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Analysis

Biden can do well in the Mideast, if only because so little is expected of him

Under both Obama and Trump, America seemed capricious and unable to keep its commitments; few are now willing to risk relying on its short attention span

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event, July 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Then-presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event, July 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The US election is more than a week past. Donald Trump, elected in 2016 as an unapologetic standard-bearer of a culture war, refuses to concede, seeking to overturn swing-state ballot counts in the courtroom. Joe Biden, meanwhile, on Tuesday appointed his “agency review teams,” groups of experts tasked with mapping out the current policies and organizational priorities of the federal government’s many agencies ahead of the “transition.”

Outsiders don’t realize — and Americans don’t realize it’s strange — that a changeover in administration from one party to another is such a herculean task. The upper levels of the administration serve “at the pleasure of the president,” who has powers of appointment and reorganization that have no equivalent for an Israeli prime minister.

An incoming administration is an organization unto itself, which must quickly settle into the federal apparatus, establish its management culture and hierarchies, appoint hundreds of officials, and efficiently pivot the policies of enormous federal agencies to the new president’s vision. Immigration, treasury, foreign policy, justice, education — a significant portion of the upper echelon of the federal administration either pivots with them or gets out of the way. It’s a kind of controlled revolution.

So it will take time before the Biden administration gets to thinking seriously about the Middle East.

But when it does so, the president-elect will discover a region fundamentally altered from — or at least, no longer pretending to be — what it was when he helped advance the Iran nuclear deal.

US Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Israelis were hugely invested in the American election. It was the ubiquitous topic of conversation on Hebrew-language Twitter and Facebook, in the media and in mask-muffled debates in the street. Ordinary Israelis read and opined as never before on the politics of American Jews, learned about the “Rust Belt” and the “Sun Belt,” and listened intently to reports on the shifting loyalties of suburban women and Cuban Americans.

The fascination makes sense. In part, the interest flows from America’s sheer noisiness. The din of American entertainment, culture wars, and politics echoes into the furthest Pakistani highlands and deepest inland hamlets of South America. America can’t help being loud, and few nations are as eagerly receptive to its noise as Israel.

But there’s another reason for Israelis’ fascination. The outgoing administration showed yet again how powerful a role the American president can have on the world stage, and what a difference it can make for a small country like Israel. The Trump administration’s pressuring of Iran, the backing for new alliances between Israel and the Gulf states, even the unpleasant American pressure to curtail Israel’s burgeoning commercial ties with China all drove home the point: The US is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Love it or hate it, you can’t leave it out of your calculations.

It’s a special challenge for a country like Israel, then, when superpower America seems to be all over the map.

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden gestures during a speech in Tel Aviv, March 11, 2010. (David Furst/AFP)

Transitional promises

Just in the past five years, America went from being the linchpin of an international anti-Khamenei sanctions regime to empowering Iran as a regional hegemon, despite the howls of those close allies who had staked their safety on America’s once-reliable promises. The shift released the chokehold on Iran’s economy, flooding the Revolutionary Guards with new funds and driving a surge in Iranian interventions throughout the Arab world.

Then, under Trump, America swerved back, restoring and tightening the chokehold on the regime.

America is now expected by some to swerve again under Biden, relaunching an as-yet unclear sanctions-lifting deal with the ayatollahs.

The lesson in the region is simple and goes far beyond the Iran question. The hesitation in Syria and clumsy handling of Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal, the dramatic pivots on the Palestinian front — on issue after issue, Washington has shed and redefined fundamental strategic aims at a whim, as much under the staid Obama as the chaotic Trump. America has seemed consistently surprised by events and habitually unable to keep its commitments, no matter how solemnly or recently they were made. America’s domestic culture wars now reach deep into its foreign policy, and no promise from one American president can be expected to survive the transition to the next.

In Israel, this concern takes the form of anxiety over whether Israel is becoming a “partisan” issue, but the basic worry is shared by all, including the Saudis and the Iranians. It is a growing concern in Europe, on the Korean peninsula, and among those small nations that border large, ambitious neighbors like Russia and China. It is shared, of course, by the Palestinians.

Donald Trump speaks at the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference at the Verizon Center, March 21, 2016, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

And that simple fact means Biden is, in an important sense, free. Burned repeatedly by American pivots, the Middle East has developed a healthy skepticism about the US.

“Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy,” Henry Kissinger once quipped. A consensus is growing in the Middle East that America, too, has subordinated its foreign policy to its domestic squabbles, with presidents’ actions on the world stage meant mostly for political grist back home. While the world is endlessly fascinated with America, the same is not true in reverse.

Trump was ironically a more stable and coherent actor in the Middle East than Obama, in the sense that his policy was, in the final analysis, simpler and more predictable. But Trump was also closer to Obama on the fundamentals than either man would like to think. He was a keen advocate of drawing down costly American entanglements in an unpredictable region. His administration chose different regional actors to boost than his predecessor’s, but didn’t change the basic concept of seeking regional stabilizers who could enable American disengagement.

A powerful, less coherent friend

America is a powerful friend to have in one’s corner, as both Obama and Trump showed. No one questions American power. But few today are willing to risk relying on America’s attention span and policy coherence across administrations.

The best thing going for the new president-elect, then, is the fact that no one will depend on him. The assumption of American unreliability is now baked into regional calculations. And that limits the amount of damage he — or any US president in the coming years — can do.

US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7, 2020, after being declared the winner of the presidential election. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

It no longer makes sense to fear both that Biden will reengage with Iran and turn his back on the burgeoning Israeli-Saudi alliance. The latter is a product of the former. It was Obama’s empowering of Iran, not Trump’s diplomatic efforts, that drove the Israeli-Gulf normalization in the first place.

If Biden follows in Obama’s footsteps and bolsters Iran and its Shiite axis, an Israeli-Saudi deal will only grow more likely.

And if he cleaves more to the Trump administration’s sense of the region and leans toward the Israeli-Sunni axis, that, too, will bring Israeli-Saudi normalization closer.

It is quite likely that Biden will try to do both — to restore some modicum of an Obama-esque Iran deal while also arming and backing the Israeli-Saudi partnership. The Democrats mocked Israeli-Emirati peace as a “weapons sale” — apparently in the belief it was Trump’s doing rather than a response to Obama’s past actions in the region, and so must be discredited.

But it’s the Democrats who plan on facilitating Iran’s rearmament through sanctions relief while simultaneously supporting an Israeli-Saudi counterweight. No one will listen to President Biden on fundamental strategic questions; that ship has sailed. But everyone will be eager for more peace, in the form of weapons sales.

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