President Biden’s foreign policy is beginning to take shape, and it is looking vastly different from Trump’s and more traditional than Obama’s. The Middle East has been a cumbersome region for most presidents to navigate. Trump’s foreign policy was America First, and overturned decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East from brokering of the Abraham Accords to ushering in troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, predecessor Barack Obama took a more diplomatic approach and worked to reduce America’s commitments abroad in the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For many, there was an expectation that Biden’s foreign policy would be a third installment of the Obama administration, but this is not the case. Biden who unlike Obama, has amassed a lifetime of political experience and is making it clear he has his own agenda he would like to see implemented.
During his campaign, Biden said he would revive traditional American allies and wanted a return to diplomacy. However, it has become increasingly clear the Middle East is not a priority for Biden. Like most presidents wanting to focus on issues at home, Biden has opted to focus on what he considers more pressing global issues such as China, COVID, and Climate.
This signal is not all bad for the United States, which has seen its fair share of entanglements in the Middle East become costly, arduous, and yielding dismal results. However, the Biden administration must walk a fine line to protect America’s interests in the region.
Upon entering office, Biden ended “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” This was a preemptive move and signaled a turning of the page from Trump’s foreign policy and America’s intervention. Striking a balance in the Middle East is a struggle for any president, and Biden has been facing tests from key countries.
Iran has been staging drone missile attacks in Saudi Arabia and firing missiles at a U.S. air base in northern Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor and wounding a U.S. service member. In a retaliatory strike, Biden carried out airstrikes in Syria on Iran-backed militias responsible for recent attacks against American and allied personnel in Iraq. Biden has shown he is prepared to use military force if it is justified and used the airstrikes to send a warning to Iran that he will not tolerate attacks on Americans or its allies.
Earlier in March, Biden released an intelligence report that blamed the Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for the murder of a Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally, as well as a big oil producer and intelligence provider. As a result, Biden issued sanctions on the royal guard unit that carried out the killing, but refused to punish the crown prince directly.
Biden has been diplomatically strategic in his foreign policy and handling of the Middle East, from drawing red lines to sending a clear message to the region that there is a new president in the Oval Office.
There are various things Biden could do to confront the ongoing quagmire of interlocking crises that affect the Middle East, but the likelihood of him wading into these situations without provocation is highly unlikely.
While Biden may want to focus on issues plaguing Americans at home; the world is watching to see what to expect from the administration over the next four years. Biden’s biggest challenge will be if and how to walk back Trump-era policies without being seen as retreating. It is important for Biden to strike the right balance between military action and diplomacy.