Before President elect Joe Biden was voted into the White House, America had not had a Washington insider as president since late President George H.W. Bush left office in 1993.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had been governors before they entered the White House, and Barack Obama was a professor with a two-year gig in the Senate. President Donald Trump is a businessman with no experience in public service whatsoever.
Climbing the ranks inside Washington injects ambitious politicians with a dose of realpolitik, giving them a better understanding of how our complicated world actually works. In Biden’s case, it seems likely there will be a return to classic US foreign policy on the Middle East.
The second President Bush incorrectly believed that he could turn every world government into a democracy. Obama’s foreign policy speeches often mentioned the imaginary arc of history. When not preaching idealism, Obama’s mantra was a naive “don’t do stupid s***.”
Trump knows little about anything outside America, and insists on short briefings, preferably with big pictures. His foreign policy doctrine has been a hodgepodge of ideas that sound like bartering at a flea market. When Iran downed an expensive American drone, Trump inexplicably called off a planned American retaliation on Iran. When pro-Iran militias committed the minor offense of breaching the exterior security wall of the US embassy in Baghdad, Trump exacted a heavy punishment on Iran by killing its regional militias’ mastermind Qassem Soleimani.
In 2008, Obama, who had no foreign policy experience, found himself running against Republican John McCain, a candidate with impeccable foreign policy credentials. To make up for his weakness, Obama recruited Biden, who had served in the Senate for 36 years and was the chairperson of the Foreign Relations Committee. Obama therefore tapped into Biden’s global network. But, being the micromanager he was, Obama failed to lean on Biden’s expertise, especially on the Middle East.
On January 20, Biden will become president, and there will be no Obama making the final calls. If his past is any indicator, Biden’s foreign policy will be the closest to classic US positions – pamper the allies and starve the enemies.
Some Democratic voices called for a US foreign policy reversal, arguing that America should “be fair” and “equidistant” in its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such policy is flawed. Saudi Arabia has been America’s ally for the past 75 years, with considerable bilateral trade and other common interests, while Iran is the country that is responsible for the killing of thousands of Americans.
While publicly Biden has taken a tougher line on Saudi Arabia he would limit weapons sales and distance the US from their long-time ally, it is unlikely the new administration would break from decades of friendly relations.
It would be crazy for America to treat its friends and enemies the same way, and concluded that Saudi Arabia is the ally and Iran is the enemy.
In fact, Democratic opponents of America’s strong ties with Saudi Arabia can rarely offer a convincing argument. There are no outstanding problems between the two countries, whose annual trade volume hovers around $30 billion. The Saudi government is not trying to build nuclear weapons, does not fund militias or sponsor global terrorism, and most importantly, has no American blood on its hands.
Disagreements between allies do arise from time to time. Washington disagrees with Berlin over the Russian gas pipeline to Europe, Nordstream II, and has sanctioned anyone involved in its construction. France opposed America’s war in Iraq. Britain voted against America’s push for the extension of a UN arms embargo on Iran. Yet despite these disagreements, Washington and the European capitals remain close allies, just like Washington and Riyadh. Iran was – at times – a sticking thorn in the relations between the two capitals. But with Biden, even if the new president tries to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, he will not go back to Obama’s affection toward the Iranian mullahs.
Many things have changed since the deal was made in October 2015. Even the architects of the deal, Jake Sullivan and Bill Burns, who now serve as the top foreign policy advisers on the Biden campaign, frequently wrote that Iran should not expect America to return to the exact same deal, but to a better negotiated one. Tehran, for its part, has made the US lifting of sanctions a prerequisite for negotiations. If Biden sticks to his advisers’ words by not going back to the Iran deal without negotiations first, and Iran insists on lifting sanctions first before any negotiations, the positions of the two sides will become irreconcilable.
As a Washington old timer, Biden understands that – unlike previous administrations – one of America’s best assets is its many allies. The new president appreciates the importance of maintaining such global alliances, and unlike what amateur voices from the Democratic fringe want, he will work on further deepening ties between the US and Saudi Arabia.
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