(L) Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, DE, on Aug. 20, 2020. (R) U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, NC, on Aug. 24, 2020.
FOREIGN POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST is unlikely to carry much weight in the U.S. elections since the focus of presidential candidates and campaigns is usually on domestic issues. This year, voters are concerned with the catastrophic handling of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the domestic economy, along with nation-wide protests calling for racial justice, some of which have turned violent. However, there are certain issues in the Middle East that could potentially come up in the political discourse leading up to the November elections, especially in Israel/Palestine, Iran and the Gulf monarchies.
Donald Trump’s presidency has exacerbated the deep polarization of American society and its institutions, including the U.S. approach to the most pertinent problems in the Middle East. There is a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans on almost every issue in the region and it is likely that in the case of a Joe Biden victory, he will try to recalibrate U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Trump and Biden have differing views on Israel, Iran and the Gulf, according to Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC. In short, “Trump will argue that he has the toughest approach toward Iran and is most supportive of Israel while Biden will argue that the current president is enamored with Middle East dictators and has damaged the U.S. image around the world,” he predicted.
Trump might seek to shift focus from his pandemic, economic and racial troubles at home to talk about his foreign policy successes, but according to Macaron, he has a mixed record to run on. This summer he was able to score a major foreign policy win, perhaps his one and only, a U.S. brokered agreement on “full normalization of relations” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The agreement also included an Israeli commitment to suspend its process of “extending sovereignty” over large parts of the West Bank.
But for Daniel Wagner, a prominent commentator on current Middle East affairs and CEO of Country Risk Solutions, neither this nor any single issue will impact the way the average American voter thinks about either candidate. “The new relationship between Israel and the UAE is clearly something Trump can claim some credit for, but ultimately it was the decision of the two countries—not Washington,” Wagner said. Moreover, Biden’s own pro-Israel bona fides are well established and, according to Wagner, it is not as if his position will change or be in any way weakened by this development.
Apart from this, Trump is, according to Macaron, expected to emphasize his support for Israel to mobilize Evangelical voters. If Trump ends up winning it is possible that he may be less obsessed with his poll numbers and more willing to entertain policy ideas such as negotiating with Tehran, advancing Israeli-Palestinian talks and encouraging other Arab states to follow the UAE example to normalize their ties with Israel. Then again, in a second term Trump could be consumed by distracting scandals and divisions.
CANDIDATES’ STANCE ON IRAN
Leaders across the Middle East are already preparing for the possible victory of Joe Biden and considering the implications of his presidency. Before serving as vice president from 2009 to 2017, Biden also served as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Many observers are wondering whether Biden’s administration will follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama, at least when it comes to Iran.
According to Macaron, Biden will undoubtedly seek to return the U.S. to the nuclear deal with Iran to regain one of Obama’s main foreign policy legacies. Biden’s administration would most likely be tougher on Tehran than Obama’s and might seek an addendum to the JCPOA in return for waiving Trump’s sanctions. Biden will have to balance pressure from the left and resistance in the U.S. Senate on this issue.
On the other hand, Joseph A. Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, believes that Biden’s presidency won’t be a third Obama term and that he will try to distinguish himself from his predecessor, if only to give meaning to his presidency. “American presidents think of their legacies before every other consideration, including securing a place for themselves, winning Nobel Peace prizes, and receiving praise from home and abroad,” Kéchichian opines. However, Kéchichian also agrees that Biden might reduce tensions with Iran.
Macaron assumes that a Biden administration will also focus on mitigating the security risks facing U.S. forces in Iraq and seek to reach an accepted accommodation with Iran in Iraq and Lebanon. As Trump has set the tone on Iran “it will be hard for Biden to scale down U.S. sanctions without significant compromise or policy shift in Tehran,” Macaron noted.
ISRAEL IN A COMFORT ZONE
Despite his open pro-Israeli approach, Kéchichian describes Donald Trump as an “anti-Semite” and he expects that on substantive security questions, there will be no more major changes.
Although both candidates have expressed their strong support for Israel, many Democrats heavily criticized Trump’s highly controversial “Deal of the Century” and other concessions given to Israel. Macaron thinks that Biden might be the most accepted presidential candidate to Israeli leadership. Despite his recent criticism of Israeli moves to annex the settlements, in the past, Biden showed his ideological commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, saying that “you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
In Macaron’s opinion, it will be difficult for Biden to retract Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and the Trump administration’s endorsement of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and the West Bank. If Biden is elected, his relationship with the Israeli leadership will be complex as he deals with an Israeli society shifting to the right and a tense history with Netanyahu. According to Macaron, Biden will be under pressure from the left-wing of the Democratic Party to have a more balanced approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “The mere ability to have negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians will be a success for Biden, even if peace seems elusive in the foreseeable future,” Macaron said.
RESETTING U.S.-GULF RELATIONS
Biden’s victory will most likely cause a policy shift on the U.S. approach toward the GCC, most notably in bilateral relations.
Trump was able to achieve his surprising breakthrough between Arab Gulf states and Israel by convincing Arabs not to interfere with his infamous “Deal of the Century” in return for full U.S. (and Israeli) support against their arch-rival Iran. In addition, the Trump administration signed off on astronomically high arms deals with Gulf countries, especially with Saudi Arabia. He also gave them a free hand in regional matters, especially in Yemen, and turned a blind eye to human rights violations at home and abroad.
In Macaron’s opinion, Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially known as MBS, have personalized U.S.-Saudi relations through transactional rather than institutional routes, which would return to traditional channels under Biden. MBS has a direct line to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, which has helped the Saudi leadership navigate several political storms, most notably the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump has turned the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia from a bipartisan issue in Washington into an increasingly personal one. Hence, if Biden wins, Riyadh will have to deal with a U.S. political establishment that raises uncomfortable questions about the current Saudi leadership.
In Kéchichian’s opinion, GCC states are accustomed to dramatic changes in U.S. administrations and will deal with whoever wins. There might be a cooling-off period under Biden but critical security ties will flourish, he believes. Despite a possible change in the White House, and a recalibration of U.S. Middle East policy, the legacy of Donald Trump will outlast his presidency and it will take a long time before the U.S. regains its credibility and respect in the region.