Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

How will 'President Joe Biden' deal with the Middle East?

The former vice president will present himself as a return to normalcy in US foreign policy but the world he will confront and the America he will lead are greatly changed

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan. AFP
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan. AFP

Last week, former US vice president Joe Biden consolidated his de facto triumph in the Democratic Party primaries with another series of crushing victories over Bernie Sanders. He will, almost certainly, face US President Donald Trump in the general election in November.

Mr Trump went to considerable lengths to avoid this, including trying to coerce Ukraine into announcing a groundless investigation into Mr Biden, for which he was impeached. But if Mr Trump feared Mr Biden months ago, his anxieties must have multiplied exponentially. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the US economy, gutting the president's main re-election pitch. And his striking mishandling of the crisis could haunt him.

The key to contemporary American national elections is turnout. There are considerably more Democrats than Republicans. But Republicans are much better at motivating and mobilising their supporters.

US President Donald Trump, left, listens during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference in the White House in Washington. Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump, left, listens during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference in the White House in Washington. Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg

When Democrats are inspired to vote, as they were by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, they win. When he was not on the ballot in the two mid-term elections during his presidency in 2010 and 2014, they lost. Hillary Clinton was a remarkably unappealing candidate and the resulting low voter turnout was the key to Mr Trump's victory in 2016.

The Democratic voter enthusiasm displayed in the 2018 mid-terms and recent primaries is likely to repeat itself in November. Most Democrats and many independents despise and fear Mr Trump, and they yearn to send him packing.

While November is a long way off, Mr Biden looks well-positioned to win. So, it is not too early to begin to ask what a Biden foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East, might look like.

The biggest change would be a return to actual policy. While he has attitudes, Mr Trump does not engage in or show an understanding of the category of policy as usually conceptualised. Almost everything he does is based on contingent and personal political calculations. Mr Biden is also a self-serving politician, but he will almost certainly re-introduce actual, traditional policy calculations into US decision-making.

He will promise, and probably genuinely try to deliver, a good deal of repair work to reverse many of Mr Trump's innovations. Mr Biden and most of his advisers are internationalists from the Obama White House who share a commitment to a rules-based order – a vision explicitly and derisively rejected by Mr Trump.

Traditional alliances such as Nato and all manner of multilateral agreements and organisations, including on climate and trade, will again be at the forefront of American thinking.

US President Donald Trump, centre, at the Nato summit in London commemorating the alliance's 70th anniversary last year. AFP
US President Donald Trump, centre, at the Nato summit in London commemorating the alliance's 70th anniversary last year. AFP

However, Mr Trump and Mr Obama both stressed the need for "burden-sharing" that asks US allies to do more for themselves. Mr Biden is likely to continue that, and possibly take it further than ever. The American public has little appetite for international – and particularly military – engagement, especially in the Middle East.

The instinctive political calculation could be to try to base a Biden foreign policy around that core impulse, although the option of trying to galvanise Americans around renewed US global leadership is certainly an option with influential Democratic proponents. Conventional wisdom suggests that Mr Biden especially might try to further reduce the US role in the Middle East. But this is by no means certain.

Unlike some Democrats, Mr Biden does not propose simply trying to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal. That is not possible and, despite anger at Mr Trump's trashing of Mr Obama's signature foreign policy accomplishment, a Biden administration would have to factor in the leverage Mr Trump's “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran have produced.

A man wearing a mask walks under a mural bearing an image of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. AFP
A man wearing a mask walks under a mural bearing an image of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. AFP

Tehran is undoubtedly yearning for a Trump defeat. But, if he wins, Mr Biden is unlikely to be gullible enough to allow Iran to benefit immediately or unconditionally. He could seek a new understanding with Iran, but probably not based on appeasement or naive and excessive conciliation.

Much of the Democratic mainstream has become sceptical about some key US Middle East alliances, particularly with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has some ground to make up with Democrats in the US Congress, foreign policy professionals and, almost certainly, a Biden White House.

Saudi Arabia has made some progress in reaching out to Democrats in recent months, so they will not be starting from zero. But it is crucial not to underestimate the misgivings regarding the alliance that have taken hold among many Democrats who now see it as closely linked to a tainted Trump agenda. Mr Biden will not be the only one needing to do repair work.

US President Donald Trump had the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Jim Hollander / EPA
US President Donald Trump had the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Jim Hollander / EPA

He will also inherit the bad blood between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Assuming Mr Netanyahu is still leading the Israeli government, and not sitting in the dock, this will complicate any effort to mend the extreme damage Mr Trump has done to US policy regarding peace and a two-state solution.

Some things cannot be undone. The US embassy will not return to Tel Aviv, although the US position on occupied East Jerusalem can and must be clarified. A Biden administration would approach Israel issues cautiously. However, the deep discomfort with the Trump-Kushner annexation proposal in the Democratic Party and, crucially, the Jewish-American mainstream suggests that there could be significant support for moving quickly to repudiate it and repair ties to the Palestinians.

Mr Biden has extensive foreign policy experience, but he often overestimates his personal expertise. Like Mr Trump, he resists being scripted and tends to feel he knows more about international relations than anyone else in the room.

Much, therefore, will depend on his own instincts and inclinations. The track record appears to point towards a fundamentally cautious approach, but, until they are in office, it is hard to know how anyone will approach momentous choices like the use of force.

Mr Biden will present himself as a return to normalcy and heir to Mr Obama's international agenda, perhaps in total sincerity. But the world he will confront and the America he will lead are greatly changed – including by the coronavirus – in ways yet to be understood.

Whatever Mr Biden presently intends to do, if he wins, will immediately crash into unanticipated realities. Those realities, more than anything else, will shape his policies.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: March 22, 2020 03:10 PM

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