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Joe Biden speaking to an audience. U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, Dec. 11, 2021 (AP photo by Carolyn Kaster).

The Biden Team Just Unveiled a Reality-Based Middle East Policy

Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021

What is the U.S. up to in the Middle East? How does the granular reality of developments as seen from the region square with Washington’s strategic assessment?

Last week, a senior Biden administration official offered some answers to those questions in a briefing for journalists on the White House’s plan for a realistic, downsized Middle East policy. (Though the official remained anonymous, it sounds an awful lot like Brett McGurk ). Whether or not this plan will work—and I’m not so sure that it will—the administration’s description of its own approach sounds accurate, and that’s a welcome change. It does away with the huge “bombast gap” that has historically existed between what Washington is doing in the Middle East and what it thinks—or says—it’s doing there. Equally importantly, what the U.S. is trying to do in the region, at least diplomatically, is to drastically lower expectations—no big breakthroughs, no transformative realignments, no blossoming of democracy—while engaging across the board on issue management.

“We’re not trying to achieve the unachievable; we’re not trying to transform the Middle East,” the unnamed senior official said. “We’re focused on the interests that impact Americans and our national security, and the national security of our friends. And we think those are achievable aims with deterrence, de-escalation, integration being three themes we’re pursuing.”

Over the next three years of U.S. President Joe Biden’s stewardship, we’ll see if Washington’s policy apparatus follows up on the elaborate planning with actions of which it is well capable—on the economic side, to counter Chinese influence with U.S. investments; and on the military side, to downsize its permanent bases and naval presence, as Becca Wasser and Elisa Catalano Ewers recommend.

Strategically, the Middle East remains important to the rest of the world, despite the occasional protestations to the contrary. Nevertheless, Washington became disproportionately obsessed with the region after 9/11 and overinvested in military pathways to wielding influence—particularly its interventions in Iraq and Libya, which exacerbated the drivers of instability—at the expense of its diplomatic and economic tools. But a course correction still entails accurately appraising the region’s continued importance to Washington, its allies and partners, and the rest of the world, including as a source of energy, investment capital, weapons purchases and, on the negative side of the ledger, strategic instability.

It also requires recognizing that it’s a mistake for intervening powers, whether from outside the Middle East or within it, to imagine they can manipulate events there like master puppeteers, or force the region’s powerful figures to fall in line. For the past two decades, the United States, in particular, has demonstrated that, even while freely and destructively deploying the mightiest military in the world and spending trillions of dollars on armed interventions, it could not achieve any of its desired outcomes through force. French President Emmanuel Macron is trying a defter, diplomatic version of imperial management of the region, as Julien Barnes-Dacey astutely observes in his WPR briefing from last week, but he, too, is quickly encountering the limits of the influence outside powers can wield. 

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The Middle East’s abiding lesson for the U.S. and all other pretenders to master-puppeteer status is that, no matter how bold your vision, how big your military and how many rules you’re willing to break, in the end you have to bow to reality. The U.S. invaded Iraq and effectively occupied it until 2011; today, Washington has considerable influence there, but neither control nor dominance. There are countless other examples in the past decade of hubristic attempts by interventionist powers—most notably Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—to try to impose political and security outcomes in conflict zones abroad, even though they can hardly do so in their own countries. 

Whether the U.S. can maintain a consistent foreign policy approach to the region across multiple administrations is another question that is sure to be answered over the coming decade. If not, the present-day correction will be one of many pendulum swings from Washington that will render it a powerful, if disruptive, pole in a multipolar regional landscape. But looking at the current state of U.S. policy at the end of the Biden administration’s first year, the aim, at least, is to pursue solidly plausible, median outcomes. There are no dreams of transformation here, no pretense to spread democracy or foster more human rights. Instead, we see modest goals, accompanied by a preparation for stumbling blocks. This administration wants to dial down expectations for the Middle East and for U.S. objectives there, so that the inevitable setbacks won’t be viewed in the region as a sign of American inattention, and in Washington as a politically costly sign of Biden’s weakness or ineptitude.

On Iran, for instance, the Biden administration wants to return to the multilateral nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from, without surrendering the leverage provided by the sanctions Trump introduced. But the White House appears to be already considering a Plan B if, as expected, negotiations to revive the deal fail. This is a welcome acknowledgement of one of the region’s reality checks, as despite the overheated claims from Israel and other U.S. partners in the Middle East that Iran poses an existential threat, the obvious fact is that no one can feasibly stop Tehran from building a nuclear bomb if it actually decides to. Nor can Tehran be forced to abandon its nuclear program, whether through sanctions or even preemptive strikes on its enrichment facilities. In other words, the nuclear deal remains the best option, but one the Biden team can’t count on.

Biden’s Middle East policy is apparently intended to pass the “rubber meets the road” test: goals that are more realistic, with adequate resources to achieve them. Regional hands should spend the 15 minutes it takes to read the transcript of the end-of-year briefing, to get a sense of how Biden defines U.S. priorities and his theory of U.S. power projection in a region that has become a middling priority for Washington, despite its continued strategic importance to the world. 

Human Security Roundup

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited Lebanon in what he described as a “solidarity” mission—perhaps inadvertently highlighting the role the international community has played in accelerating Lebanon’s collapse. International aid and support, including loans and bailouts administered by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have kept Lebanon’s kleptocratic ruling class on life support for decades. Meanwhile, its worst militias continue to thrive with foreign support. 

Guterres arrived Sunday and is scheduled to stay through Wednesday, Dec. 22. After meeting with President Michel Aoun, Guterres called for the international community to spend more money to help Lebanon, which is in the throes of an epic collapse that has made daily life unmanageable for all but its richest citizens. Supporters of international aid face a Catch-22, however. Foreign assistance has until now kept the poorest Lebanese from starving. But it has also entrenched mafia rule by a group of warlords who over the course of four decades have turned a small, prosperous country into a catastrophically run agglomeration of fiefdoms that lacks modern physical infrastructure and constantly teeters on the verge of armed conflict. Cutting off aid would punish the most vulnerable, but more aid seems destined only to prolong their misery at the hands of Lebanon’s rulers.

Top Reads

Earlier this year, two tragic and avoidable hospital fires in Iraq—one in Baghdad in April, the other in Nasiriya in July—killed 174 people, exemplifying the consequences of a governing system centered on graft and corruption. Now, The Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim have followed up their powerful breaking news coverage of the incidents with an investigation into the mechanisms of corruption in the Iraqi health care sector

Their story traces the looting of the Basra Children’s Hospital, which was intended to be an exemplary cancer care center, but which as a result of looting and corruption can’t meaningfully treat patients. It pairs with a riveting—and dispiriting—academic study by Mac Skelton and Abdulameer Mohsin Hussein of the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani that illuminates some of the dynamics at work in these and other hospital fires in Iraq. Their expose argues persuasively that widespread corruption to enrich the country’s political parties has crippled Iraq’s health care system, making similar tragedies inevitable in the future. Both reports are the product of long-term investments in reporting on the ground, combined with institutional support for Iraqi researchers and reporters.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international policy program at The Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions,” and four edited volumes about politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book about the Iraq war’s global impact. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

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