After Afghanistan, a New Biden Middle East Doctrine Takes Shape

If there are lessons to be learned from the disastrous end of the American war in Afghanistan, they would be most applicable to the countries of the Arab Middle East. There, the United States has long-standing defense agreements, military guarantees and deployments, and numerous bases and headquarters. To be sure, the Arab world is one geographic expanse where political regimes rely on military and security institutions that are heavily dependent on American arms, training, and logistics. Most importantly, however, these regimes rely on what they have considered to be American credibility and commitment to their survival and sustenance as they traverse difficult domestic challenges and the regional strategic terrain.

Arab regimes accustomed to a close relationship with the United States should be worried about what happened in Afghanistan over the last few weeks, culminating in the triumphant return of the Taliban movement to Kabul. Those who have long counted on the premise that, if needed, the United States would come to their rescue will understand the Afghanistan collapse as a result of the US withdrawal announced by both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Thus, they may quickly begin to question where they stand on the priority list of US foreign policy, evaluate the efficacy of their relationships with the United States, and perhaps look to bolster their security with different alliance patterns and partners, such as Russia and China.

What will increase their sense of trepidation is President Biden’s sobering speech on August 16 about the Afghan debacle, one that appears to have confirmed some important principles that may spell the contours of a “Biden Doctrine.” These principles, which could very well define US relations with the Middle East going forward, are necessitated by a combination of American domestic considerations—fighting the coronavirus pandemic, addressing economic concerns, building consensus around policy objectives, and others—and costly international threats and challenges. Nevertheless, governments that depend on a close relationship with the United States should heed these principles and respond to them in a way that mitigates their impact on their countries, at least for the duration of the Biden presidency.

First, Biden may have finally drawn the curtain on American military interventionism in the wider Middle East, or at least to commitments to many countries there. For US partners and friends in the Arabian Gulf, this should translate into utmost caution regarding both the rhetoric about Iran and the wish to forcefully curtail its activities. In fact, from now on, the United States will only advise diplomacy as the preferred strategy to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Simultaneously, for the time being Washington will maintain its forces in the region, but only as a deterrent against any adventurism by Iran, which is now under the leadership of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the new, and equally hard-line, President Ebrahim Raisi.

Second, and as a corollary, the United States will not commit more blood and treasure to countries whose leaderships, state institutions, and militaries fail to firmly face threats and challenges. As President Biden highlighted in his speech, the United States spent more than a trillion dollars to sustain a well-armed Afghan military force, an institutional edifice for a modern state, and the pillars of an open economy. That much of this expenditure was to sustain an American presence that sought to fight extremists—yet, in reality, also protected corrupt officials and fostered a dependent economy—seems to be beside the point. What the Biden Administration saw was a failed Afghan army that withdrew from the battlefield against a ragtag militia with a millennial ideology. Especially embarrassing was the Taliban’s capture of billions of dollars-worth of sophisticated American weaponry that will be used to fortify a regime that previously ruled the country savagely—and one that also sheltered a terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Indeed, and despite the embarrassment and recrimination, it looks like the Biden team, much like the Trump Administration, has decided that where there is no vital American national interest, the United States will be ready and willing to simply pack up and leave, notwithstanding the damage to its reputation and credibility.

Third, the United States will no longer attempt to engage in open-ended efforts at nation-building. The Afghanistan experiment bolstered the American public’s gradually increasing reticence to expend energy and funds to help build (or resuscitate) state institutions in faraway places. This principle will have many applications in today’s Arab world where US economic, technical, military, and other assistance is required to differing degrees. Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon are prime examples of countries in need of such support. The United States will not undergo far-reaching engagement with these countries if their governing institutions and leaders do not exhibit the necessary will and readiness to govern and implement needed development programs and reforms.

As Afghanistan begins a new chapter under Taliban rule, the new principles of a Biden Doctrine are likely to govern the administration’s relations with its allies and friends in the Arab world. But the latter should be under no illusion that these principles will change any time soon, perhaps even with a different administration in Washington. Afghanistan has proven that the hubris of neoconservatives in the George W. Bush Administration, which eventually led to a consequential defeat for US foreign policy, will be checked—indeed, curtailed—so that the experiment may not be repeated. Those in the Arab world counting on American commitment should be careful to heed the significance of American domestic conditions on what the Biden Administration, or its successors, might be able or willing to do, both in the Arab region and the world at large.