Yesterday, President Biden landed in Israel, inaugurating his visit to the Middle East, with another stop planned in Saudi Arabia. This trip holds the promise to be a pivotal moment of Biden’s presidency, and quite likely his most important trip abroad. But despite its significance, and the fact that it has been several weeks in the planning, presidential engagement in the Middle East is not the product of some signature foreign-policy initiative or a chance to roll out a long-awaited Biden Doctrine. It is, to the contrary, the result of a haphazard approach to national security that has crashed upon the shoals of reality. Biden’s trip is an effort to begin again, a second sailing in his administration’s life-vessel that the crew now hopes can get America back on course.
After nearly eighteen months in office, the Biden administration is slowly re-learning an important lesson: grand strategy matters. Within the Pentagon, State Department, and even the National Security Council, offices focused on specific countries or regions compete with each other for resources and polity prioritization, fighting turf wars while experts on particular countries spend lifetimes focused on one piece of a global puzzle.
Combined with the daily pressures of congressional debates and the need to keep a partisan base happy, these structural factors can easily lead a president to conduct not one foreign policy, but a series of disconnected initiatives that function at cross purposes. One can easily point to specific blunders, often the product of partisan thinking, that have brought the Biden White House to its current predicament. Nor should one overlook the deeply held preconceptions of a man who spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate and another eight as vice-president. But the biggest problem is the overarching one: the failure to realize that America’s actions in one part of the globe have consequences in another.
Biden came to office last year with his mind made up: America needed to leave Afghanistan, return to the nuclear deal with Iran, withdraw support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran-backed terrorists in Yemen, and turn the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) into a pariah. These were all campaign promises that were popular with the Democratic party’s base. But, although they tended to appeal to one side of the American ideological spectrum, they do not cohere in a strategy, and each of these actions were undertaken without thought as to how they might one day converge. Before looking at the current predicament, it’s worth examining what this policy pastiche meant for the Middle East.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden and his top advisors made clear that a rebalancing of traditional alliances in the Middle East, consistent with the Obama administration’s approach, would be coming. A growing chorus in the press and in Congress had long cast Riyadh as a villain for its involvement in the Yemeni civil war, blaming the kingdom for starvation and civilian casualties while ignoring Tehran’s provision of military training, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles to the Houthis—and the threat this posed not just to the Saudis and Emiratis, but to the global economy and to U.S. interests.
The Democratic party’s current enthusiasm for embracing Iran, and its hostility toward Saudi Arabia, is partly a result of the knee-jerk rejection of anything and everything President Donald Trump did while in office—in this case, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy legacy, and warmly embracing Saudi Arabia and its new crown prince. Add to this the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—a brutal act raising serious questions about values and judgment—which was kerosene poured on the anti-Saudi fire.
Even before formally taking office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised a comprehensive re-evaluation of ties with Riyadh. And then came the punches. First, the State Department announced it would remove the Houthis from the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations—relieving strategic and economic pressure on an increasingly lethal force trained and armed by Iran. The administration claimed the move was necessary to allow for transfers of humanitarian goods to the Yemeni people—but as sanctions experts can attest, the Treasury Department had all the authorities it needed to address such concerns while keeping pressure on the Houthis. The result? Not the promised end to the war in Yemen, but a steady increase in missile and UAV attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And to add insult to injury, Biden ordered the removal of U.S. missile-defense systems from Saudi Arabia, leaving the kingdom even more vulnerable to Houthi attacks.
Next came follow-through on Biden’s campaign promise to make MBS a pariah. The president ordered his top intelligence officials to release a declassified memo rehashing the Khashoggi murder and holding MBS ultimately responsible. The document broke no new ground from previous reports and statements—serving only as a political device to stigmatize the crown prince and make it clear that Biden would keep him at arm’s length.
