As the Biden Administration translates its conceptual multilateral foreign policy approach into practice, it has unintentionally pursued an ambivalent foreign policy potentially alienating allies, emboldening enemies, and deepening war forebodings. The Administration’s shift away from the Trump Administration’s unilateral approach is appropriate; nevertheless it has pursued a multilateral approach before forging a plan of action with its allies and without taking into consideration the possible response from U.S. global competitors. This has undermined US foreign policy. Nowhere is this apparent than in the Middle East.
The Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities in the Middle East include returning to the international nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPOA) alongside reducing tension in the region, stopping the war in Yemen, and continuing to defend US allies there. President Joseph Biden criticized former President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA as a “self-inflicting disaster,” and populated his administration with former Obama administration officials who were instrumental in negotiating the JCPOA. Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration signaled its intention to return to the JCPOA. In a conciliatory move, Washington sanctioned the release of Iranian frozen assets in Iraq. It also acted on its campaign pledge to end US support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthis, which has deepened a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The administration temporarily froze arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), and reversed former President Trump’s designation of the Houthis as terrorists. Nevertheless, the Biden administration made its return to the JCPOA conditional on Iran’s resuming its obligations under the agreement. It has also not made any statement about withdrawing US troops from Syria.
As it turned out, Tehran has refused thus far to enter into any negotiations with the U.S. before Washington lifted the sanctions President Trump imposed on Iran. The Houthis have not only continued but also increased launching drone strikes against and lobbing missiles at Saudi Arabia’s civilian areas and vital cities. Moreover, the Houthi rebels have taken control of most of the strategic northern city of Marib under the control of the Saudi-backed government. Pro-Iranian Iraqi proxies have not stopped attacking American assets in Iraq.
Paralleling these developments, the Biden administration sanctioned the release of the U.S. intelligence assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the operation to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while at the same confining its official communication with the Kingdom to King Salman. This US message was explicitly perceived by the de-facto ruler of the Kingdom crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman as a Washington’s attempt to compromise his leadership and legitimate ascension to the throne. The kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed what it called the “negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the kingdom’s leadership.”
Evidently, neither the Biden administration’s carrot and stick approach with Iran has thus far worked nor its reservations about both Saudi policy (and by extension UAE’s) and leadership of the de-facto ruler has changed the Kingdom’s domestic or regional policy. In fact, the Biden administration policy has had the unintended consequence of emboldening Iran and potentially alienating the kingdom and the UAE by creating a high level of uncertainty in the future of the Saudi (UAE)-Washington relationship and reinforcing the perception that Washington is continuing with its gradual geopolitical withdrawal from the Middle East. The corollary of this situation has led Arab Gulf countries to try to recalibrate their relationship with the US by seeking policy alternatives incongruent and/or inimical to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Central to this shift has been the readiness and aptitude of Russia and China to challenge American policy.
No sooner the Kingdom and UAE felt perturbed by the uncertainty consequent upon Washington’s policy than Moscow sent its foremost diplomat Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to the Arabian Gulf in early March 2021. Lavrov visited Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, underscoring to them the readiness of his country to fill the void Washington is leaving behind on account of its gradual geopolitical withdrawal from the Middle East. Lavrov underscored the benefits of grounding Arab Gulf-Russian relationship in mutual politico-economic interests and especially in the security-military-technical realm. Reportedly, Lavrov emphasized to the Gulf leaders Moscow’s readiness to provide them with the sophisticated anti-aircraft S-400 missile system and help them build their own nuclear plants, as Russia has already done with Turkey. Lavrov also underscored that Moscow’s relationships with both Iran and Turkey, adversary and rival to Saudi Arabia and UAE respectively, are neither geopolitical strategic alliances nor strategies designed for competing with the Arab Gulf. No less significant, Lavrov stressed the mutual interest of the Arab Gulf and Russia to bring Syria back to the fold of the Arab league. More specifically, the UAE, which has restored diplomatic relations with Syria, has disapproved of the American approach to Damascus. The UAE has perceived the Caesar Act and sanctions against Damascus as harmful to the Syrian people, as well as obstacles to the UAE’s cooperation with Syria. Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and UAE have consistently perceived that the U.S. interest in Syria, as reflected in the presence of a small contingent of American forces, has not been about helping foster a solution to the Syrian civil war but more about denying a Russian victory in Syria.
