What Are the Major Takeaways of Joe Biden’s Recent Trip to the Middle East?

19.07.2022, 10:45, Разное
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Maha Yahya | Director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut

Perhaps it is too early to determine the full outcome of President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East, beyond the perception that he came away with little to show for his effort. The first clear takeaway is that the region will do what it will do. The idea that the Middle East is simply a sandbox for great power jostles ignores the rise of regional powers and the considerable sway they have amassed, allowing them to shape outcomes across the region and beyond. The trip reinforced the idea that when their interests are not aligned with those of the United States, regional powers will simply go their own way. Perhaps this was most clear in two areas: the president left with no apparently explicit promises for an increase in oil production. This was followed by a Saudi denial that the kingdom’s opening of its airspace to Israeli aircraft constituted a step in the direction of normalization with Israel. Regional powers do not want to go to war with Iran. Rather, they want to negotiate and find a way to coexist.

In the process, the trip ended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pariah status as Saudi Arabia asserted its position as a key regional interlocutor and one that can shape outcomes and political settlements with Iran, in the Levant, and beyond. This includes both Syria’s return to the Arab fold as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the latter, and while Saudi Arabia’s skies are now open to civilian flights out of Israel, Riyadh does not seem to be any closer to signing a peace accord with Israel, in large part due to Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians. Biden had little to offer beyond stating that while he would continue to back a two-state solution he “knows that it is not in the near term.” Indeed, he did little beyond resuming support for hospitals in Jerusalem and acquiescing to Israel’s apartheid policies toward the Palestinians.

Finally, the visit effectively dealt a lethal blow to Biden’s much-touted rhetoric on human rights. U.S. attitudes with regard to the peace process and to Israeli policies toward Palestinians and their territories, like Biden’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, only reconfirmed perceptions in the region that the United States is unable to walk the walk on human rights. In other words, its interests will always trump its values no matter what. This has further undermined U.S. clout and legitimized the Arab quest for nonalignment when it comes to global conflicts.

 

Zaha Hassan | Human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

President Joe Biden launched his Middle East trip assuring Americans that human rights and fundamental freedoms would be on his agenda in the West Bank and Israel as well as in Saudi Arabia. However, the carefully choreographed Palestine component of Biden’s itinerary was more touristic and humanitarian than political. He visited the Church of the Nativity and a Lutheran-run East Jerusalem hospital serving Palestinians. Despite his best efforts, Biden couldn’t escape the issue of Palestinian human rights when he was greeted in Bethlehem with the banner, “Mr. President, this is apartheid.” And he couldn’t help but notice the gaggle of journalists wearing t-shirts demanding justice for their Palestinian American colleague Shireen Abu Aqleh, whose killing the United States inexplicably found to be a tragic Israeli mistake just days before the trip.

While Biden did allude to Palestinian rights and call for accountability for the killing of Abu Aqleh, these statements were not particularly credible, coming as they did after his signing of the “Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Declaration.” The declaration committed the United States to opposing Palestinian diplomatic and legal efforts at the United Nations and before the International Criminal Court, as well as civil society-led efforts to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations.

The president attempted to make common cause with Palestinians living under occupation by talking about his Irish Catholic roots and recited Irish poetry about the moment when justice will rise up like a tidal wave and “history and hope will rhyme.” However, he avoided responding to a nurse who thanked him for the $100 million in funding for East Jerusalem hospitals, but told him that Palestinians needed “more justice.”

Among the many important takeaways from the president’s first trip to the region is that the United States will find it increasingly difficult to manage its hypocrisy on human rights while pursuing its foreign policy agenda. That had to be abundantly clear when the president raised the matter of Saudi responsibility for the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responded with “what about Shireen Abu Aqleh and Abu Ghraib.”

 

Aaron David Miller | Senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

President Joe Biden’s whirlwind foray into the Middle East reflected less a strategic reset toward a troubled region and far more a response to the crises and exigencies of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, namely how to increase oil supply and plant a U.S. flag in the face of Russian and Chinese advances.

Israel: Even by pro-Israel standards, the visit was a Biden-Israel lovefest, chock full of warm embraces, cooperative ventures, and coordination embodied in the Jerusalem Declaration. If there were differences on Iran they were muted publicly. And with elections set for November 1, Biden wasn’t going to press a caretaker government, especially one headed by Yair Lapid, Biden’s unstated preference over Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister.

