Panic more than policy has guided Biden's Middle East strategy

The US administration should be criticised not for lack of trying, for dithering

US President Joe Biden announced that Israel has offered a "roadmap" to a full ceasefire in the Middle East ally's military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, including a troop withdrawal and release of hostages. AFP
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Over the past several months, it has become increasingly clear that US President Joe Biden lacks a decisive Middle East policy.

While his administration should undoubtedly be credited for trying to prevent the Gaza war from expanding fully into Lebanon and other arenas, its proposals have tended to be like a hastily cooked dish lacking flavour, and hence inviting scepticism and opposition.

For example, the US hurriedly presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council supporting Mr Biden’s proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza without properly co-ordinating its positions with any of the other members, including Algeria, the only Arab state currently in the Security Council.

The Biden team appeared to be in a rush to win international support for its three-phase ceasefire initiative, not waiting for Hamas or Israel to agree to the proposals – which they didn’t anyway. And yet the US delegation presented a draft resolution welcoming the ceasefire proposal, describing it as “acceptable” to Israel, and calling on Hamas to accept it as well, urging both parties to fully implement its provisions without delay or condition.

The provisions themselves remain vague, with some still secret. The draft language is oddly worded, calling for a “complete and comprehensive ceasefire” in Gaza in the first phase, and a “permanent cessation of hostilities” in the second phase. The likes of Algeria, Russia and China expressed their reservations over the draft.

It is puzzling that the US proposal does not involve the PA, even though the latter has an observer status in the UN

It is odd that Washington has been trying to persuade Hamas, which it considers to be a “terrorist” organisation, to agree to its initiative. It is just as puzzling that its proposal does not involve the Palestinian Authority, even though it has an observer status in the UN and is considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Indeed, while Washington has leant on Egypt and Qatar to act as intermediaries, the PA has been excluded from negotiations over Gaza’s future.

Hamas leaders, who seek survival by any means – even if that involves dealing with the US and Israel – must be feeling a mix of terror and euphoria. Terror, due to Israel’s operation in Rafah, which could result in the destruction of the group’s infrastructure. Euphoria, because implicit in Mr Biden’s recent moves is some sort of recognition of Hamas.

One can go on endlessly about the Biden administration’s strategic and tactical mistakes – as well as its duplicity – over dealing with Israel. It has simultaneously put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet over their prosecution of the Gaza war and showered them with advanced weaponry and aircraft.

Just as contentious has been the US’s engagement with Iran, with whom it has adversarial relations. In this case, it is at least fair to say that Washington’s secret talks with Tehran have led to the containment of the Gaza war.

Of course, it is also true that Iranian officials are busy preparing for an election to replace Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash last month. With preparations under way to pick a new president – with an eye on identifying an eventual successor to the ageing supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the manoeuvring space for Tehran has become wider and narrower simultaneously.

It is fair to say, then, that for both Iran and the US (also in an election year), strategic and tactical policies have become subject to electoral outcomes. And an arena where these outcomes could have an impact is Lebanon.

Before October 7, it appeared that Lebanon and Israel were making progress on some of the outstanding issues plaguing relations between the neighbours. With the help of the US, they demarcated their maritime border, with an expectation that the land boundaries would be resolved next.

After the Hamas attacks, however, Hezbollah entered into a “supportive” war for the group without a mandate from the Lebanese state or its people. A low-intensity conflict between Hezbollah and Israel ensues today, with the pendulum constantly shifting between a commitment to the rules of engagement to a possible escalation from either side.

Panic over the Gaza war expanding into Lebanon has set in the hearts of the majority of its people, as well as in the Biden administration and the EU. The government in Beirut, meanwhile, has chosen to abscond, having effectively left it to Tehran to decide the country’s fate through Hezbollah.

It is unclear whether all this confusion and panic is strategic, tactical or genuinely the result of poor policymaking. The discussion is not solely about Lebanon or the US or Europe, but also about Iran, Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah. Nothing about the series of conflicts in the Middle East is reassuring, but one still clings to hopes in the diplomatic process, even if it appears powerless and scattershot right now.

A part of the powerlessness stems from the incoherence in Mr Biden’s approach to the region. The message to the US President, therefore, is loud and clear: be firm and avoid appeasement.

Published: June 09, 2024, 2:00 PM
Updated: June 10, 2024, 5:00 PM