Similarly, Beijing, capitalizing on Washington’s umbrella of security in the Persian Gulf, has successfully challenged the U.S. economically. Today China is the biggest trading partner with the Persian Gulf countries. Chinese language has become an essential subject in both the UAE and Kingdom’s curriculum. Significantly, EU-China trade has recently surpassed China-US trade, and the EU and China in December 2020 concluded in principle the negotiations on the comprehensive agreement on investment, which will grant the EU a great level of access to China’s market. This has undoubtedly given China a clout over EU-US relations and Arab Gulf-China relations in that neither the EU nor the Arab Gulf countries will necessarily toe the American line on China. Meanwhile, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia and China have established a strategic partnership grounded in advancing their mutual benefits in the realm of politics, economy and security. Significantly, Washington’s unilateral global approach and sanctions against both Russia and China, on account of their policies towards Ukraine, Crimea, Hong Kong and Xinjua province, have led them to deepen their cooperation not only to withstand American challenges but also to roll back American influence in the world.
It was against this background that President Biden in an interview with ABC television station affirmed that Russian president Vladimir Putin is a killer. By the same token, the recent US-China meetings in Anchorage reflected the increasingly troubled relations between the two countries, which are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights. While, in principle, these past two events reflected American reservations about Russian and Chinese actions and policies, they, in practice, did not advance American foreign policy. Surely, they have reinforced Russian and Chinese apprehension of United States and their cooperation to further challenge United States.
Regrettably, notwithstanding the uncertain political climate Washington has fostered in the Middle East, it is still acting in a way virtually oblivious to Russia’s and China’s combined global power, which has helped Iran (and its proxies), Saudi Arabia and UAE to have options that could either undermine U.S. overall regional policy or trigger war. Recently, Russia, in a clear display of defying U.S. policy, invited a pro-Iranian Hezbollah delegation to Moscow. Lebanese political and intelligence analysts inferred that Moscow has come to an understanding with Hezbollah over its gradual military withdrawal from Syria and over supplying the Islamist party with sophisticated weapons should a confrontation with it, instigated by Washington, erupt in Lebanon or Syria. At the same time, in much the same vein as in Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, anti-Iranian groups in Lebanon, including among the Lebanese armed forces, are uncertain about U.S. support should civil war erupts in Lebanon.
The Biden administration is correct in pursuing a multilateral approach in foreign policy; nevertheless, the administration needs to put its ducks in a row before executing its foreign policy. This entails having a global strategy supported by its allies especially the EU. Therefore, the administration needs to revitalize its alliance with EU, restore American leadership and determine the transatlantic alliance’s foreign policy priorities. As such, Washington should resolutely pursue its priorities in the Middle East in line with its global strategy and with the full backing of the EU and its allies. This includes taking a firm decision and the appropriate steps over whether or not it should rejoin the JCPOA and matching its projection of power with a clear and firm support of its allies. If the past is any witness, neither constructive ambiguity nor ambivalence has worked in the Middle East. Significantly, Washington has to come to terms with the fact that the international order the U.S. has helped to shape is undergoing structural changes and that Russia and China pose a significant challenge to the U.S. better met with a US-led global alliance. This is not to say that Washington should treat China or Russia as enemies. They are global competitors guided by their national security interests and their civilizational histories. As Joseph Nye Jr. said: “If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy.” Otherwise, whereas the Obama administration has been be accused of leading from behind and the Trump administration of going by the wayside, the Biden administration risks being accused of aloofness.
*Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University and Francois Alam is an attorney at Law and Secretary General of the Christian Federation of Lebanon and the Levant. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of FAU. The authors can be followed @robertgrabil and @francoisalam.