The “New” Middle East Resembles The Old Middle East

Photograph Source: eddiedangerous – CC BY 2.0

The Biden administration is selling the notion that the “new Middle East” requires U.S. involvement at the highest level, and the mainstream media, particularly the Washington Post and the New York Times, are predictably seconding the motion.  President Joe Biden penned an op-ed for the Post over the weekend to defend his trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.  The trip is a reminder that Biden’s policies in the region resemble those of Donald Trump.

Biden argued that “fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank.”  But Biden’s endorsement of Israeli national security policy in the wake of Israeli responsibility for the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is particularly ill-timed.  Similarly, Biden is ignoring his intelligence community in going hat-in-hand to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for increased oil production in view of MBS’s responsibility for the sadistic killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashogghi.  The Biden-MBS photo op will be particularly disheartening.

U.S. handling of Israel resembles Trump’s handling.  There has been no challenge to Naftali Bennett’s aggressive settlements program on the West Bank, and no restoration of the modest relations that once existed between the United States and the Palestinians.  The Trump administration bestowed legitimacy on the settlements, and his policy is still in place.  Biden indicated he would reopen the U.S. consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, but Israeli pressure blocked that move.  Similarly, the Palestinian mission in the United States closed by Trump remains unopened by Biden.  Biden’s essay falsely claimed that he “rebuilt U.S. ties with the Palestinians.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, defending his policies toward Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s government in Spain prior to U.S. entry into World War II, said that “when you come to a low place, stoop.”  But Biden has stooped too far in dealing with MBS, who the President had said would be a “pariah” to his administration.  Interestingly, MBS was not even mentioned in the Times’ account of the “new” Middle East.  The Biden administration is about to return to the policy of selling arms to Saudi Arabia, although Biden campaigned on the basis of denying lethal arms to the Saudis.

U.S. posture toward Saudi Arabia puts the lie to U.S. officials who stress the importance of human rights in Biden’s foreign policy.  The Post account of the “new” Middle East allowed State Department officials to comment anonymously in defending the U.S. stance on human rights.  U.S. handling of relations with Egypt, India, and Indonesia in addition to Israel and Saudi Arabia puts the lie to these statements.  The complexities of the international environment, particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the energy challenge, obviously overtake the importance of human rights in our decision making, but we shouldn’t pretend that we defending these rights.

There is nothing new in Israeli politics that would justify optimism about Israel itself or the region overall.  Bibi Netanyahu is still the most popular politician in the land, but his inability to form a coalition is why the country is facing its fifth election in the last several years.  Meanwhile, the political right-religious mainstream is become more extreme, and the left-wing and Arab components of the outgoing coalition have become weaker.  Ironically, retired Israeli generals appear to be the most moderate options for Israeli politics, but their futures appear hopeless at this juncture.

The similarity in the Trump-Biden policies in the region include Trump’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear accord and Biden’s failure to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  This was predictable.  Biden campaigned on the basis of a stronger and wider nuclear accord, but Iran maintained from the start that the JCPOA could not be rewritten.  Once again, economic sanctions have not produced the desired result, and the Department of State has no Plan B if the agreement cannot be restored.  The general silence of our Secretary of State is deafening.

There are elements of a “new” Middle East, but they are not the ones identified by the White House and its supporters.  First of all, the countries important in the region are not Arab states, which remain stultified by their political authoritarianism; economic backwardness; and cultural rigidity.  The key states are the non-Arab ones, particularly Iran, Israel, and Turkey.  Two additional non-Arab states—Russia and the United States—are also important factors.

Instead of working to resolve the conflict with Iran, the Biden administration appears to  favor an alliance arrangement with Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran.  It would be particularly counterproductive if the price of Biden’s hat-in-hand trip to Saudi Arabia for oil turns out to be a security alliance against Iran. Donald Trump favored an Arab NATO from Egypt to Oman, but there is no indication that Biden will move in that direction. But where is the diplomacy regarding Iran, the major challenge to stability in the region?

At the start of his administration, Biden initiated a major review of the U.S. military presence around the world, particularly in the Middle East, which led to no significant changes in the positioning of U.S. troops.  Like his patron, Barack Obama, Biden wanted to justify the “pivot” that was declared in 2011 to focus on the containment of China and to end U.S. involvement in the conflicts in the Middle East (and Southwest Asia).  But Biden gave this task—the year-long review—to a Pentagon that typifies the maneuverability and innovation of a bureaucratic dinosaur.

As a result, the Middle East remains the U.S. “briar patch,” and a new briar patch has been added for U.S. forces—East and West Africa—where the Biden administration has increased forces to deal with the monitoring of terrorist threats throughout the region.  The U.S. commitment of additional military forces to West Africa would be ill-timed in view of the six military coups that have been attempted in the region over the past several years.  Meanwhile, the commander of the Marine Corps’ Central Command increased the pace and scope of military exercises in Jordan and Kuwait.  The Pentagon also has created a joint Marine-Navy task force in Bahrain, the only one of its kind.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden increased the U.S. troop presence in Europe and turned away from the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce further U.S. military forces.  Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has called for “integrated deterrence”, which demands additional billions of dollars for unneeded modernization of our strategic forces, including a new strategic ICBM; a new strategic bomber; and a mysterious program referred to as Next Generation Air Dominance that will involve ”autonomous systems that will surpass human capabilities.”  The Washington Post has praised all of these plans as “pushing military planners, as in the depths of the Cold War, to think more about the unthinkable.”  It is aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East and elsewhere that are becoming increasingly unthinkable.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for