International RelationsFeb 17, 2022
The US in the Middle East: One Year into the Biden Administration - Interview with Paul Salem
- Paul Salem
Middle East Institute President Paul Salem talks to LCPS about US foreign policy in the Middle East one year into the Biden administration. From the Iran nuclear negotiations to the Abraham Accords, Salem reflects on the dramatic shifts taking place across the region and their impact on Lebanon, as the country undergoes one of the worst economic crisis in its history.
Given the attempts at negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, how do you read the impact this might have on US relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf moving forward?
The relations of the United States with the main Gulf countries are fairly solid and have a lot of strategic importance and weight. Iran is, of course, a central issue for many of the Gulf countries, but it is not the only issue which is key to US relations with the Gulf. A key dynamic, especially with Saudi Arabia, relates to the future of energy and the global energy markets. Hydrocarbons will remain in the mix of the global energy needs for the next two-to-three decades, regardless of the shift towards clean energy.
Saudi Arabia can also be a player in the renewable energy market and is already engaging in transition to cleaner hydrocarbons, including more natural gas, as well as beginning to invest in blue hydrogen, solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy, as well as in carbon capture. Furthermore, by keeping its oil trade in US dollars (even when trading with China and other Asian countries), Saudi Arabia remains instrumental in helping the US maintain the US dollar as the main global currency, which is of utmost importance to Washington. Relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are long-standing and strong, as they relate to major economic—as well as security—interests and cooperation. Their military cooperation has increased in recent weeks after the Houthi attacks on the UAE.
Relations with Qatar are also very strong, as it plays a very important role in the hydrocarbon world, particularly in natural gas, and is becoming more important as Russia threatens Europe’s gas supplies. The US wants Qatar to produce and provide more natural gas to Europe, as an alternative, in response to Putin. Qatar has also been instrumental after the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, as it has been representing the US in Afghanistan, providing airplanes to get a lot of people out on behalf of the US, and playing a role in the talks with the Taliban. Qatar also hosts a major US air base and the regional headquarters for US Central Command. The US also has a naval base in Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
The US also has a strategic interest in keeping both the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandeb and Red Sea lanes open for energy and international trade. This requires continued cooperation and coordination with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and particularly with Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea.
Regarding the deal with Iran, I think that the impact on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries will be limited, as they have already factored in the likelihood of a deal with Iran. From the perspective of the Gulf countries, on the one hand, there is a positive impact from the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), because it helps control Iran’s nuclear program. But, on the other hand, it will give Iran more money, and certainly part of that money might be invested in their militia allies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Nevertheless, I think the Gulf countries have realized that regardless of who is in power in Washington—whether Donald Trump, Barak Obama, or Joe Biden—the US is unwilling to fully confront, or actually defeat or eliminate, the Iranian threat. The most the US is going to do is use sanctions, cyber or covert methods, and help its allies in the Gulf defend themselves—the US is not going to go to war against Iran. And I think the Gulf countries have understood that they have to figure out how to live with the Islamic Republic, limit the damage, and minimize the risk to themselves.
Some Gulf countries have opened channels with the Iranians—for example, Saudi Arabia via Baghdad, or with the UAE sending its national security adviser to Tehran. Hence, they are looking for ways to at least de-escalate with Iran, despite not having any high hopes that its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen will be dramatically reduced. Regardless of that realization, they want to go ahead with their own agendas: Saudi Arabia with its vision 2030, and the UAE’s interest in making sure that they don’t continue to be attacked by the Houthis or any other Iranian proxies. I think US-Gulf relations will remain strong whether there is a deal or not.
Under the Trump administration, the US played a key role in brokering the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Bahrain, on the one hand, and Israel, on the other. Where do you see these efforts going under the Biden administration, and what are the ramifications for Lebanon?
Regarding the Abraham Accords, I think the Biden administration does not talk about it much for political reasons, as it was a Trump accomplishment. Although they see it favorably, they will not put a huge effort into it. In my opinion, they are fine with whatever the relevant parties decide among themselves.
