international analysis and commentary

Why Biden’s magical thinking is already failing in the Middle East

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The controversial writer Richard Dawkins put it well: “A delusion is something that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence.” It is hard to think of a better summing up of the new Biden administration’s naïve Wilsonian approach to the Middle East, which is already well on its way to failure.

Across the board, the Biden White House is imagining a world that no longer exists, one where America has the power to force other regional powers – both friends and foes – into doing its bidding. As recent events in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan show, this is a reality we simply no longer live in (if we ever did). The danger is, that in pressing his naïve Wilsonian efforts to restore the Obama administration’s regional policy, Biden will take a match to the tinderbox that is the present Middle East.

Joe Biden meets with troops during a visit with Jordan’s King Abdullah at a joint Jordanian-American training center on March 2016.

 

Ironically, for all their many differences, the last two presidencies began their strategic thinking about the Middle East from the same geopolitical standpoint: The Middle East is an overrated swamp, a graveyard of presidencies, where further intensive involvement is to be avoided at all costs. This became all the truer with the rise of China as a genuine superpower rival. As the US pivoted to Asia, where much of the world’s future geopolitical risk and economic reward are located, doing far less in the thankless Middle East made great sense to both the Obama and Trump administrations.

But here their strategic plans diverged. The Obama White House – correctly noting that there are five regional powers in the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Egypt) – believed that revolutionary power Iran had to be brought in from the cold through a US-brokered nuclear deal. Only then, with all five great regional powers “normalized”, could an organic balance of power begin to form, which would allow the US to safely withdraw to the strategic position of offshore balancer. The 2015 US-sponsored Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran can only be understood within this broader strategic context.

The Trump White House took a radically different course. Convinced that the JCPOA had done nothing but encourage Iran (with its relaxation of rather devastating economic sanctions) to further increase its expansionistic, revolutionary power remit in the region – with its Shia crescent taking in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria – Trump decided that Iran had to be taken on directly, with the help of regional allies.

For the Trump administration, an organic balance of power would only form in the Middle East (thus allowing the US to fully pivot to Asia) if an anti-Tehran regional grouping could be forged by the US, centered around Saudi Arabia and Israel. The US-sponsored Abraham Accords between Israel and the Sunni-dominated states Sudan, Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain were the result. These deals would never have come to pass without the tacit support of the Saudi monarchy. In essence, they symbolized the beginnings of a formal Israeli-Saudi entente, designed to counter Iranian aggression.

But as the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe put it, you can never go home again. The world has moved on from the Obama years, whether the restoration-starved Biden foreign policy team recognize this basic fact or not. To continue on with the Obama regional playbook – well past its sell-by date – is to court failure at best and to incite strategic calamity at worst. Recent events in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan make this tellingly clear.

Protesters burn pictures of Joe Biden and Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020.

 

In the case of Iran, the naïve belief of the Biden team was that – thrilled to be rid of the Trump administration and his “maximum pressure” campaign against them – Tehran would gratefully and quickly re-enter the confines of the JCPOA agreement. But, of course, nothing of the sort has happened. Instead, ahead of the June election for president and saddled with a hardline parliament, Iran has already rejected Biden’s opening gambit: A US return to the JCPOA (and curtailing of crippling sanctions) if Iran returns to full compliance with its nuclear obligations under the accord. Iran – rightly sensing that in following the old, tired, Obama playbook, Biden needs a deal in the near term even more than they do – refuses to even talk to the White House until sanctions are lifted. So much for magical thinking.

If Iran was to be wooed into returning to the Middle Eastern fold, Saudi Arabia – a linchpin of the Trump administration’s very different approach to the region – was to be chastised, shamed to the point where King Salman’s choice of successor was to be undermined. Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS” as he is universally known in the region) had become an international pariah following his alleged direct involvement in the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. Whereas Trump tried to shield MBS from the fallout – for the simple realist reason that he is the acknowledged day-to-day ruler of a vital American partner (and is likely to remain so for decades to come) – the Biden team, possessed by magical thinking, thought they could somehow go around MBS, working with the aged King Salman, even though MBS remains fully in control of the Saudi administration.

Practically such Wilsonian moral grandstanding amounts to the worst of all worlds; MBS comes away outraged (as well as aware that the most extreme of the Biden team entertained wild hopes that in shaming him over Khashoggi, King Salman might be induced to disinherit his favorite son), while nothing practical has changed at all. In general, alienating one’s major allies to no effect is a bad course to set. But this truism did not stop the Biden team’s delusions.

Finally, in their efforts to head to the door in the Middle East, both the Trump and Biden teams want to wind down the forever war in Afghanistan as soon as possible. The difference is that Trump was entirely aware that the Taliban is winning the conflict, while Biden still thinks (though “hopes” is a better word) that somehow the corruption-ridden, hapless Ghani administration can be sustained without American troops guarding it (the very definition of an illegitimate government).

In a paean to otherworldliness, the Wilsonian Biden White House – trapped between fruitless talks between Ghani and the Taliban and a Trump-imposed May 1st deadline for the withdrawal of the final 2,500 American troops in-country – sought to impose a solution on the country. The US-imposed deal (a bit rich for a country with only 2,500 troops engaged) would share power between the Ghani government and the Taliban, while ludicrously giving Ghani the casting vote in an otherwise 50-50 government. In return for this minority status, the Taliban would allow women’s rights to be safeguarded (I can hear them laughing from here), and the insurgents would be forced to disarm, vowing never to recruit new members.

The Taliban delegation in Doha during the talks for the peace deal with the U.S.

 

To put it mildly, this magical thinking simply does not pass the laugh test. The Taliban are winning the war. After two decades, America is heading for the door. The Ghani government has nothing like local political legitimacy over huge swathes of the country. Why in the world would the Taliban ever accept such a lopsided deal, all facts on the ground to the contrary?

But, as Dawkins said, that is the problem with delusion. It is believed, all facts to the contrary. The problem is that the naivety lodged deep within the Biden administration has the potential to cause great geostrategic harm. Fasten your seatbelts. In terms of foreign policy, we are in for a very bumpy ride.