Obama Blew His Mideast Hopes on His First Trip. Will Biden Chart a Wiser Course?

Obama Blew His Mideast Hopes on His First Trip. Will Biden Chart a Wiser Course?

The new president will seek to repudiate his predecessor. But Obama showed that an administration cannot achieve its goals armed only with the knowledge of what it is not.

In this Jan. 4, 2017 file photo, Vice President Joe Biden, left, watches President Barack Obama, center, at Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
In this Jan. 4, 2017 file photo, Vice President Joe Biden, left, watches President Barack Obama, center, at Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Former US president Barack Obama came into office in 2009 with a determination to be the anti-George W. Bush. It is what the election had been about: repudiating the eight years of what Democrats then considered the most divisive and irresponsible Republican administration in memory.

Then came Donald Trump.

Barring an almost unimaginable legal upset, Joe Biden will take the reins of power on January 20 after winning, as so many have noted, the most votes of any candidate in American history in an election that saw the highest turnout in 120 years.

Many around the world are now intensely curious about the mild-mannered Biden. His great-great-great-grandfather’s Irish hometown celebrated his election on Sunday. The press in Iran, Mexico, Peru, and of course Israel dug deep into his past to try to read the tea leaves about the near future.

US President Donald Trump (C-L) and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C-R) arrive for the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan/File)

But the real question that much of the world wants to know isn’t about the character of the man, but about the character, the self-image, the policy “narrative” of the administration as a whole.

Will Biden’s administration, like Obama’s first term, define itself by what it is not?

Obama’s deepest first-term frustrations, at least on the foreign policy front, were born in that anti-Bush-ness. To this day, when asked about his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama responds with an embarrassed smile and admits that he is not sure why he won it in his first year in office.

Obama took office with high poll numbers in Israel and around the world. He then lost those good numbers, first in Israel, and then, to varying degrees, in many other places. To show how profoundly he was not Bush, he visited Istanbul and Cairo in his first visit to the region, but avoided Israel. He delivered a speech “to the Muslim world” from Cairo in the belief that what the Middle East was yearning for in 2009 was an American leader who sounded different.

Two years later, when the Arab Spring drove the region’s deeper undercurrents out into the open, the same Obama administration was caught flat-footed. Democrats, long convinced that foolish foreign policies are a uniquely Republican enterprise, suddenly had to contend with the possibility that more was going on in the Middle East than was dreamed of in Washington think-tanks and on cable news programs.

An Egyptian waves a national flag over a pro-military rally marking the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, January 25, 2014. (AP/Amr Nabil/File)

The Obama administration then turned to Iran as the lynchpin of a new strategy that sought to extricate the US from the region’s dysfunctions by empowering the Islamic Republic as a stabilizing force. The 2015 nuclear deal did not weaken the regime in Tehran, did not end, or even curtail, Iran’s aggressive takeover of numerous Arab states, and only delayed the country’s nuclear ambitions.

But it changed the region in ways that, once again, the Obama administration never expected.

An administration that began with a much-ballyhooed “reset” with the Arab world ended by empowering the strategic nemesis of many regional states, and driving a long-simmering Israeli-Arab intelligence and security alliance into the open.

It is entirely reasonable for Democrats to pine for the Obama days. On domestic issues, the sides are deeply and fundamentally divided, and those who dislike Trump believe he has upended the norms and institutions they see as the bedrock of their democratic civic religion. On healthcare, the Supreme Court, abortions, and countless other fault-line issues, the sides could not be farther apart.

But when it comes to foreign policy, it is hard to identify distinctively “Democratic” or “Republican” flavors on the Middle East. Both sides are keen to withdraw American forces and entanglements from the region and both sides support Israel as a strategic stabilizing anchor in the region. Even for Obama, the substantive security cooperation never wavered — despite his feuds with Israel’s leadership.

A convoy of US troops outside the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, November 2, 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Some genies cannot be put back in any bottle. Now that the Middle East’s axes of loyalty and identity have been exposed, American policy planners no longer can view the region in the narrow context of the Democratic-Republican divide.