And finally, there was Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran who has spent the last eighteen months offering concession after concession to Tehran in the hope of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal—much in line with his two-decade record of pushing Washington to appease the Middle East’s most vicious tyrants and terrorists. Last year, Malley proposed lifting U.S. terrorism sanctions targeting the chief financiers of Iran’s elite paramilitary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and even entertained the ayatollahs’ request to remove the IRGC from the official U.S. list of terrorist organizations. For Riyadh, facing never-ending threats from Iranian missiles and drones, a U.S. offer effectively to subsidize IRGC attacks on a close ally was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
But why should any White House care what MBS thinks? After all, in a world where America had emerged in the last decade as a net exporter of oil, the foundation of the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship—oil for security—no longer seems all that relevant. The Saudis need Washington more than Washington needed the Saudis, went the conventional wisdom on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The United States needs to get out of the Middle East; the action is in the Pacific now, where all of America’s focus should be on China.
Or so team Biden thought.
At the time, few pundits or politicians connected America’s evolving policies toward Iran and Saudi Arabia to Biden’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Energy analysts were clueless to the potential impact of an American president signaling to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping his unwillingness to use military force to save a U.S. ally under threat of imminent collapse.
Those who did warn that abandoning Afghanistan would encourage Iran to race forward with its nuclear program, Russia to threaten its neighbors, and China to attack Taiwan, were jeered by the far left and the isolationist right as defenders of “endless wars.” Yet two of those three predictions have already come true, while Beijing in recent weeks has escalated its harassment of Australian and Canadian aircraft patrolling international airspace.
Vladimir Putin, in particular, paid close attention to the American withdrawal and calculated that an overwhelming commitment of force against a non-NATO country would face no resistance from the White House. Besides, Russian military plans and U.S. intelligence predicted the fall of Kyiv within days of an invasion, with Biden repeatedly making clear that he had no interest in risking World War III by confronting the Kremlin.
Neither Putin nor Biden expected Ukrainian forces to stave off the Russian advance. They didn’t expect the comedian-turned-president of Ukraine to shame the world into action via social media. And they didn’t expect to end up in a protracted military, economic, and political proxy war that would combine with other inflationary trends to send energy and food prices to record highs. But these surprises don’t absolve the White House of the severe policy malpractice of needlessly antagonizing Saudi Arabia, a country the United States has periodically relied upon to stabilize the world oil market in such times of crisis.
When President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman al-Saud—MBS’s grandfather—aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, the two sketched out an oil-for-security relationship that could prove invaluable to both parties. If that arrangement had held in 2022, Riyadh would expect a U.S. president to impose maximum pressure on a radical regime that threatens it with daily terrorist attacks, not to mention equal pressure on that regime’s terrorist proxies and robust military support to defend the kingdom from attacks. And the White House would expect a Saudi king to swing his country’s oil production to record highs and draw upon his hidden storage capacity around the world to offset the upward pressure on prices caused by a war in Ukraine and sanctions targeting Russian energy.
But oil-for-security in its original form may now be dead. After empowering Houthi terror attacks against the kingdom, downgrading missile-defense commitments, entertaining the removal of the IRGC from the U.S. terror list, and pushing to make the crown prince politically radioactive, President Biden was shocked to hear King Salman rebuff a direct request to help stabilize an oil market spinning out of control.
Then reality set in. Independent areas of policymaking, each conducted in isolation—appeasement of Iran, surrender in Afghanistan, and feebleness in defense of Ukraine—turned out to be part of one highly unstable structure, whose collapse brought a disaster that Americans now pay for every day at the gas pump.
To his credit, President Biden did not respond punitively to Saudi Arabia’s refusal to help tame oil prices, despite calls to do just that from members of his own party. Instead, he tasked his administration with finding ways to patch things up. Biden may very well have made a trip to the Middle East at some point in his first term had the United States not faced an oil crisis. But it wouldn’t have been this summer, and it wouldn’t have included a stop in Saudi Arabia.