The Biden administration has resumed direct contact with the Palestinian Authority (PA) through Hadi Amr, the US special envoy, and by releasing funds. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has not made peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians a high priority, because they have so many other headaches and priorities—simply put, they have too much on their plate.
I should note that while the administration would be in favor of a peace deal and a two-state solution, they realize that the current “government of contradictions” in Israel is not in a position to open negotiations with the Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is having his legitimacy questioned, and has been postponing elections, so he is not in a strong position to negotiate either. Therefore, while they are a bit lukewarm on the Abraham Accords and more favorable toward the Palestinians and the Israelis resuming negotiations, currently they do not see a way for that to happen. Hence, they have not made it an actual priority.
As to how it relates to Lebanon, I do not necessarily see a direct impact. Yes, the Abraham Accords are creating new and important dynamics in the Middle East in economics, security, investment, trade, and technology. However, despite these remarkable changes, Lebanon is isolated from these dynamics, as it still is very much in the Iranian/Hezbollah orbit on strategic issues, is in a state of enmity with Israel, and its relations with the Gulf are at a very low point. Of course, Lebanon is negotiating its maritime borders with Israel, and maybe its land borders, but not more than that.
Do you consider any changes in the US’s Middle East policy a function of the Biden administration or is it a momentous shift in US priorities and concerns?
In terms of changes in Middle East policy, I think we saw structural changes during the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations. From Obama onwards—even in the later part of George W. Bush administration—there was a realization that the war in Iraq, as well as the huge investment they made in that country, were both a mistake, at least from the US side, as nothing really came of it for the US. Consequently, this position indicates that the US should reduce its presence and its investment in Iraq. Despite Obama’s withdrawal, he had to come back to Iraq and, for the foreseeable future, US administrations will stay there, partly to avoid having Iraq fall completely under Iranian control and partly because ISIS remains a concern—that position has been consistent throughout the last three administrations.
Concerning Afghanistan, Obama, Trump, and Biden all said they wanted to get out of Afghanistan, yet only Biden actually did. Obviously, the way the US got out was disastrous, negatively impacting the credibility of the US as a partner. Its allies were shaken by that overly rapid withdrawal. Its opponents, on the other hand, were emboldened and perceived the US as a paper tiger. I believe though that the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, at least for Biden, probably means that he will not pursue another withdrawal, e.g. from Syria or Iraq, because politically he can no longer take more withdrawals. So, definitely, there has been—from the Obama to Biden administrations—a scaling back from the high engagement and involvement of George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq, reflecting a consensus in the US that those major wars should have ended long ago.
The other big shift is obviously the rise of China and the need for the US to focus on it as a pivotal issue. What does that mean? It certainly does not mean leaving the Middle East. Among a number of reasons of why all of the US administrations basically stayed in the Middle East, and are likely to continue doing so, is competition with China. The US is worried that if they leave the Middle East completely, or too fast, the beneficiary will be China, and that would be a major global concern for them. Although different, these concerns draw similarities to the calculations of the Cold War—if the US leaves a place, the opposing superpower will come in to replace it.
More fundamentally, the US continues to see that it has enduring interests in the Middle East, and the Gulf countries in particular, which I have already talked about (energy, US dollar, trade, security). It also has a security interest to continue to fight remnants of ISIS and al-Qaeda, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, in addition to the US’s “special relationship” with Israel.
Yes, the US is very concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. We saw that with Obama, we saw it with Trump, who tried a different approach by exerting maximum pressure, we are seeing it again with Biden, and this will remain an ongoing concern.
One can conclude that the shift in US policy in the Middle East is mainly structural—to correct the over-stretch of the George W. Bush administration and to put a bit more investment in Asia. But, the US is staying in the Middle East for the time being, and will remain the most influential global player in the region for the foreseeable future. It still has the biggest economy, the largest military, and the widest set of alliances and relationships from Morocco to Oman.