The Palestinians: If Israel got the honey, Palestinians got mostly vinegar. Biden publicly talked about a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps and a promised $300 million plus in aid. But neither Biden nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is in the seventeenth year of a four-year term, believed the United States was serious about promoting it.

U.S.-Saudi relations: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got what he wanted out of the meeting: a photo-op, quite a bit of facetime, validation that Biden had closed the file on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, and recognition of Prince Mohammed’s leadership. Biden presumably got promises that Saudi Arabia would ramp up oil production, help on Yemen, and agree to modest confidence-building measures in Saudi-Israeli relations. But there was no real sense (cooperation on 5G to freeze out Huawei notwithstanding) that the Saudis were prepared to distance themselves substantially from either Russia or China.

Iran: There was progress on how to better integrate Israel and the Gulf States into an air, missile, and drone defense system against Tehran. But there was no real sense that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Gulf Cooperation Council was prepared to become the tip of the U.S. spear against Tehran.

 

Karim Sadjadpour | Senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Students of history tend to avoid making predictions, especially about the Middle East. The most impactful regional events of the last five decades—the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 9/11 attacks, and the Arab uprisings of 2010–2011—were all unanticipated. With that caveat, here are some near-term takeaways of President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the region:

American Realism: Trillions of American dollars and hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers failed to build decent, stable governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab uprisings of 2011, similarly, did not produce better outcomes. As Biden’s Middle East czar Brett McGurk told Carnegie’s Aaron David Miller last January, “We are not trying to pursue a transformation of this region, we’re trying to pursue very important vital American interests in a way that aligns our ends and means, our commitments and our capabilities.”

Arab realism: America’s regional partners will continue to have doubts about U.S. commitments to the Middle East. Their national interests will compel them to continue fostering commercial and military ties with China and Russia. But the strategic, cultural, and economic relationships they’ve built with the United States over the last five decades cannot be replaced by Beijing and Moscow.

Energy realities: Energy prices are notoriously cyclical and may soon correct, but a world in which oil, and the price of oil, are economically and politically irrelevant is still far away. As Afshin Molavi presciently outlined in 2021, “From the moment we wake up to the moment we close our eyes to sleep, we are enveloped in a world of petroleum. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.”

Iran Unites: Aristotle was not the first to observe that “a common danger unites even the bitterest enemies.” Since Biden’s election, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all tried to deconflict with Iran diplomatically, with limited to no success. If there is one country that deserves the most credit for both the Abraham Accords and the endurance of the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council partnership, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 

Mohanad Hage Ali | Senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut

What’s most notable in the Biden visit is how limited is the margin of maneuver for any U.S. president in the region today. The Biden administration has failed to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, as planned, and the region is on the road to further military and security escalation between Iran and its allies and proxies on the one hand, and Israel and its Arab friends on the other.

Biden has also failed to deliver anything meaningful for the Palestinians. In fact, his trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia seemed to be in most aspects a continuation of the Trump administration’s core policies in the region. Biden sought to expand the Abraham Accords and reassure U.S. allies on Iran. For Palestinians, the furthering of Arab-Israeli ties, regardless of the peace process, is a policy designed to isolate them. As a result, Palestinian public opinion is edging closer to Iran, amid growing support for armed struggle against Israeli occupation.

Aside from financial assistance and paying lip-service to the now increasingly difficult two-state solution, Biden has fallen back on the pillars of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy: a regional peace with Israel that excludes the Palestinians; backing for an emerging Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran; and the adoption of a transactional approach which eventually favors short-term U.S. interests in the Middle East over human rights.

Even when it comes to the energy goals of the Biden administration, the course is not that certain. Next August 3, the United States may be able to potentially gather enough leverage through its friends and allies in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase production and lower oil prices in the short term. However, the current trajectory of the ongoing tensions with Iran could lead to a repeat of the wave of attacks that took place in 2019, or a renewal of fighting in Yemen, thus reversing any previous gains.

However, the alternative policy options are not that clear either, and come with their own set of risks. That is why the most important highlight of the Biden visit was the policy limitations it brought forward. The U.S. president visited the Middle East, but the most to which he could aspire was to keep U.S. branding on a bus his country no longer drives.




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