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Biden's Happy-thinking in the Middle East
What a holiday from history looks like.
In last week’s Monday Note, I made reference in passing to the Biden administration’s “fundamentally optimistic worldview”. This week, I’d like to very briefly flesh out what I meant by that.
Here’s Candidate Joe Biden’s essay in Foreign Policy on his administration’s approach to foreign policy from 2020. Choice paragraph:
Yet diplomacy should be the first instrument of American power. […] Diplomacy is not just a series of handshakes and photo ops. It is building and tending relationships and working to identify areas of common interest while managing points of conflict. It requires discipline, a coherent policymaking process, and a team of experienced and empowered professionals. As president, I will elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy. I will reinvest in the diplomatic corps, which this administration has hollowed out, and put U.S. diplomacy back in the hands of genuine professionals.
I don’t cite this as some kind of cheap gotcha. The essay is mostly boilerplate campaign rhetoric, and shouldn’t be scrutinized as much more than that. And as such statements go, it’s not the worst I’ve read. But the passage above has nagged at me as one after another hotspot has blown up in the Biden administration’s face.
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Readers might recall that the policy approach of Team Biden before Putin went all-in on Ukraine in 2022 was to “park Russia” — that is to say come to some kind of modus vivendi with Moscow so as to be able to refocus the United States on Asia policy. A similar logic shaped the Biden administration’s Middle East policy: get Iran back into the nuclear deal (the JCPOA), which would presumably lead to a ratcheting down on tensions, allowing the U.S. to deal with China.
How would Biden have us deal with China? Here’s Candidate Biden’s foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken talking to Walter Russell Mead ahead of the elections:
[I]t's vital because we are in a competition with China and there's nothing wrong with competition if it's fair. In fact, it hopefully brings out in some ways the best. We need, in the first instance, to invest in our own competitiveness […] I think you'd see a Biden administration having reestablished a relative strength in the relationship, then be able to engage China and work with China, in areas where our interests clearly overlap, whether it is again, contending with climate change, dealing with global health and pandemics, dealing with the spread of dangerous weapons. We're much better off though, finding ways to cooperate when we're acting from a position of strength than from a position of weakness.
Again, read the whole interview, it’s not terrible. But this section has also stuck with me as an example of Team Biden’s endless positive-sum thinking. It’s not conflict, it’s competition. And we’re better at competing when we gather our allies around us to exert diplomatic pressure on our adversaries. The real global challenges are not between states but actually are things like climate change and global pandemics, which we collectively, as humanity, haven’t been able to tackle. Because there hasn’t been enough diplomacy.
I’m being a little reductive here for economy and effect, but not by much.
Back to the Middle East, this tendency has come up even shorter than it has in Europe. The goal was to “park Iran” in the JCPOA, and then work on solidifying what some in the administration clearly felt was a decent breakthrough: the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel make a peace deal with a whole slew of Arab countries (all admittedly dictatorships) in the region.has argued that the evil in Biden’s strategy was to focus on empowering authoritarian regimes at the expense of spreading democracy in the Middle East. That may or may not be true, but for me it’s far too broad to be useful. My criticism is simpler: the policy was incoherent because it fatally misunderstood how the world works. The problem wasn’t that it was empowering Iran or the Saudis, it’s that it was trying to empower them both at the same time. Had the Saudis and Israel concluded a peace deal, that would have come at the expense of Iran region-wide and specifically at the expense of Hamas in Gaza. The closer the deal came to fruition, the more likely some kind of conflict became.
The kind of bloody outcome we saw in Israel on October 7th and that’s playing out in Gaza today is the result of a huge blindspot for a worldview that sees diplomacy as the principal tool of foreign policy, where all conflicts can be resolved through negotiations and cooperation. A blow-up might have been unavoidable at some point, but it certainly could have been contained more easily in the near term if the Biden folks had decided to choose which rising hegemon — the Saudis or the Iranians — to bless in the Middle East. Making nice with both blew up in their face.
Now, the Biden administration is faced with the unenviable task of giving the Israelis what is likely to be a carte blanche in Gaza in exchange for guarantees of them not expanding the war to Lebanon, or, heaven forbid, to Iran. Blinken himself is just wrapping up a tour of the Middle East, where he seems to be telling Iranians (via Qatar) not to intervene, all the while trying and spectacularly failing to get Arab regimes to publicly condemn Hamas.
My unhappy prediction is that there’s a good chance it won’t work. The fundamental dynamic at the heart of this hideous outburst of violence remains that Israel’s total defeat of Hamas in Gaza would be a meaningful and painful setback for Iran’s regional ambitions. Deterrence could work, but it probably will require some kind of show of force by the United States to get the message across.
And for a foreign policy team that is not used to thinking in these terms, I suspect such a display is not in the cards.