Saudi peace and Turkish rockets

The new normalization deals between Israel and the Gulf states were a decade in the making, the product of long and deep cooperation on existential strategic challenges for both Israel and its emerging Arab partners. Trump did not “broker” the agreements, as his spokespeople have suggested. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, for example, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with a behind-the-scenes nod from Riyadh, closed the deal. But Trump did not stand in the way — and even helped in two specific discernible ways.

First, he offered promises of support for each side’s interests, from the sale of F-35s to the UAE to the removal of the new Sudanese regime from the US government’s terror sponsors list.

Second, by appearing on track to lose last week’s election, Trump sparked an urgency to the alliance-building. For Abu Dhabi, Manama, Jerusalem and even Khartoum, the election deadline was a ticking clock for pocketing what they could get from an outgoing administration grown generous in its search for pre-election foreign policy wins, before the dawn of an unknown and possibly less helpful Biden administration.

Members of an Israeli high-tech delegation walk past a poster of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum during a meeting with Emirati counterparts at the headquarters of the Government Accelerators in Dubai, on October 27, 2020. (Karim Sahib/AFP)

No one quite knows what a Biden administration brings. How powerful will the progressive wing be in the new policymaking apparatus? What influence and views will Vice President-elect Kamala Harris bring to the table? Views change, interests change. Even the staid and steady Biden may have changed — especially if he follows the pattern of his predecessors and sets the repudiation of his immediate precursor as a supreme policy goal.

Will Biden be keen to appear an “anti-Trump?” Will he support the burgeoning alliance between Israelis and the conservative Sunni states aligned against Iran, and seek to expand it into a full-blown, region-changing Saudi-Israeli peace? Or will he return to the policy of propping up and empowering the ayatollahs’ regime in a bid to ensure stability?

Some of the policy questions he will face have no good solutions — certainly not for Israel. What is to be done with Turkey, whose Islamist regime is an ideological twin to Hamas? Turkey is keen on dominating the region, and to that end is pushing back against Russian and Chinese influence. The US has an obvious and overpowering strategic interest in bolstering regional powers that can stand up to presidents Putin and Xi. Will Biden side with the standard-bearer of Sunni Islamism and patron of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and some of the least palatable extremists in Syria, in order to advance America’s global strategy?

When the moralizing rhetoric gives way to hard governing, the new American president may easily, and for sound strategic reasons, find himself funding Israel’s Iron Dome and, indirectly through its Turkish patron, the Hamas rockets it shoots down. Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. President.

What of the Palestinians?

Obama visited Istanbul and Cairo on his first trip to the region, and deliberately — his officials made sure to tell Israelis it was deliberate — avoided Israel. It was an unnecessary insult that soured his popularity in Israel and produced no goodwill on the other side.

US President Obama delivering his famed Cairo Speech in 2009. The president highlighted the need for social progress in his first major address to the Muslim world. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

US President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo on June 4, 2009. (screen capture, YouTube)

He pressured Israel into a settlement freeze in 2010 as a show of “good faith,” and never understood why the intense year-long pressure on Jerusalem did not bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. His advisers did not realize that a Palestinian president could not be seen to be demanding fewer preconditions for negotiations than the Americans. By drawing from the Israelis an unprecedented settlement freeze before negotiations began, Obama pushed Mahmoud Abbas up a tree just when he thought he was bringing him down from one.

The more Obama tilted toward the Palestinians, the further he pushed Palestinian politics away from a compromising center. One does not have to like Trump’s posture toward the Palestinians or believe that Netanyahu is an honest peacemaker to believe, as most Israelis do, that Obama’s policies did more to delay peace than to realize it.

Trump casts a long shadow in the Middle East. The Biden administration will be keen, as all administrations are, to step out from under that shadow. But an administration cannot function effectively as an actor in the Middle East armed only with the knowledge of what it is not.

Biden is an old foreign policy hand, but he inherits a Democratic policy elite that has little to show for its long efforts and embroilments in the region. If he hopes to be more successful here than his former boss, Democrats will need to reconstruct their sense of the region and of America’s interests in it.

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