28 Jul 2020

US elections and potential shifts in policies toward the Middle East

Dr. Ashraf Al Eisawy
The electoral programs and statements of US presidential candidates often receive attention as they indicate how the winning candidate will deal with various issues, at home and abroad. Thus, analyzing the visions of both President Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, and Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, for various Middle Eastern issues, suggests possible shifts in the US policy toward this region, which has strategic, economic, and geopolitical implications for the United States. Covid-19 and the presidential election The elections scheduled for November 2020 will be the 59th elections for the presidency of the United States. The two contenders are the incumbent Republican President Trump, who is seeking candidacy for a second term, and Joe Biden, the Democrat nominee. The latter is considered a prominent politician who has worked for many American administrations and was the vice president in Barack Obama’s administration. He has gained extensive experience in US foreign policy issues, especially those related to the Middle East. This election will be held amid unprecedented challenges, namely Covid-19. The pandemic has transformed from a health crisis, which is supposed to unite the American society, into a political issue exploited by both candidates. Joe Biden sharpened his criticisms of Trump for what he described as the “catastrophic mistakes” committed while dealing with the pandemic, and the catastrophic consequences. “Trump’s response to the virus outbreak is inappropriate and ineffective,” Biden said.[1] Meanwhile, Trump has been quick to deny these criticisms and repeatedly stated that Democrats use the new virus as an electoral “trick.” He even accused Joe Biden of “incompetence” while dealing with the swine flu virus in 2009 during President Obama’s term. Trump said: “The way through which Biden and Obama have dealt with the swine flu epidemic was catastrophic and caused 17,000 people to die unnecessarily”.[2] Given the continuing fallout of Covid-19 in the United States, many observers agree that the epidemic will play a significant role in influencing the elections. The United States has been among the most affected by the pandemic, in terms of the number of infected and dead, which has also had disastrous consequences for the US economy. While Trump relied heavily on the revitalization of the economy to win the electoral race, he now faces a difficult situation with the continuation of this pandemic and its repercussions on the American economy. Recent opinion polls mostly suggest Biden’s progress. It even showed that 72 percent of Americans believe that their country is heading toward the wrong path with Trump’s management of the Coronavirus crisis.[3] The elections will hence be seen as a referendum on President Trump’s performance in dealing with the pandemic and in containing its repercussions. The effects of the pandemic go beyond politics and the electoral race to affect the voting process itself. The high rates of infections among Americans may compel large numbers of them to refrain from participating. Some estimates indicate that about two-thirds of Americans do not feel comfortable going to voting stations if the virus persists. There is also a fear that if no changes are made in the voting procedures to ensure the voters’ safety, the participation percentage may decrease significantly. This legitimacy of the elections will be in question if the authorities close down the places where the virus is widespread, and prevent voters from voting.[4] Perhaps this may explain why questions have been raised by some politicians and observers, including President Trump himself, about the possibility of postponing these elections. The pillars of US Middle East policy The Middle East region is of immense significance to the United States due to political, strategic, economic, and security factors. When it comes to dealing with this region, American polices are based on several pillars, regardless of who rules the White House. The most important of these pillars are as follows:[5]
  1. Maintaining Israel’s security: This is one of the United States’ fundamental national interests owing to the intrinsic links between the two countries, the shared values, and cultural communication between the American and Israeli societies. Besides, the Jewish interest groups in the United States, and the American media, in particular, play a vital role in creating a political environment offering support and protection for Israel.[6] All US presidents, regardless of their party affiliations, agree on maintaining the security of Israel and ensuring its qualitative superiority over its neighbors.[7] This won’t change with Trump and Biden. Both have reiterated their commitment to Israel’s security, although Trump has shown more bias than any other president toward Israel. This was demonstrated in his positions on controversial issues such as the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the shifting of the American embassy to Jerusalem, and the recognition of Israel’s control over the Syrian Golan Heights.
