Trump versus Biden: US Politics and the Middle East

Since formally announcing his presidential bid on April 25, former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged in recent polls as the leading Democratic contender to square off with President Donald Trump. The two men are already testing their messages and setting the stage for the major themes that will dominate the 2020 presidential elections. This article explores the factors that would drive their campaigns if they emerge as the two presidential contenders, and most importantly, how they compare on major US foreign policy issues, most notably regarding the Middle East.

Biden’s main competitive advantage over the 20 Democratic presidential nominees is his national security experience: he served for eight years with former President Barack Obama at the White House in addition to 36 years on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, including as its chair from 2006 to 2008. Hence, Biden is the only candidate who can go toe-to-toe with Trump and expose his shortcomings in the national security decision-making process. Paradoxically, this is also arguably one of his weak points since he represents the establishment in a Democratic Party that is increasingly younger and tilting to the left.

The popular bases of Trump and Biden on the right and left spectrums of US politics are their greatest challenges as they enter the campaign season.

The popular bases of Trump and Biden on the right and left spectrums of US politics are their greatest challenges as they enter the campaign season. Biden will have to reckon with Senator Bernie Sanders on his left in the Democratic primaries; indeed, Sanders pointed out, “I don’t think there is much question about who’s more progressive.” The former vice president is arguing that he is an Obama-Biden Democrat, a label he has yet to define clearly. Biden is already campaigning in national election mode with a focus on Trump; however, there is no doubt the attacks from the left are coming and will constrain his messages moving forward. Having served as Obama’s vice president will not be enough, for instance, to shield him from criticism of his congressional voting in 2002 to authorize the US war on Iraq. Biden might reach the general elections in 2020 with enough wounds from these attacks by the left.

On the other hand, Trump is also defined by his conservative base that primarily drives both his domestic and foreign views and policies. While he will face no serious challenger in the Republican primaries––so far, only former Republican Massachusetts Governor William Weld has declared his candidacy––Trump will have to run against his own record in the general elections. The conservative-driven agenda of his presidency will come back and haunt the president in 2020 when he confronts moderate Republicans and independent voters who have concerns about his policies.

Trump clearly views Biden as a major threat and this is evident in his increasing rate of negative tweets and presidential attacks on the former vice president. Biden’s appeal to working class voters and independents makes him a strong competitor among blue-collar communities and in Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Hence, the two candidates would be fighting for the same constituencies, which can turn their eventual confrontation testy due to the hot temper for which they are known. In March 2018, Biden said he would have “beat the hell out” of Trump in high school, which prompted a reply from the president: “I would kick his ass. Boy, would be easy.” More recently, Trump has nicknamed Biden “sleepy Joe” and the former vice president is calling the president a “clown.” These personal attacks are setting the stage for heated debates overall, especially in foreign policy issues.

Foreign Policy and Middle East Records

When announcing his candidacy, Biden said that “the core values of this nation … our standing in the world … everything that has made America America, is at stake.” There will be two narratives in the election campaign moving forward: the US standing in the world under Trump versus under Obama, and the narrative that Trump is appeasing autocrats whereas Obama was placating rogue regimes. The overarching theme in the presidential campaigns is the liberal world order that Obama and Biden advocated versus the nationalistic view of Trump’s “America First” slogan.

The overarching theme in the presidential campaigns is the liberal world order that Obama and Biden advocated versus the nationalistic view of Trump’s “America First” slogan.

Both Trump and Biden, however, will run against the background of a mixed record on foreign policy. The president and his administration have been tough—but not decisive—on Iran and Venezuela while remaining soft on Russia, North Korea, and Syria. Trump can claim targeting the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons against civilians while arguing that the Obama Administration allowed the Syrian regime to cross this red line. The most acute attack from Biden will be on Trump’s perceived positive relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in light of the growing anti-Russia rhetoric in the Democratic Party.

