US engagement with the Middle East is starting to look very different

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) with Afghanistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Hanif Atmar, last week in Kabul, Afghanistan AFP 
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) with Afghanistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Hanif Atmar, last week in Kabul, Afghanistan AFP 

What will US engagement in the Middle East look like under President Joe Biden? This is a question that has been ruminated on since last summer, when the idea of the former vice president potentially succeeding Donald Trump in the White House was first being considered as a reality.

In recent weeks, an answer has been crystallising.

The Biden administration has set bold targets, seeking in particular to tackle three massive issues: the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic and creating millions of jobs for Americans.

Alongside these high-priority policy goals has been a decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, reconfigure the American military role in Iraq and a move to begin negotiations for a new nuclear deal with Iran. All three have ramifications for the Middle East’s security and stability.

Taken together, at first glance, these developments might be seen as the fruition of a scenario that most worried policymakers a year ago when they first contemplated Mr Biden as President – that US engagement in the region would begin to diminish in favour of other priorities.

It might be obvious to many, but it is worth restating that America’s continued interest in the affairs of the Middle East is of immense significance. Beyond the security parameters that might most concern various governments, the people living in the region do care about what the US does here.

For example, young Arabs have strong views about it. The Arab Youth Survey 2020 found that 56 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds saw America as an ally – up from 35 per cent in 2018. However, 43 per cent of respondents describe it as an enemy.

If we view the relationship between the US and this region only through the prism of security, then we lose sight of risks

This contradiction does nothing to undermine the idea that the US’s attitude and actions in the Middle East will continue to be under intense scrutiny.

Such survey results also reflect the multi-faceted nature of the world’s largest economy, still the leading military, technological and diplomatic power today.

Equally, when discussing what US engagement looks like, we must also be willing to explore more complex notions of how it might manifest. It cannot simply be that the scale of American military assets or boots on the ground will determine how much focus Mr Biden gives the region.

Of course, such criteria are still very important, as we continue to see in Iraq, but it is also an old-fashioned metric, an overhang from the new world order after the Second World War.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken took great pains to say amid the worried reaction to the announcement of a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by September 11, the nature of risks being faced have changed and so the response to them must similarly evolve, even as he insisted that overall levels of engagement would continue to be high.

Likewise, in Iraq, the ambition is to move away from a combat role, but there seems no desire by Washington to let go completely of its support for the country.

In any case, by making climate change, the pandemic and the economy his main areas of focus, Mr Biden has made a commitment to a global outlook knowing that there cannot be an exclusively American solution for any of them.

For example, he is hosting an online climate summit on Thursday with 40 world leaders as the US takes the lead on action on climate change. Among them are representatives from countries in the Middle East, which is as much on the front lines of climate impact as anywhere else.

In terms of the coronavirus pandemic, it is understood by the Biden administration that mitigating the risk of “catastrophic biological threats” requires acknowledging “our interconnected world”. There will be dialogue with all nations in this regard, including in the Middle East.

Also, to pay for his $2 trillion jobs plan, Mr Biden is tackling corporate tax rates globally. His treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, has said, "We will fare better if we work together and support each other.” To be effective, there cannot be any outlier nations that allow companies the opportunity to undermine Mr Biden’s goals on this front. Extensive negotiations will be needed and the Middle East will have an important role to play.

To make a success of all of his plans, the US will need the support of America’s allies in the region as much as elsewhere. To this point, the special envoy on climate John Kerry was in Abu Dhabi recently for a regional dialogue where 11 countries pledged to ensure the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Yet, it is not just climate change on which the US will continue to engage actively with the Middle East. Economic and investment ties remain critical.

If we view the relationship between the US and this region only through the prism of security, then we will lose sight of some of the risks facing all of us, whether it be climate change or future pandemics.

US engagement is needed on all fronts to help the region to meet such crises, and ensuring stability while we tackle such issues will remain paramount. Whether US troops are here or not will be prove to be largely immaterial.

As US foreign policy adapts under Mr Biden, engagement with the Middle East will look different and feel different, but it will likely still be productive.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Updated: April 21, 2021 07:33 PM

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