Joe Biden’s Imaginary Middle East Policy

Over his more than four decades of service as a US senator, vice president, and now as president, Joe Biden has cultivated an image of the consummate foreign policy realist. A card-carrying member of the Washington foreign policy “blob,” Biden is the very model of a liberal internationalist—standing up for a rules-based order, multilateralism, strong alliances, and a robust defense of democracy. But when it comes to the Middle East, Biden’s vaunted realism seems to have deserted him. In his approach to the region, Biden has leaned heavily on wishful thinking, outdated diplomatic tropes, empty assertions, and meaningless promises. Biden’s Middle East policy is, in a word, imaginary.

This is not to say that the Biden administration has no ideas on policy options. For one thing, it is working hard to cement a Saudi Arabia-Israel deal on normalization, which could be transformative, if it happens. But the intellectual gravamen of the administration’s approach seems to be based on the rickety structure of older policy, the basis of which has altered beyond recognition in the last 20 years.

Is There a Two-State Solution?

Nowhere is this more obvious than the president’s approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Biden continues to tout the “two-state solution,” a staple of American Middle East peace policy for decades, as the key to a final settlement for the decades-old conflict. There are two problems with this, however. First, the administration has done nothing on the diplomatic front to advance this concept, and has no apparent intention of doing so. Biden himself acknowledged this in 2022 after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, saying publicly that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations,” while also reaffirming his preference for a two-state solution based on Clinton-era formulations regarding borders and the status of Jerusalem.

Biden continues to tout the “two-state solution,” a staple of American Middle East peace policy for decades, as the key to a final settlement for the decades-old conflict.

In so doing, Biden failed to acknowledge the second, more serious problem: the fact that the two-state solution itself is most likely dead, the victim of an avalanche of new Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and the growing political dysfunction and intransigence in both Israel and Palestine. The current reality on the ground is a de facto one-state solution, with Israel ruling most of historic Palestine and maintaining control over Palestinians by means of a repressive military regime in the West Bank and occasional punitive forays into the Gaza Strip. Whether this is viable as a long-term policy is debatable. So too is the question of how Israel can remain a democracy, and thus retain its bonds of sympathy and principle with the United States as the protocols and politics of occupation championed by the settler movement increasingly dominate and define Israeli governance of the Palestinians. But the Biden administration has done little to address these questions, preferring to rely on mildly expressed cautions and decades-old talking points that reflect a more hopeful time and a more liberal Israel.

Syria: The Forgotten Conflict

Biden has talked tough on other issues too, proclaiming maximalist goals that the administration has done nothing to support. Take Syria: Biden recently told a group of Syrian activists at a fundraiser in Washington that he supports the goal of removing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power, affirming his view that Assad must leave, according to activists present at the event. Biden’s stance thus appears little changed from that of the Obama administration, which openly supported Assad’s ouster as a key tenet of US policy. But the window of opportunity to do so has long since slammed shut. In practice, Biden attaches little strategic importance to Syria, and has done virtually nothing to bring about an end to the war, negotiated or otherwise. The United States maintains some 900 troops in country, whose mission is focused on preventing the resurgence of the so-called Islamic State, but the political solution that the administration still claims is key to ending the conflict is nowhere on its agenda. Tellingly, the Biden administration offered, at best, tepid objections to the Arab League’s recent rehabilitation of the Assad regime.

Iran, Human Rights, and the Lagging Democracy Agenda

The story is similar on Iran. Biden himself has said he stands with the country’s anti-government protesters, and has expressed support for regime change, telling supporters last November that, “We’re gonna free Iran.” The reality is that the administration professes no such policy, and appears conflicted about the strategy it should adopt. With the collapse of negotiations over restoring the nuclear deal, there seems to be little in the way of a clear Iran policy at all, except pursuing low-key proximity talks in Oman aimed at reducing tensions amid faltering US efforts to deter and contain the Islamic Republic. If history is any guide, these talks are unlikely to produce any kind of lasting commitment to a potential cessation of the activities driving tensions, let alone a lasting rapprochement. The US foreign policy conundrum of Iran remains unsolved.

