Trump vs Biden on Middle East Policy – Round 1

Thursday, October 22, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

There has been a great deal of speculation about how a Biden presidency might differ from the Trump administration in its foreign relations. The range of opinions reflects the authors’ varying perspectives about US foreign policy and America’s place in the world. In some cases there is praise for Trump’s positions while damning his style; in others, the critiques on both sides can reflect a sometimes harsh divergence in beliefs about what is in America’s best interests.

So to help muddle the conversation further, here are some recent analyses.

According to an article from the Quincy Institute, a relatively new player in the think tank community in Washington, DC, “Despite Trump’s instinct for American grievances, the majority of his policies in the Middle East have perpetuated a pattern of US policy toward the region that exacerbates insecurity and human misery.” It commends the administration for its willingness to “embrace audacity” in shaping policy, and its interest in reconsidering relationships in the region to focus on what best serves US interests. The article calls for ending support for the war in Yemen, restarting diplomacy with Iran, and pursuing diplomatic rather than military solutions.

These recommendations all mirror positions in the Biden position papers. The Quincy Institute policy paper, “A new US paradigm for the Middle East – ending America’s misguided policy of domination,” mentions eight steps the new administration should adopt. These include a reduction of US forces from the Gulf “because a large military presence isn’t needed to prevent a hostile regional hegemon” – a stance that is squarely in opposition to the current administration’s policy. It also calls for a new security architecture so that the US can “remove itself as the main security power in the region.” This would go hand in hand with “a deliberative drawdown regardless of stability milestones” that might prolong our presence unnecessarily.

For Biden, diplomacy would once again be the starting point for engagement, including with Iran; avoid making Iraq a battlefield with Iran; and exercise diplomacy in efforts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen. As the former VP has mentioned, the US would reduce its support for allies in the region that encourages aggressive rather than diplomatic behaviors. And finally, on a theme near and dear to Biden, the US would once again be the exemplar of human rights and rule of law at home and abroad.

An interesting challenge for the prospective Biden administration is that, as Trump demonstrated so well in 2016, it is easier to run against the previous administration’s efforts than lead with positions that might be subject to criticism. However, the former VP was a key player in the Obama administration, so he either has to defend past policies or indicate what he has learned in the intervening years. This is well illustrated, for example, by how he might respond to the many changes that have occurred in the MENA region in the past four years. One key issue is the competition among world and regional powers for influence. The US has to decide to what degree its security interests are served by a robust hard power role in that regard.

In arguing against the concern that a reduced US presence in the region will give Russia and China opportunities, a National Interest blog claims that “It is more sensible to welcome rivals’ inheriting the instability, struggles, and grievances that the US has found so vexing than to guard against it… Any power who decided to replace the role vacated by the US will find itself in at least as much of a quagmire – only with far less resources to manage it.”

In a direct reference to the Biden campaign, it says, “The United States can strengthen its position less with bases and permanent alliances and more with the sober diplomatic behavior of a trustworthy yet distant maintainer of a balance between powerful nations.”

This is hardly the view of the President’s supporters. They believe that international alliances, the global economy, and promoting democracy and human rights has not secured stability or prosperity for the US so why continue with policies that do not serve our vital interests?

Regarding who are our friends and who are not, Trump has so far favored supporting leaders who reflect his disdain for democratic checks and balances on executive decision-making, such as Turkey’s Erdogan, Egypt’s Sisi, as well as MBS and MBZ in the Gulf. His penchant for transactional diplomacy is well illustrated by his treatment of the Kurds, Iraqis, the Syrian opposition, Turks, Iranians, and others; often defining diplomacy as a zero-sum competition.

Does this mean a Trump foreign policy in the MENA is without merit? Not if you are a supporter of Israel’s security, a hard line on Iran’s dysfunctional role in the region and beyond, pro-arms sales as a tie that binds us to our friends, and ending what seem to be “endless wars” that make no sense to many American voters.

A second Trump administration would further refrain from direct action in places like Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, again focusing on “what’s the benefit” as the guiding principle. For weak states like those in North Africa and Lebanon, it will continue to be a tug-of-war within the State Department as to how best to support the US interests in any bilateral relationship.

This brings up the concern expressed by Biden supporters for the need to reinvigorate the State Department by generating a new improved vision of American policy abroad, removing Trump loyalists who decimated career personnel and created loyalty litmus tests, and re-empowering diplomats whose opinions and experience were devalued by the Trump administration.

The next part of this blog will focus on country-specific differences and examine the question of whether or not there are enduring US interests in the MENA region.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.