In 2008, candidate Barack Obama promised that, if elected president, he would pull US troops out of Iraq in six months, which would have been mid-2009. Yet Obama instead did not withdraw the troops until the end of 2011, and ended up sending back a few thousand soldiers in 2014. Reality shapes policy and, in the case of Obama, it turned his ambitious anti-war election talk into less glamorous policy.
President Donald Trump similarly talked of reversing Obama’s entire Middle East approach, but only did so on Iran. While Democratic candidate Joe Biden has similarly promised to undo Trump’s foreign policy, it is unlikely that Biden will do so, except in minor ways, like on Iran and Turkey.
While American presidents have some freedom to direct foreign policy, they rarely stray away from the guidelines dictated by US national interests and recommended by specialized agencies. If elected president, Biden will likely tweak Trump’s Middle East policy slightly, but will not depart from it substantially.
Biden will likely follow both Obama and Trump by maintaining a bipartisan policy on the Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The Democrats and Trump have only differed on Iran and Turkey.
Under a Biden presidency, GCC countries will remain America’s steadfast allies. Despite the electoral noise about a possible deterioration in US-Saudi relations, ties between Washington and Riyadh transcend partisanship and will remain strong.
America went to war in Iraq with a consensus inside Washington, but when things turned bad, the Democrats accused the Republicans of tricking them into supporting the war. Despite this, both parties understand that America’s investment in Iraq cannot be left to Iran. Both Obama and Trump kept troops in Iraq, despite promises to withdraw them. Biden will keep them further, until a time when Baghdad is strong enough to handle its sovereignty and safeguard US interests.
In Syria, the US has little to no interests, except for making sure that the country does not turn into a failing state that exports terrorism, like in the northeast, where a global coalition defeated ISIS and is holding ground to keep the terrorist group from coming back. Biden will maintain the presence of US troops in east Syria to continue to prohibit both ISIS and the Syrian government from tapping into oil resources. While this oil counts for much in the hands of ISIS or Damascus, it has little value on the international market. At its peak, Syria produced a puny amount of 400 thousand barrels a day of heavy crude that can only be refined at specialized refineries.
Like in Syria, America has little to no interest in Lebanon, except for combating Hezbollah’s terrorism. Because Beirut has failed to do so, Washington has tightened the screws on the pro-Iran militia through sanctions. In both Syria and Lebanon, and also in Gaza, a Biden presidency will continue supporting Israel in keeping its borders with these areas peaceful, even if this requires Israeli military intervention.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used Obama as punching bag for domestic Israeli reasons, and yet Obama joined Congress in increasing US aid to Israel to unprecedented level. Before leaving, Obama handed Netanyahu a parting gift by not vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements. The resolution was ceremonial, and had little effect on US or Israeli policies.
Biden will maintain America’s strong alliance with Israel, and is unlikely to move the US embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It is also unlikely that Biden will play an active role in reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and will probably stick to Obama’s mantra: “America cannot want peace more than the involved parties.” The State Department might resort to old traditional phrasing of describing the Palestinian Territories as occupied, which the Trump administration had dropped. Again, such phrasing is more ceremonial and has little consequence on the status quo between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Biden has already issued statements praising unilateral peace between Israel, on one hand, and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, on the other. It is most probable that Biden will continue Trump’s policy of encouraging the remaining Arab countries to sign peace with Israel.
In Egypt, unlike what many think, America’s policy has been steady over the past decades, and revolves around strong military-to-military ties. Obama only called on late President Hosni Mubarak to step down after Washington had gotten a nod from Egypt’s military. Similarly, Obama engaged with late President Mohamed Morsi after the military had joined Morsi’s government, and let go of such support when the military moved on. Despite Congressional pressure, Obama never held back on supporting President Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi.
Whether Obama, Trump or Biden, America will continue its annual aid to Egypt, as long as Cairo deliver on three strategic issues: Freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal, US military flights in Egyptian airspace, and the stability of Egypt’s border with Israel.
Biden, however, will depart from Trump’s Middle East policy on Iran and Turkey. Biden is unlikely to continue Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, and will try to rejoin the nuclear deal when Iran reverses its violations. However, many of the sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran are irrelevant to Tehran’s nuclear program, and are instead connected to Iran’s “destabilizing activity,” mainly its sponsorship of terrorism. Trump’s non-nuclear sanctions might nullify Biden’s removal of the nuclear sanctions, which will keep the Iranian economy reeling and force Iran to negotiations, not only over sunset clauses in the nuclear deal, but also over its support of global terror.
As for Turkey, Ankara has no friends in Washington. After a honeymoon between Obama and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, relations started deteriorating when the former US president reasoned that Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet might lead to unwanted American escalation with Russia. Erdogan felt abandoned, apologized to Putin, and started spiting Washington and NATO, including through buying the Russian air defense system S400.
First Trump gave a green light to Erdogan to ethnically cleanse Kurds who helped us defeat ISIS. Now he welcomes Erdogan with open arms and sweetheart deals. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, once again, Trump’s personal interests, not US interests, are driving his policy.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 13, 2019
Trump has inexplicably broken ranks with both Democrats and Republicans on Turkey, and has personally connected with Erdogan. But the US mood on Turkey has been sour, given Erdogan’s populist shenanigans. Should Biden become president, relations between America and Turkey might further deteriorate, adding to Ankara’s troubles with the EU.
While presidential candidates spin and use hyperbole when talking about US foreign policy, reality suggests that sharp turns are rare, and that successive presidents continue, and build on, policies of their predecessors, regardless of party politics.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is an Iraqi-Lebanese columnist and writer. He is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London. He tweets @hahussain.
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