President Biden’s Mixed Policies for the Middle East

President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to reorient US foreign policy in the Middle East. He vowed to assert human rights promotion as a key tenet of US policy, reinvigorate diplomatic engagement, and reverse President Donald Trump’s open embrace of the region’s authoritarian leaders. In some areas, Biden and his team have appeared to stay faithful to their commitment to try to return, alongside Iran, to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Recently, and despite their preoccupation with the situation in Afghanistan, President Biden and his team made moves that seem like stark departures from the previous administration’s policies. For example, the Biden Administration released declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files on Saudi Arabia’s role in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although these did not evince any “smoking gun,” it is certain that Riyadh is not pleased with the prospect of the Biden team making public any documents that might feed the narrative that the Saudi government, or Saudi royal family members, supported the attacks. Practically speaking, though, Riyadh suffered its greatest blow when President Biden ordered a removal of military assets from Saudi Arabia, most notably withdrawing missile defense systems.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia was singled out not only by the Biden Administration, but also by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) when she expressed concern about Riyadh for its ongoing use of torture.

Egypt, too, is learning that it may no longer enjoy the same treatment under this administration. The Biden team officially outlined its policy toward Egypt in light of the country’s abysmal human rights record. Technically, the president and his staff can withhold $300 million in military assistance to Egypt, but the administration outlined its conditions for withholding some $130 million of that total amount. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi announced steps he says are necessary for improving Egypt’s human rights record, but many international observers are skeptical. Regardless of how minuscule—and symbolic, some might argue—the step seems, it is the first real effort in years to make the government in Cairo uncomfortable.

Elsewhere, however, Biden and his team have not gone to great lengths to alter US policy. Administration officials have remained unconditionally supportive of Israel despite its new government’s commitment to entrenching the occupation of Palestinian territory. And even when it looks like Washington is shifting its military focus away from places like Saudi Arabia, the administration may have plans for actually growing the US military presence elsewhere in the Gulf. Now that the United States has completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden is eyeing an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy that, out of necessity, will likely see US air raid sorties depart from bases in Gulf Arab states.

Ultimately, Biden is as much a pragmatist as an ideologue committed to issues like human rights, so US policy under his leadership will almost certainly be determined on a country-by-country basis. For the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that could prove problematic if Biden accedes to public pressure to ostracize these regimes. Others, however, might hear different rhetoric from this administration. Ultimately, however, policies may not shift drastically.

Also Happening in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

NDAA Amendment Would Block Transfer of Bombs to Israel for One Year. House progressives offered an amendment to the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that—should it survive—would block the transfer of bombs to Israel for one year. The measure is likely doomed but it is notable because it is the second time in roughly four months that concrete measures have been introduced to limit the generous security assistance Washington provides to Israel.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Congress and AUMF Repeal. On September 16, Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia) and Peter Meijer (R-Michigan) participated in a virtual event to talk about their joint effort to repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs). The pair’s arguments for the need to repeal—and in the case of the 2001 AUMF, replace—these measures rely on a few observations. First, they correctly pointed out that the 2001 AUMF is the most pressing issue because it is the one that has been twisted and adapted to allow multiple administrations to launch military action in at least 19 countries, without having to consult Congress. If this were to be fixed, obsolete AUMFs like the 2002 need to be abolished. Second, Congress has a constitutional duty to be involved in matters involving war and peace but, since 2001, it has largely abdicated that role and allowed successive presidents to act as they see necessary. Finally, Rep. Spanberger noted that the threats posed by terrorist organizations will undoubtedly evolve, but the vague and open-ended nature of the 2001AUMF is ripe for abuse if presidents make the flimsiest of connections between groups nominally related to al-Qaeda. If Congress could ever agree to repeal these AUMFs, like Spanberger and Meijer hope to do, it would have an impact on presidents’ abilities to wage shadowy military campaigns in places like Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

