Khalil E. Jahshan
Since his election on November 3, 2020, President-elect Joe Biden has been purposefully focusing on selecting his senior cabinet members and key personnel for the new administration as they prepare for inauguration day on January 20, 2021. His transition team in Washington has also been steadfastly drafting the general domestic and foreign policy guidelines and options for the next four years. In light of the magnitude and severity of the challenges confronting Biden, domestic and foreign alike, the incoming 46th president of the United States would certainly like to effect a smooth launch for his presidency by rallying the admittedly divided nation behind his policies as he hits the road running without much controversy, delay, or hesitation.
Although it is somewhat premature to predict in great detail the specific orientation and policies to be embraced and championed by the Biden-Harris Administration, some general trends appear to be taking shape between now and Spring 2021. First and foremost, the domestic health and economic crises the administration has inherited are destined to occupy an inordinate share of its agenda and time. Thus, foreign policy might not necessarily be at the top of its priorities, at least for its first year in office. Second, the new administration displays a totally different concept of American leadership than that exhibited by its predecessor. Biden is expected to immediately distance himself from Trump’s inward-looking and nationalistic “America First” vision in its various chaotic and disruptive incarnations and replace it, as promised, with the “America is back” mantra. Third, “The world according to Joe Biden,” as expressed by Barbara Plett Usher of the BBC, “is a much more traditional take on America’s role and interests, grounded in international institutions … and based on shared western democratic values.” Fourth, the Biden team seems adamant about divorcing itself from Trump’s frequent tendency to confuse allies and enemies, to the dissatisfaction of both and to the detriment of US national interests.
Therefore, as Thomas Wright of the Lowy Institute predicted in his excellent essay entitled “The Point of No Return: The 2020 Election and the Crisis of American Foreign Policy,” Biden “will seek to undo much of what Donald Trump has wrought – he will quickly rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change, he will try to revive the Iran nuclear deal, he will work with other nations on combatting COVID-19, and he will resume US support for its allies.”
These trends are borne out by any thorough review of Biden’s public statements and personnel appointments for clues as to the parameters of his future foreign policy, in general, and his Middle East policy, in particular. Although the bulk of public attention by the media and policy think tanks has focused on the US approach by the Biden presidency to China, Russia, North Korea, NATO, Venezuela, and Iran, significant consideration has also been given to the Middle East largely due to the myriad of unconventional and chaotic policies toward the region implemented by the Trump Administration. The new administration knows full well that it faces a herculean task ahead of having to clean up widespread damage inflicted on this unsettled area of the world.
Will the Biden Administration have sufficient domestic support and tranquility to focus on key foreign policy objectives left undone by the outgoing administration? Will the Middle East specifically gain adequate attention from the 46th US president? Considering the abundance of regional conflicts, what aspect of Middle East policy will the new administration opt to tackle first? Will Biden as president deal with the Middle East on its own merits or will he view the region through the traditional Israeli prism, or as a function of his Iran policy? Will the incoming administration reassess the biased approach adopted by its predecessor in dealing with Gulf Arab allies? Considering his experiences as a senator and as Obama’s vice president, will Biden opt to engage seriously in the pursuit of a comprehensive and just solution to the Palestine question? Will the issues of democracy and human rights in the Middle East regain their center stage status, which was lost during the Trump years? How will Biden deal with Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders befriended by the outgoing president?
These are admittedly general questions, but they do pertain to specific countries and situations in the Middle East that have been central to the mission of Arab Center Washington DC since its inception in 2014. To offer the most comprehensive and credible set of answers possible to these and other related questions, ACW has enlisted its resident and nonresident fellows and invited other scholars with unmatched expertise in US foreign policy and Middle East affairs to highlight the specific challenges facing the Biden Administration after inauguration. These various cases and issues were grouped according to the following four general categories:
Topical areas: The United States in the Middle East, Biden’s foreign policy, US decision-making, and democracy and human rights.
Eastern Mediterranean issues: Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey.
The Gulf: GCC, Iran, Iraq, and Yemen.
East and North Africa: Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Northwest African states.
One last note: the articles herein were written during November and December 2020 with an eye to a general evaluation of conditions in the Middle East. They address both the potential impact of the situation in the region on the incoming Biden Administration as well as the Biden team’s possible or desired responses. Thus, these analyses are not time- or event-bound. For this reason, the editors have added minimal updates in the form of footnotes to reflect changed circumstances related to the issues discussed.
On behalf of Arab Center Washington DC, I would like to extend our sincere gratitude and appreciation to all the contributors and editors of this volume, which was assembled and completed under the difficult circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, telecommunicating and remote work, and the turbulent post-election reporting process. Due to these constraints, the document will be disseminated at this time in the format of an ebook rather than a hard copy. It is our hope that you will find these papers informative and intellectually stimulating as the United States and Middle East countries continue to adjust to the political fallout from an eventful and unusual 2020.