Russia, on the other hand, is a relatively small player, its economy is 7% of the US economy, so it is actually not seen as a global peer challenger. Yes, they can intervene in Syria and a little in Libya—they can certainly do much more in Eastern Europe, as we can see in the Ukraine crisis—but Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and it cannot offer countries and economies in the Middle East a major partnership that could replace the US role.
As for China—the emerging giant—it is playing a long game in the Middle East, and is in fact currently fine with the US role in the Middle East, because it ensures that the oil of the region can be exported freely, including to China. Moreover, the US makes sure that the trade routes remain open, including those serving China and its trade interests. Thus, China is not keen on challenging the US in the Middle East in the immediate future. They are nonetheless focused, in terms of a direct challenge, on Taiwan and the South China Sea. But unlike the Russians they are playing a much longer and softer game, and are expanding in the Middle East through infrastructure, technology, and telecomm deals. If their economy continues to grow as it has, maybe by 2040 or 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the founding of Communist China), they might try to mount a global geopolitical challenge that might include the Middle East, but not in the near term.
The change that Biden brought was definitely a different approach to Iran—one that is similar to Obama’s. Yet, there is no notable change in US policy towards the Gulf countries. There might be a slightly different rhetoric, a little bit more talk about democracy and human rights here and there, but with no major effect on relations with countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, which continue uninterrupted. In conclusion, I think that US foreign policy is pretty continuous, stretching beyond the tenures of particular presidents.
In light of recent developments in Lebanon, is it your impression that the Biden Administration has begun formulating a Lebanon-specific agenda?
Regarding Lebanon, I must say that for such a small country, it receives considerable attention and support across successive US administrations—even from Congress. Obviously, the US has been a key supporter of the Lebanese army, and a donor of humanitarian aid, first to refugees and now to the Lebanese population. Obviously, it is the main player in the IMF and the World Bank. It is a big partner in pushing for the reforms that Lebanon absolutely needs, while assuring the support of the IMF and the World Bank, if and when these reforms are implemented. There is therefore no doubt that the US policy towards Lebanon is quite well-defined, and in fact, it is quite positive and forward leaning.
The problem has unfortunately been in Beirut—not in Paris or Washington. The support of international partners is there—it is simply that the governing oligarchy, and the governments that have been formed, including this one, that have not implemented any major or significant reform. It has become clear that even regarding serious matters, like the collapsing banking sector, the government has not done any of its homework to unleash the support that is out there.
Moreover, I think there is a Lebanon-specific policy in the US that is not linked to Iran, nor to Israel or Syria. As you know, the US was very instrumental in trying to get electricity and gas to Lebanon, even if it went through Syria—thus requiring them to navigate their way around the Caesar Act. In conclusion, I would say that the support from the US and Europe to Lebanon is good. The problem is in the Lebanese government and the ruling class, who have not done anything serious to take advantage of it.
Recent diplomatic efforts to address the row between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have had limited results. What role do you see the US playing to address this growing problem?
With regard to Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries in general, the US has tried to get the Gulf states to re-engage in Lebanon. For example, Washington was very happy with President Emanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and they continue to coordinate with the French on that angle. I do not know if the recent initiative that came via the Kuwaiti foreign minister was due to French or US diplomacy, but I know that the US continues to try to get the Gulf countries to be more engaged in Lebanon. For them, the lack of Gulf engagement simply helps Iran and Hezbollah—it does not help anyone else. Washington also understand that if the Lebanese government makes any reasonable economic reforms, they are going to need the Gulf countries to revive the Lebanese economy.Paul Salem is president of the Middle East Institute (MEI). He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict, as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East. Prior to joining MEI, Salem was the founding director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut between 2006 and 2013. From 1999 to 2006, he was director of the Fares Foundation, and in 1989-1999, founded and directed the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.