The Middle East has been too absent from US election debates

America's involvement in the region remains an open question for whoever takes office next week

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 23, 2020 A mural wall set up for a separate event, is seen outside the Vote Center at The Forum multi-purpose indoor arena on the eve of the first day of voting in Inglewood, California. Joe Biden sharing a split-screen with George Clooney. Kamala Harris joining a online quiz with the Marvel superhero film stars.
Virtual fundraisers with Hollywood and Democratic leaders have combined with powerful anti-Donald Trump sentiment to prompt an unprecedented flood of donations in California -- the nation's wealthiest state, long seen as the party's election cash cow.
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About 60 million Americans have already voted in this year’s presidential election, and forecasters predict that the 2020 turnout may be the highest in more than a century.

As is the case in most US elections, the majority of voters are making their decisions based on domestic concerns rather than foreign policy considerations.

The popular perception that the President Donald Trump’s administration has mishandled its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Two thirds of Americans disapprove of his administration’s management of the crisis, and the economic fallout looms large over the polls.

The overwhelming emphasis on domestic issues in the election campaign is also reflective of the reality that, regardless of the outcome on November 3 (or at some point thereafter), the next administration will probably be absorbed in addressing the many domestic challenges facing the country. Foreign relations are likely to take a back seat, at least for the first two years of the new administration.

Aside from the exchange of charges that the other candidate is "soft on China", foreign policy differences have rarely come up in the recent campaigns. Trump campaign efforts to highlight the recent success of the Abraham Accord have registered primarily with the President's loyal, evangelical Christian voting bloc and thus have not altered the campaign dynamics.

Despite the low incidence of debate over foreign policy in general and on US relations in the Middle East in particular, the outcome of the 2020 election will undoubtedly be significant for the region. Not everything will change, of course.

OMAHA, NE - OCTOBER 27: Supporters watch as US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on October 27, 2020 in Omaha, Nebraska. With the presidential election one week away, candidates of both parties are attempting to secure their standings in important swing states.   Steve Pope/Getty Images/AFP
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Regardless of whether we’re dealing with a first term for Joe Biden or a second one for Mr Trump, the US national security establishment will continue to emphasise rising great power competition, particularly with China. This will likely mean, in my view, that the US will increase its presence in East Asia and seek opportunities to reduce its military commitments in the Gulf region.

The visit this week of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper to New Delhi is indicative of the Trump administration’s intention to strengthen its ring of alliances around China. A Biden administration may seek to lessen the risk of armed conflict with China, but it will undoubtedly share Mr Trump’s perspective that China will be the paramount challenger to US global interests going forward.

TOPSHOT - A supporter listens as former US President Barack Obama speaks at a Biden-Harris drive-in rally in Orlando, Florida on October 27, 2020. / AFP / Ricardo ARDUENGO

The transition away from security preoccupations in the Middle East will depend on managing events with Iran, as well as ISIS and other violent extremist groups. Both Mr Trump and Mr Biden have said they want to re-open negotiations with Iran after the election, although the terms of that engagement will certainly differ. Mr Trump has suggested that, should he win a second term, Tehran will be forced to seek terms consistent with the demands from Washington in its maximum-pressure campaign.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden leaves after speaking at Mountain Top Inn & Resort, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Warm Springs, Ga. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Biden team has indicated that they would re-start negotiations with Iran initially based on former president Barack Obama's original nuclear deal, albeit with some adjustments that further constrain Iran's nuclear programme. Engagement with Iran on the other issues of concern, from ballistic missiles to its intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbours, will presumably follow in co-ordination with Washington's European allies.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 27: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks during a drive-in campaign rally in the parking lot of Cellairis Ampitheatre on October 27, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Biden is campaigning in Georgia on Tuesday, with scheduled stops in Atlanta and Warm Springs.   Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP
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The Biden camp’s stance on Syria is distinct not only from the muddled Trump administration approach but from Mr Obama’s policy as well. Senior Biden advisors have acknowledged that the Obama policy failed to achieve the desired political resolution.

Moreover, its half-hearted support for the moderate opposition to Bashar Al Assad’s regime opened the door both to the rise of extremism as well as to Russian and Iranian intervention.

They’ve pledged to re-engage on Syria, pressing again for a diplomatic resolution to the civil conflict while maintaining a limited US special operations capability to confront ISIS.

How much a Biden administration would be willing to invest in achieving a desirable outcome in Syria, and whether the US can counter-balance Russian, Iranian and Turkish interests there, remains unclear.

US soldiers walk near a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) during a military patrol by oil production facilities in the countryside near al-Malikiyah (Derik) in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on October 27, 2020.  / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN

Despite its effort to differentiate its position on Syria from the Obama administration approach, in many other regards a Biden administration Middle East policy is likely to reflect the US foreign policy consensus that existed prior to Donald Trump’s election.

While Mr Biden is a staunch supporter of Israel and the campaign has welcomed the Abraham Accord, a Biden presidency is likely to walk back a number of the Trump administration’s positions on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. This would include abandoning the Trump-backed, so-called “Deal of the Century” initiative in favour of pressing the two sides to resume negotiations.

The Biden campaign has expressed particular concern about some of Saudi Arabia’s domestic policies as well as its activities in Yemen. Relations with the current administration in Egypt are likely to be another concern for Mr Biden.

Similarly, the Biden team has also been clear that they would reassert long-standing US positions on human rights and civil liberties issues in foreign policy considerations.

America’s relations with its key friends and partners in the Middle East have evolved over the past decade.

Governments in the region have become more independent from Washington and more assertive in pressing their own policy preferences.

Great power relationships have also become more balanced as Russia’s and China’s presence in the region has expanded. The Trump administration has accommodated those changes by ceding policy decisions to its regional allies.

A Biden administration will likely be more assertive in identifying core US goals and objectives. But it, too, will need to take into account the changes in relationships, and find ways of achieving a balance when the interests of the parties are inconsistent.

Gerald Feierstein is senior vice president at the Middle East Institute and former US ambassador to Yemen

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