Then there is the avowed intention to take Saudi Arabia and Egypt to task for their manifold human rights violations. In Riyadh’s case this includes the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA believes was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (known as MBS). On the campaign trail in 2019 and 2020, Biden famously promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” and insisted that with him as president, there would be “no more blank checks” for former President Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Both pledges were quickly abandoned once they collided with reality. After some early hemming and hawing, the administration approved a massive $2.5 billion arms sale to Cairo in 2022 and quickly reverted to business as usual, praising Egypt for its leadership and acquiescing to Cairo’s hosting of the COP27 international climate meeting.

With Saudi-Israel rapprochement now at the top of the Biden administration’s to-do list, any worries about human rights are an afterthought.

Biden’s concern about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record mostly vanished in the face of rising energy prices and the Ukraine crisis, culminating in a controversial fence-mending trip to the kingdom last year, during which the president notoriously fist-bumped MBS in greeting, an unfortunate photo-op that fueled intense criticism from human rights circles. With Saudi-Israel rapprochement now at the top of the Biden administration’s to-do list in the Middle East, any worries about human rights in the kingdom—not to mention its close cooperation with Russia—are an afterthought.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are more the rule than the exception. For all Biden’s talk of putting human rights at “the center of our foreign policy” and his rhetoric about the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, which he has framed as an existential concern for American foreign policy, his administration has been oddly quiet on the subject of just and democratic governance in Arabic-speaking countries. Biden’s major initiative in this regard, the 2021 Summit for Democracy, was barely mentioned the Middle East and included only two speakers from the region on its formal agenda.

When Reach Exceeds Grasp

Biden and his foreign policy advisors seem to have imagined a much bolder and more straightforward Middle East strategy than they have actually pursued in practice. Instead, the administration has essentially adopted Donald Trump’s Middle East policy, placing its bets on Trump’s Abraham Accords as the foundation of a strategy aimed at building economic, security, and military ties among the leading Arab states and Israel. With its disregard for some important realities, even this approach has its imaginary elements. In particular, the apparent belief that the trickle-down economics of regional dealmaking will do enough to allay Palestinian grievances in place of a final status settlement is a tactic that did not work in the 1990s during Bill Clinton’s intensive push for an agreement, and that will not work now.

Likewise, hopes for the full integration of Israel into the region seem unrealistic, given that large majorities of Arab citizens oppose diplomatic recognition of the state. Not that the opinions of citizens have mattered greatly to Arab governments, but they do have an impact on practical matters such as trade and tourism, and condition the extent to which rulers are likely to expand the scope of relations, at least in public.

The Saudi Gambit

In this regard, the diplomatic effort to achieve a deal for Saudi recognition of Israel ranks as the administration’s boldest Middle East initiative to date. Intended as the capstone of Arab-Israeli peace, such an agreement would fundamentally shift the politics of the region. As part of the package, conditions under negotiation reportedly include American aid for the kingdom’s civilian nuclear program and US security guarantees for Riyadh, in exchange for unspecified Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

All of these are a tall order; Riyadh’s demands seem unlikely at this point to pass muster with the US Senate, which must approve any such treaty commitment, while Israel’s right-wing and increasingly erratic government is not expected to endorse political or economic measures significant enough to assuage Saudi sensibilities regarding the Palestinians. In fact, any Saudi-Israeli agreement would likely require the complete abandonment by Riyadh of the Arab Peace Initiative authored and proposed by the kingdom in 2002, which would require major territorial givebacks by Israel, the establishment of a Palestinian capital city in East Jerusalem, and the return of a large number of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194. This proposal is still, technically, the bedrock of Riyadh’s Israel-Palestine policy, and is widely supported, in principle, by other Arab states. Despite the difficulties involved, the Biden administration must be commended on the imaginative leap involved in pursuing a normalization deal while ignoring Saudi policy.

Imagination is Good. But Failure Is an Option Too

No American president is a stranger to hypocrisy, especially when it comes to the Middle East, and Joe Biden is well known to be prone to gaffes and rhetorical flights of fancy. But in this case Biden’s adherence to obsolete diplomatic formulations and wishful thinking is more than just political double talk or forgivable hyperbole. It produces confusion among both friends and adversaries in the region and weakens America by making Washington appear feckless or naive. The failure of bold, yet risky and improbable initiatives creates the appearance of incompetence and fosters distrust in US diplomacy. This damages US credibility and leadership, prompting allies to look for support elsewhere, as Saudi Arabia and others have done with China. Imagination is good for the spirit, and sometimes even for foreign policy. But when it comes to a region as volatile and cynical as the Middle East, it can do more harm than good, for both the region and for US interests.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: SPA