Biden is hardly the only US president to have failed the Arab world

Every US presidency has been shaped by conflict in the Middle East – and viewed it solely through the lens of Israel

U.S. President George W. Bush discusses the Middle East peace process
with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel (L) and Palestinian Prime
Minister Mahmoud Abbas (R) in Aqaba, Jordan, June 4, 2003. REUTERS/Paul
Morse/White House

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The successes or failures of US presidents are rarely judged by whether or not they accomplish the agenda they set for themselves. A more important measure is how effective they are in responding to the unexpected challenges that confront them. Often, these challenges originate in the Mena region.

One week before the October 7 attack, President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades”, although he emphasised that “all of that can change”.

Four-and-a-half months later, a lot has changed. Israel is pursuing a devastating war in Gaza and engaging in cross-border shelling with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen are destabilising the region and the international waterways. The White House has, therefore, had to shift from neglecting the region to making it a full-time concern – one it neither expected, nor for which it was prepared.

This isn’t unique to the Biden administration because since the end of the Vietnam War, every US presidency has been shaped by conflict in the Mena region. During the past half century, America has sent more weapons, spent more money, committed more troops, lost more lives, and expended more political capital in the region than anywhere else. And yet, time and again, it has failed.

The bigger problem is that it has either never acknowledged these failures, or it is simply oblivious to them. It’s instructive that during this period, presidential aspirants have never seriously debated US policy in the region. They have never made a course correction in its approach towards it. American media has rarely called any leader to account for their inadequate policies.

This is so for three important reasons.

First, the US doesn’t know the region and its peoples. Too many of its policymakers see the region through the lens of Israel looking out, instead of the Arab world looking in at Israel. Because of this, it has failed to recognise the centrality of the issue of Palestine to the Arab people. Time and again, policymakers have either proclaimed the issue dead or made efforts to sideline it, only to be stunned when Palestine erupted in violence and reasserted its centrality in Arab consciousness.

A corollary to this has been America’s refusal to acknowledge the consequences of its self-imposed limits on how it deals with the region. Because of domestic political considerations, concern for Israel is the cornerstone of too many policy decisions made in Washington. Politicians don’t challenge or sanction Israel for its bad behaviour or even for breaking US law. To ensure Israel’s protection, successive administrations have insisted on dominating the Middle East peace process, refusing to allow others to partner in decision-making.

And finally, the US hasn’t recognised the impact that its failed policies have on the trust needed for it to pursue the leadership it insists on having, as it seeks to shape the region’s future. What follows is a number of surprises that have confounded American presidents for more than half a century.

Palestine’s UN envoy moved to tears at ICJ hearing

Palestine’s UN envoy moved to tears at ICJ hearing

Think of the impact of the 1973 war and the Arab oil embargo on the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. Or how Jimmy Carter’s time in office was shaped by the Camp David Accords, followed by the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan had to contend with Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, and his administration’s Iran-Contra scandal.

The George HW Bush administration woke up to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, took months assembling an international coalition to free that country, and then used its political stature to convene a peace conference to solve the Palestine-Israel conflict.

That conference failed, as did efforts that preceded it, because the US had tied its hands more than a decade earlier by promising Israel that it would never talk to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. So Israel and the PLO surprised Bill Clinton with their own negotiating effort, which was incomplete because of the asymmetry of power between the two entities. Because the US refused to provide balance, the years after the Oslo Accords were up and down with few serious steps towards peace.

The George W Bush years opened with the 9/11 attacks and the second Palestinian uprising. In both instances, Mr Bush’s responses to these “surprises” were flawed. Aligning with neocons who populated his administration, he embarked on two misguided wars that devastated Afghanistan and Iraq and cost the US lives, treasure, prestige and the capacity to lead.

Barack Obama tried to recoup these losses, but his inability to plan for the withdrawal from Iraq, to firmly challenge Israel on its refusal to pursue peace, and his floundering in the face of the Arab uprisings all proved costly to his administration.

The only surprises that occurred during the Donald Trump era were his unilateral steps to remove “Occupied Territories” from the Department of State lexicon and to accept Israel’s annexation of “East Jerusalem” and the Golan Heights. This led some Arab states to move to establish ties with Israel in an effort to forestall further moves towards annexation. But Israel, emboldened by its support from Washington, remained intransigent.

With this as background, it’s not exceptional that the Biden administration has failed to adequately respond to the ongoing Israel-Gaza war. Not exceptional, but also not excusable.

The US has been down this road too many times and is still being led by the same policymakers who’ve failed in the past, haven’t learned, and seem determined to fail again. Given the scale of human loss now, in the end, the Biden presidency will be judged not by its domestic successes – which are many – but by its failures in the Mena region.

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Published: March 01, 2024, 7:00 AM