With every recent presidency, the perceived urgency of disentangling the US from the Middle East has risen in tandem with the perceived severity of threats in other theaters. For Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden, however, regional realities have remained stubbornly at odds with global strategy.
Today, Biden's administration aims to stabilize US policy in the Middle East (if not to stabilize the region itself) so it can focus on a Chinese challenge that will not wait. But across a clutch of key issues — involving Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, particularly — the administration may face a longer, harder slog.
Biden's heart isn't in the Middle East, any more than Barack Obama's or Donald Trump's was. These prior administrations argued that Washington should shift focus away from that region because the future of world politics would be decided elsewhere, especially the Asia-Pacific.
Biden's team shares this view — but with greater emphasis, because the future is now. In 2011, Obama's Asia "pivot" addressed the serious but still somewhat abstract prospect of an aggressive China. In 2021, there is real danger of war over Taiwan, and the outcome of the US-China rivalry may be decided in the next decade.
From the moment he took office Biden has signaled that the Middle East is a tertiary priority, calling its leaders only after talking to counterparts in Asia and Europe. His strategic goal in the region appears to be limiting the damage to US interests there while also limiting the investments of time and resources America makes.
Those priorities may be hard to square. Having been battered by Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign, Iran is now conducting a pressure campaign of its own, through proxy attacks on US bases in Iraq and incremental advances in its nuclear program. The goal is to enhance Tehran's leverage in the diplomacy surrounding a potential revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, the Afghan peace process is stuck between a Taliban that believes it is on the verge of victory and an Afghan government that has every reason to sabotage a deal so US forces never depart. In Saudi Arabia, the administration must set boundaries on the behavior of Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, while recognizing that he may run that country for the next 50 years.
In each case, Biden inherited a mess. In each case, his administration is looking for creative solutions.
In withdrawing from the nuclear pact, Trump handed Biden a ticking clock and an Iran that was seeking coercive advantage wherever it could be found. Biden subsequently showed, with airstrikes on the Syrian bases of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, that he is willing to hit back against Tehran even as he negotiates with it. That's an important shift from the Obama years, when the all-out quest for a nuclear deal anesthetized Washington to Iran's bid for regional influence from Yemen to the Levant.
In Afghanistan, Biden inherited a hellish problem: a troop presence that simply wasn't sufficient to accomplish much, as well as a looming May 1 deadline for withdrawing those troops under a peace deal that the Taliban is not adequately honoring. Biden is taking a big diplomatic gamble by attempting to convene the key internal and external players in hopes of forging an interim government and bringing the war to an end.
That's smart in the near term, because it provides political and diplomatic cover for the likely retention of US forces in Afghanistan beyond May 1, while creating a disincentive for the Taliban to dramatically escalate the war while a major peace effort is underway.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden faces a leadership that blends some progressive instincts with some abhorrent and aggressive behavior at home and abroad — all abetted by Trump's see-no-evil approach to the crown prince, or MBS as he is widely known. Biden has sought to strike the balance by sanctioning Saudi officials involved in killing Jamal Khashoggi and ending support for Riyadh's offensive operations in Yemen, yet also re-stating support for the kingdom's security and avoiding an irreparable breach with MBS himself.
It's a sensible policy. But each of these issues demonstrates just how hard the strategic reorientation Biden envisions will be.
The tit-for-tat with Iran in Iraq and Syria shows that there will be an ongoing, sometimes-violent competition for regional influence, even if the nuclear deal is revived. Unless the US pulls a diplomatic rabbit from the hat in Afghanistan, it will be hard to evade the fundamental choice it has always faced there: stay indefinitely, at a nontrivial cost in lives and resources, or leave and accept a nontrivial risk of increased terrorist threats. In the worst case, the US could find itself prodding the Kabul government to accept a settlement that would lead, sooner or later, to a Taliban takeover.
And while the US should encourage more responsible governance in Saudi Arabia, its leverage is limited at a time when Washington clearly wishes to decrease its own role in the region and threats to Saudi security are quite real. These issues are, moreover, tied together in ways that make matters even messier: If Biden does not, for example, push back against Iranian regional influence, MBS will probably become more insecure and erratic.
Hovering over all these problems is a final complication: The Middle East isn't simply a distraction from great-power competition but, increasingly, an arena for it. As Russia and China increase their roles in the region, the calculus surrounding American retrenchment becomes more complex.
This is no slap at Biden. The fundamental problem America faces in the Middle East is that the relative decline in the region's global significance has not erased Washington's regional economic and security interests. Nor has it changed the fact that the never-ending crisis of regional stability demands a relatively high degree of day-to-day management by the US
These dynamics make it wholly appropriate to seek ways of securing US interests that are less resource-intensive, from light-footprint counterterrorism to deals — such as the Iran nuclear pact or a settlement of the conflict in Yemen — that reduce the potential for a more explosive crisis. But they also make it inherently difficult to arrange regional affairs in a way that permits Washington to fully reorient toward other issues.
This has been the persistent dilemma of Middle Eastern statecraft for three consecutive presidents. As much as Biden wants a fresh approach to the region, it is a dilemma he, too, will find exceedingly hard to escape.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement