President Joe Biden faces a mountain’s worth of challenges moments in the weeks following his inauguration — all domestic, and all requiring immediate attention.
There’s COVID-19 to contend with, along with the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. There’s also racial strife to contend with, and seemingly unbridgeable political divide, and, of course, the collateral damage of the Jan. 6 insurrection against the Capitol that exposed a violent undercurrent of radicalization that exposes the country to the dangers of contending with fanatic extremists inside the country and even inside the halls of Congress.
Barring an international crisis or terror attack, foreign policy will probably take a back seat to his most pressing concerns. But by choosing Antony Blinken and his team of seasoned diplomats to head the Department of State, Mr. Biden has sent a resounding message that the United States was back to lead from the front. What better place to start than the Middle East: a region of the world that has a history of making and breaking American presidents.
Mr. Biden and his team are not strangers to the complexities and challenges of the Middle East, but the region today is markedly different than the Middle East on the day the Obama administration ended. Arab countries suffer from stark economic realities and the uncertainty of political vacuums.
Syria, Libya and Yemen are failed states; if not saved somehow, Iraq and Lebanon will suffer similar fates. Egypt, Morocco and Jordan can be categorized as fatigued states — chronic economic deterioration limits their ability to act regionally, while the resource-rich Gulf States are experiencing economic strains as a result of the decline in oil prices, diminishing demand and, of course, the impact of COVID-19 on the global economy.
What isn’t clear in these capitals is how exactly will Mr. Biden differ from the eight Obama years? What will be different from Mr. Trump?
Mr. Biden was at odds with Mr. Obama on many core cautious policy issues designed to slowly withdraw the United States from endless conflict. As vice-president, he sympathized with the plight of former Egyptian President Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprising, and he had serious reservations about U.S. and NATO military intervention in Libya. Mr. Biden also supported the 2003 war in Iraq. Perhaps most telling, Secretary of State Blinken had previously criticized Mr. Obama’s hand’s-off engagement — covert and conventional — against the regional ambitions of Syria and Iran.
Mr. Trump’s legacy in the Middle East is one of a transactional day-trader. He sidestepped a two-state solution for the Palestinian question altogether, he walked away from the Iran deal and he ignored the human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia — including the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi. Time, attrition and Mr. Trump’s serendipitous successes — Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalizing relations — provide President Biden with something of a new Middle East.
There is, though, concern in many Middle Eastern capitals about a lack of clarity — or realism — in some of Mr. Biden’s statements. He spoke for example, about dividing Iraq into three regions: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish. But it is expected that the Middle East will experience invigorated political activity and tangible diplomatic endeavors. Such new energy — and new players — will help strengthen intra-regional relations, such as Jordanian-Israeli contacts, and the reconciliation between Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
But in the Middle East, wherever and whenever there’s hope, risks and threats are never far behind. The region’s dominant powers — Iran, Turkey, and Israel — attempting to enhance their political and strategic gains and to consolidate their influence in the Arab world will challenge the new administration.
The aftermath of the Syrian Civil War has allowed an ambitious Russia has exacerbated the area’s political uncertainty with its military and soft-power meddling. The Biden administration will have to do much more than to protect the achievements of the Trump years, such as making sure that nefarious players ranging from Iran and Turkey won’t use terror to derail the new reality of the Abraham Accords.
The Middle East peace process and Iran are prime examples that encourage the adoption of a win-win approach by Team Biden. This entails probing the regional de facto and complex crises without delving deeply into its core issues and proceed from part to the whole. This approach could also apply supportive tools in a manner that ensures the U.S. interests and relieves its burdens, for example advocating for an enhanced United Nations role in some countries of the region like Syria and Libya.
There’s hope in Iran, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority Biden’s administration will be the region’s “Golden Opportunity Administration.”
The U.S. administration should follow a “crisis management role” instead of one of “crisis solution.” These tactics should be used to achieve half-solutions for dealing with Iran, guaranteeing a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli question, containing Turkey, ensuring a breakthrough in some Arab countries in the field of human rights.
COVID-19 will have profound economic and political implications for all Arab countries. An inevitable result of is the pandemic is the emergence of broader and more comprehensive protests throughout the Arab world, such as the “Hirak Rif Movement” in Morocco, demanding economic, as well as political, justice and reform. Counterterrorism is now fought on the virtual battlefield. Terror groups and violent religious fundamentalist movements have adopted decentralized-leadership and social media bunkers where they can wage their wars from behind a laptop. This makes it harder to combat extremism both tactically and socially.
The 46th American president faces the greatest national — and global — challenges imaginable. The pandemic is a clear and present danger to the lives and financial survival of millions of Americans; so far, over 400,000 Americans have died from the virus. Amid this recovery and reconstitution, President Biden will need to restore policy and predictability to the world stage.
The Middle East will remain a region of promise and problem for the next administration, and people’s reaction towards a vaccine and to which extent it will take around the globe is yet to be seen. The new administration will need to focus on reclaiming U.S. leadership in the world arena before it can attend to the specific interests of its traditional regional partners.
• Hani Shawabkeh, a retired brigadier general, is a security and political Middle East analyst. Jamil Samawi is a former assistant president of the American University in Jordan.