3) Nominations

Biden Nominees Testify about State Department Roles. On September 15, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held two confirmation hearings for President Biden’s appointees to the State Department. One hearing featured Barbara Leaf, nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Julieta Valls Noyes, nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. The other hearing included only one witness testifying on Middle East-related issues: C.S. Eliot Kang, nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation. During the hearings, senators and witnesses alike expressed concern over the lack of a clear strategy on US policy in Syria and the insufficiency of Iran’s recent deal regarding its nuclear program with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Overall, there was a clear focus on upholding and strengthening the Abraham Accords as a strategy for enhancing both Israel’s relations in the region and US-Israel relations. In addition, both Leaf and Noyes emphasized the importance of reaffirming human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, as a foreign policy priority.

 II. Executive Branch

 1) White House

 NSC Director McGurk Discussing Caesar Sanctions Relief. According to multiple reports, the White House National Security Council’s Director for the Middle East Brett McGurk is reportedly discussing easing Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act sanctions on Syria for two purposes. First, the Biden team reportedly seeks to facilitate the flow of critical energy supplies to Lebanon—a country suffering immensely from economic chaos, including petrol shortages—by waiving Caesar sanctions to allow Egypt to export gas to Lebanon through Syria. Second, McGurk has reportedly met with Russian officials to discuss a solution to the years-long Syrian war by relaxing, in part, the same sanctions for guarantees around Syrian cooperation in counterterrorism operations and efforts to reduce Turkey’s involvement in northeastern Syria. If the administration eases sanctions on Syria for either of these reasons, or others, there will likely be bipartisan outrage at the idea of normalizing with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Qatari FM; Officials Travel to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Libya. For at least the third time in as many weeks, Secretary Antony Blinken spoke with his Qatari counterpart to once again discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Other State Department officials departed for both the Gulf and North Africa for in-person meetings with key officials. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking traveled to both Saudi Arabia and Oman to meet with Saudi, Omani, and Yemeni government officials and key UN interlocutors focused on peace in Yemen. Lenderking concentrated on humanitarian relief efforts and a potential negotiated peace.

Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland and State Department Counselor Derek Chollet visited with key Libyan officials, including interim Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, High Council of State Chairman Khaled al-Mishri, Presidential Council Deputy Chairmen Musa al-Koni and Abdullah al-Lafi, and President of the High National Electoral Commission Emad al-Sayah. Norland and Chollet spoke with officials about efforts to ensure that Libyan national elections take place on time later this year.

State Department Announces Sanctions on Terrorism Supporters. The State Department stated this week that it found and sanctioned five supporters of al-Qaeda currently residing in Turkey. In addition, the department later announced sanctions on entities accused of illicitly financing and laundering money for Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.

Diplomats Celebrate One Year of Abraham Accords. Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the so-called Abraham Accords that were signed between Israel and multiple Arab states. As such, Secretary Blinken and US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield participated in separate events to celebrate the accords.

III. Judicial Branch

Court Orders Haftar’s Defense Team to Respond in Lawsuit.  The US-based Libyan American Alliance celebrated a court ruling in a lawsuit against Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. In June 2019, the nonprofit worked in tandem with the families of victims who were killed in Haftar’s brutal campaign to consolidate control in Libya; their aim was to sue the strongman for his role in orchestrating the torture and/or extrajudicial killings of the victims. Haftar is a dual US-Libyan citizen, but his defense team told the court that he could not be subject to a civil trial because he is a “head of state” and any information he might divulge in his defense is protected by a doctrine regarding sensitive national security information. The most recent ruling in US District Court quashes that argument, though, and Haftar and his team are directed to hand over the pertinent requested information or risk defaulting and being automatically held liable for the crimes. This all comes as Haftar plans on spending some $1 million in lobbying fees to sell himself to Washington, not as a strongman who could unify a fragmented Libya—as he did with the Trump Administration—but as a true supporter of Libya’s democratic transition and a potential future president.