Given that there was no breakthrough on North Korea despite two high-profile meetings with Chairman Kim Jong-Un, Trump will come under attack for his approach toward Pyongyang. This is especially at a time when trade wars with China are still unresolved and Nicolás Maduro remains the de facto president of Venezuela despite US diplomatic pressure. Biden will also criticize Trump’s relations with European and NATO allies, while Trump will reiterate that the United States is no longer being taken advantage of under his reign. The two men have similar views on withdrawing from Afghanistan since the Trump Administration is engaging the Taliban as part of a policy to ultimately withdraw from the country.

Biden has a mixed record when it comes to US intervention in foreign wars. He entered the Senate in 1973 on an anti-Vietnam War platform and opposed the Gulf War in 1991 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but he endorsed the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1994-1995. He also voted in 2002 for the resolution authorizing the US war in Iraq but opposed the surge of US troops in Iraq in 2007 and objected in 2011 to sending 21,000 US troops to Afghanistan. Biden supported the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011 but reportedly advised against the May 2011 operation to kill former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. As vice president, he played a key role in shaping US policy toward Iraq and in 2006, he coauthored a New York Times op-ed that argued that the way to defuse tensions in Iraq is to create a federal system.

Biden favored arming the Syrian opposition and vowed in September 2014 to follow the so-called Islamic State (IS) “to the gates of hell.” He noted in 2014 that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” Biden later apologized for these remarks. He will clearly have to run on Obama’s record, which includes a US retreat from the Middle East.

Both Trump and Biden have antiwar impulses even though they express these views from their own political perspectives.

Both Trump and Biden have antiwar impulses even though they express these views from their own political perspectives. However, on issues of war and peace Biden is more of an interventionist compared to both Trump and Obama. He believes in the United States’ central role in the liberal world order and in multilateralism. The former vice president said in a speech in 2014 that “it is within our power to make a better world.” Trump, on the other hand, is an advocate of nonintervention who seeks to restrict diplomatic and commercial interactions with other countries while avoiding wars. However, Trump has made an exception to this noninterventionism in cases like Venezuela.

The former vice president has been critical of Trump’s engagement with the Middle East. Last October, Biden noted that Trump “seems to have a love affair with autocrats” and criticized how the president dealt with Saudi leaders in the aftermath of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Governments in Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia would probably not be happy with a Democrat returning to power, most notably if associated with Obama. Netanyahu will be concerned by a scenario where a Biden Administration would sign onto the Iran nuclear deal once again and, especially, where Israel loses the unprecedented support it has enjoyed from Washington under Trump. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows that Biden’s return to power means more US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces. For its part, Saudi Arabia might foresee a new dynamic in US-Saudi relations if Biden becomes president.

The two foreign policy achievements that Trump will most likely highlight are his extraordinary backing of Israel and his withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden will stand to defend and explain the Obama Administration’s signature achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He might be the most accepted Democratic candidate for Netanyahu as the former vice president was key in mending fences between Obama and the Israeli prime minister. Biden may be able to use his record in supporting Israel as he argues for restoring US support for the Iran nuclear deal. Trump will have to defend the inconsistencies of his decision to withdraw from Syria and how he was able to override the recommendations of the Pentagon, which led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Much of the foreign policy debate between Trump and Biden will depend on what happens in 2019. For instance, the so-called “deal of the century” remains in limbo and the coming months will decide the fate of this initiative to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Will Trump be able to use it as a winning card in the presidential debates? The situation in Syria remains up in the air while the White House’s policy on Iran is taking the Middle East to the edge of confrontation without offering a viable alternative. Will the Islamic State emerge again in 2019, or will Trump be able to continue to claim he is the president who ended the battle with IS?

New developments in the Middle East might also surprise the presidential candidates and add another layer of complexity in the US presidential campaign.

New developments in the Middle East might also surprise the presidential candidates and add another layer of complexity in the US presidential campaign. What is sure, however, is that the Middle East policy debates between Trump and Biden will be tense and there will be a lot at stake. This will shape up to be a battle between two opposing visions that will have a lasting regional impact, whether Trump wins or loses.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here