For the last few weeks, a series of reports emerged demonstrating an intensified effort to bring the House of Saud closer to the United States. Biden is now expected to give MBS what he wants most: a photo-op with the leader of the free world. The president’s visit alone gives a boost to Saudi efforts to attract foreign investment in the crown prince’s attempt to build Neom, a “smart city” on the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command convened a secret meeting of Middle Eastern generals—including Saudi and Israeli ones—to discuss a U.S.-sponsored integrated air-defense plan to counter Iranian missile and UAV attacks while simultaneously furthering Arab-Israeli normalization. American diplomats intensified their engagement in finalizing a four-year-old agreement for Egypt to hand over control of two small islands in the Strait of Tiran to Saudi Arabia—a move of strategic importance for the Saudis that, according to the terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords, requires sign-off from Israel. That is, conclusion of the agreement will establish de-facto relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
On Iran, too, the White House began to take a tougher line. Facing overwhelming bipartisan opposition to any nuclear deal that rolled back terrorism sanctions on the IRGC, Biden rejected Iran’s request to remove the group from the official U.S. terror list. In early June, the Biden administration for the first time used a Trump-era executive order to impose sanctions on an illicit Iranian petrochemical trading network—the first full-on attack on Iran’s economy since Biden took office. In Vienna, after allowing Iran to ratchet up its enrichment of uranium and block a UN investigation into undeclared nuclear activities for months, Biden supported the censure of Iran at the quarterly board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Looking at the state of play from Jerusalem or Riyadh, Biden was finally making all the right moves ahead of his visit.
Then came an unexpected twist. After a three-month hiatus in nuclear negotiations, with pundits prematurely reporting the demise of the 2015 nuclear deal, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief tweeted a photo of himself eating dinner with Biden’s Iran envoy in Europe ahead of a planned visit to Tehran. Two days later came the announcement: talks with Iran were “unstuck” and indirect negotiations between the United States and the Islamic Republic would resume immediately—this time in Doha, Qatar. The choice of venue likely set off alarm bells in the Middle East, since Qatar has grown closer to Iran over the last few years while lending support to the Muslim Brotherhood and pummeling both Israel and Saudi Arabia through its state-funded Al Jazeera broadcasts.
The decision to restart talks raises other questions about Biden’s intentions. Why is the United States investing in a regional defense architecture to counter Iran while simultaneously offering to lift U.S. terrorism and missile sanctions on that same regime? Why press Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel while undermining such a move by handing Tehran more influence in the region?
In a Washington Post op-ed previewing his trip, Biden signaled that his failed Iran strategy hadn’t shifted one bit. “My administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do,” he wrote. What Jerusalem and Riyadh originally perceived as a shift in strategy was really just a shift in tactics. The objective remains the same: pumping the region’s most dangerous regime with billions more dollars that will fund terrorist attacks against Israel and the Gulf states. It’s hard to believe that either the Jewish state or the Saudi one will read this column as anything but a signal that the White House has not, in fact, undergone a change of heart.
To build the sort of global alliance necessary to contain Russia—let alone China—America needs to demonstrate that a new strategy is on the horizon. To do that, it must first break with its compartmentalized thinking. As the high price of gas, and the concomitant domestic discontent, make clear, an anti-Putin strategy involves more than cajoling European allies into sanctioning Russia and sending weapons to Ukraine. It also involves being able to call on countries like Saudi Arabia for help. Likewise, a strategy aimed at confronting China, a far more formidable enemy than Russia, must look beyond East Asia. After all, Beijing has been assiduously building its influence in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere for many years, and doesn’t see competition with the U.S. as limited to the Pacific Rim.
As far as the president’s Middle East tour is concerned, this means that the White House will have to answer a fundamental question: is Saudi Arabia a close U.S. ally, worthy of the effort it will take to keep in America’s orbit instead of letting slip into Russia’s or China’s? If the answer is yes—as it should be—Biden’s policy choices should reflect that. At present, Washington real message appears to be that it’s willing to make a lot of friendly gestures toward Riyadh, but not readjust its core strategy.
The great unknown, of course, is the extent to which public statements and signaling to the president’s political base are disconnected from the private communications between leaders. We may get a sense of that in the days that follow the president’s travel from media leaks in Jerusalem and regime-controlled press reports in the Gulf.
The Biden White House has undoubtedly learned painful lessons from implementing a national-security strategy that pays no attention to the big picture. The glaring exception seems to be Iran policy, where the president appears unable to shake off a partisan commitment to pursuing a nuclear deal that runs counter to all other foreign-policy priorities. And that may be why, instead of his greatest turnaround, history may remember this trip as Biden’s greatest missed opportunity.