There is palpable anxiety among a number of America’s Arab allies about what the election of Joe Biden to the presidency will mean for the region. Conventional wisdom has it that a Democratic administration will revert back to former president Barack Obama’s more accommodating posture towards Iran. Memes depicting Biden locked in loving embrace with the Iranian side are flooding social media.
While the incoming administration will surely seek negotiations with Tehran -- it is worth noting that outgoing President Donald Trump had also pledged to do so -- it would be a mistake to conflate President-elect Biden’s prospective approach to the Middle East with that of Obama’s. When it comes to US foreign policy and the Middle East, Mr Biden is no Obama.
All recent presidential hopefuls since George W Bush, both Republican and Democratic, have promised to “end forever wars” and reduce the American footprint in the Middle East. This is partly due to changes in US geopolitical priorities stemming from the growing challenge posed by China and Russia as well as America’s greater energy independence. It is also a reflection of the deep scars the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left on US public opinion. Scars that no presidential hopeful can ignore.
A Biden administration will be no different from its predecessors in pledging to tone down US involvement in the Middle East. Such policies, whether implemented or not, signal a continuity of US policy towards the region as it currently stands rather than a much feared shift.
A broader examination of Mr Biden’s track record reveals just how different his approach to foreign policy is in comparison to Mr Obama’s, let alone the far-left of the Democratic Party.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Mr Biden supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first of which is now widely considered a strategic failure. The following year, after a visit to Fallujah he doubled down, urging then president George W Bush to send even more troops to quash the mounting insurgency. Similarly, Mr Biden had also lambasted then president Bill Clinton for not doing enough when Muslims were slaughtered in Bosnia. “We have turned our back on aggression, we have turned our back on atrocity, we have turned our backs on conscience,” Mr Biden bellowed in the early nineties.
The President-elect's liberal interventionist impulses are shaped by his many years on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has travelled the world for decades visiting conflict zones and building relationships with allies. Likewise his most senior foreign policy advisors Anthony Blinken, Jake Sullivan and others are well known among Washington’s mainstream foreign policy establishment.
This is in stark contrast to Mr Obama, his most senior advisors and the path they took to the White House. Whereas Mr Biden is the ultimate insider serving in the US Senate since 1973, Mr Obama was the ultimate outsider -- a young and little-known Senator from Illinois who rose to the presidency on the promise of sweeping change. His close confidants, particularly former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, made up for what they lacked in foreign policy experience by adopting dogmatic policies that upended longstanding bipartisan consensus towards rogue regimes like Iran and Cuba.
This does not necessarily mean the incoming Biden administration will avoid easing economic sanctions on Iran or seeking an end to the war in Yemen. A gradual reduction of sanctions may be in the offing if it is part of confidence-building measures should Iran agree to limit uranium enrichment and return to negotiations. But in an article published earlier this year, Mr Biden pledged to make Mr Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran the starting point for negotiations, not the final objective. Biden also promised to lengthen the controversial sunset clauses that Mr Obama agreed and to pressure Iran into curtailing its ballistic missile program as well as its destabilising regional activities. Both these issues were left largely unaddressed by Mr Obama.
Similarly Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s former national security advisor who is likely to be tapped for a senior administration position, recently emphasised that Biden will offer America’s allies the necessary support to negotiate a region-wide understanding with Iran. Such an approach is largely in line with requests from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and others to be at the negotiating table with Iran. This position is born of bitter experience when the Obama administration conducted its talks with Iran in secret.
President-elect Biden will also push to end the deeply unpopular war in Yemen. This would be largely welcomed, as the UAE has already drawn down its troops and Saudi Arabia has shown real commitment to obtaining a peaceful settlement by unilaterally extending several ceasefires to the Houthis. According to Sullivan, while the incoming administration will be firm, it will “deepen support for Saudi security concerns like Houthi missile attacks and threats from Iran, while also offering technical assistance to increase interdiction of Iranian weapon shipments.”
It is worth noting that the US is often described as the most difficult of partners. The current anxiety felt by many Arabs is justified in light of recent history and rising isolationist voices within the Democratic Party. But for all the talk about the rise of China, the return of Russia and diversifying foreign policy options away from the US, America remains the only indispensable power in the region.
During this moment of great American transition Arabs need not be shaken by ghosts of the past. Rather they should be inspired by the opportunities of new beginnings. Let this be a fresh start grounded in shared interests and the enduring challenge of common adversaries.
Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs