during Trump’s second term. The former president did not redeploy American troops to Iraq, but rather, attempted the withdrawal from Afghanistan for obvious electoral goals. However, he built up a momentum and created a space for US old allies to come together against common enemies. This led to the latest historic peace agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, which have altered the region completely. Trump’s strategy simply consisted of supporting allies and their rapprochement, keeping enemies surrounded, and maintaining the stability of the regional and international systems in general.
When former Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the possibility of Arab countries signing peace treaties with Israel before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved, he said loudly: “Let me clear… No, no, and no.” However, when Secretary of State Antony John Blinken was asked about such deals, he confirmed without hesitation that they had the support of the Biden administration. As for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, he also expressed his support without delay. He responded with a “yes, yes, and yes” to Kerry’s “no, no, and no.”
This is a realistic policy that reflects the fact that the balance of power has shifted. Nonetheless, it is important to try and understand the outlines of the new administration’s strategy as it reflects a pragmatic way of thinking that is different from that of the Obama administration. President Biden belongs to the classical school of foreign policy that supports the American alliances that shaped the world we live in today. This was clear in his statements and his support of the Abraham Accords and of Saudi’s actions to defend itself and protect its sovereignty. He also supported, unlike other Democrats, the Iraq war as he believed that Saddam Hussein, who was not an ally, was a destabilizing force. His disagreement with Trump was based on the fact that he believed that the latter weakened the alliance with Europe, which is also at the root of his frustration with Erdogan. Biden’s decision to stop pulling US troops from Afghanistan further confirms this idea. Biden is not an isolationist and does not wish to withdraw from the world; he is faithful to the old idea of the rise of American power and the liberal system. This is the reason behind his support of Bill Clinton in the war in the Balkans. Kerry’s “no” and Blinken’s “yes” express two different political ways of thinking that could have a big impact over the next four years.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al- Awsat.