Could Biden Deliver on the Promise of a Better U.S. Middle East Policy?

Could Biden Deliver on the Promise of a Better U.S. Middle East Policy?
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden with American service members at al-Faw Palace at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 13, 2011 (AP photo by Maya Alleruzzo).

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I watched Barack Obama win America’s presidency from Damascus. I still remember when the race was called, on whatever international news network was carried on satellite TV in Syria, sometime in the middle of the night. Seven months later, Obama traveled to Cairo, to give a major speech to the Arab world. Although its promise of a “new beginning” in America’s relations with the Middle East never really materialized, the address felt groundbreaking when it happened, coming after eight years of George W. Bush. It’s easy to overlook now, but the symbolism at the time was compelling. Here was an American president addressing the Arab world from Cairo University, rather than some fortified government compound, and speaking more honestly about America’s policies and mistakes, most of all the ongoing Iraq War, and the aspirations of people in the region. He even had some lines in Arabic. Governments—including Egypt’s, though Obama didn’t have to say so directly there on that stage in Cairo—had to maintain their power “through consent, not coercion.”

As Shadi Hamid noted pessimistically in 2017, the speech in the end “meant nothing,” since it made lofty promises that Obama himself was skeptical of committing U.S. resources to help deliver, because he didn’t believe that it was America’s role, given the disaster in Iraq. For Hamid and many others, the civil war in Syria, and the implosion of Libya after NATO’s intervention, only underscored the failure and even “tragedy” of Obama’s best intentions. But even Hamid still admitted that “no other U.S. statement on the Middle East has been assembled with as much care” as the Cairo speech, and that “the sensitivity to Muslim history, but also to the sense of grievance that pervades it, is nothing short of remarkable” in a foreign policy address by a U.S. president. “On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he added, “it still jars me to hear an American politician, and in this case a president, speak about Palestinians as actual human beings and not just as problems to be negotiated.”

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