  2. Fighting terrorist and extremist organizations: This constitutes one of the US policy priorities in the Middle East and the world in general. It is always emphasized by the US State Department’s annual reports on combating terrorism. The 2019 report stressed the urgent need to confront the full spectrum of terrorist threats, including ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Iranian-backed groups, as well as terrorist organizations operating in the region. The report revealed that the threat of terrorism and the operations carried out by armed terrorist groups are typically concentrated in the Middle East, Africa, and southern and western Asia. The report also warned against the expansion of the extremist ideology of ISIS and Al-Qaeda worldwide, given the expanded use of social media and the Internet.[8] Perhaps this explains why the US assumed leadership of the international coalition to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq since the US is fully aware of the dangers that the organization poses to security and stability in the Middle East and international security in general.[9]
  3. Freeing the region of weapons of mass destruction: The United States seeks to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is aware that the proliferation of such weapons would threaten the region’s security and create a challenge to its allies as the forces which seek to possess these weapons adopt hostile and interventionist policies that undermine the region’s stability. This explains why the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and prevented Iran from acquiring those weapons. The Trump administration has focused mainly on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and hence decided to withdraw from the nuclear agreement that Barack Obama's administration concluded with Iran in 2015.[10]
  4. Energy security: The United States’ keenness to ensure the flow of oil at reasonable prices, especially from the Middle East region, is an integral element of its vision of the importance of energy in mapping future global powers. The ability of any global power to secure energy for its factories determines its supremacy on the global stage. Therefore, ensuring energy supplies is one of the most critical strategic pillars that cannot be compromised, for the US.[11]Even though the United States is now one of the most important players in the world of energy and an exporter of oil and gas, it still strives to ensure the flow of oil from the Middle East at reasonable prices. President Trump has often called on the Gulf and OPEC countries to reduce oil prices. He even accused OPEC of raising oil prices and demanded that it pump more oil to push the prices down.[12]
Trump and Biden: Competing visions for the Middle East: Although the US presidential election campaigns often focus on internal issues directly related to American citizens, such as education, healthcare, and social security systems, Middle East issues are part of their agendas and campaigns. These issues can be addressed as follows:
  1. Israel and the Palestinian cause: This significant issue is traditionally raised in the elections as each candidate seeks to employ it politically to ensure the support of the influential Jewish lobbies. Trump seeks to prove that he has fulfilled his promises regarding the Palestinian issue and supports Israel more than any other US president. He decided to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and announced his plan to support Israel’s annexation of all West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley.[13] On the other hand, Joe Biden also has pro-Israel views. On many occasions, he has stated that he is committed to the security of Israel and supports keeping the US embassy in Jerusalem. But he projects a slightly different view to resolving the Palestinian issue. The Democratic candidate endorses the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and believes that Trump’s unilateral approach has made the two-state settlement more difficult to achieve while demanding that Israel should stop settlement activities in the occupied territories.[14]The peace plan announced by Trump in January 2020, which encourages Israel to annex much of the West Bank, is seen by some as partly aimed at winning a new presidency by garnering the support of evangelical Americans (who make up about a quarter of the electorate).[15] Biden has expressed reservations about this plan since he opposes annexing lands from the West Bank as it could undermine the idea of ​​the two-state solution. Speaking on Israel’s plans to annex lands from the West Bank, Biden said that ”if he is elected president, he will not be bound by everything that Trump has recognized.” Although this position may serve as a deterrent to Israel, it may prompt it to accelerate the implementation of the annexation plan before the American presidential elections.[16]
  1. The Iranian nuclear agreement: President Trump adopts a hardline vis-à-vis Iran due to his conviction that it poses a threat to regional and international security and stability. In 2018, Trump fulfilled the promise he made during the 2016 campaign to withdraw from the nuclear deal. He began adopting the strategy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, which is based on the tightening of sanctions already imposed on it, and preventing it from selling crude oil and accessing international financial markets. The plan was to reduce its nuclear and missile activities and curb its practices and policies that destabilize the region’s security and stability. President Trump and many members of his administration believe that implementing the strategy of “maximum pressure” may lead to a change in the Iranian regime. They expect an escalation of widespread rejection and the growing protests and demonstrations in the Iranian streets, especially in light of the severe deterioration of economic and living conditions.[17] Although Joe Biden agrees with Trump’s vision of Iran as a “destabilizing force” in the region, and that it should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, he adopts a different approach in dealing with this threat. Biden instead describes Trump’s approach toward Iran as a “disaster” claiming that the withdrawal from the agreement failed to prevent Tehran from developing its nuclear program. Biden even pledged to rejoin the deal if Iran moves back into compliance with its terms.[18] In August 2019, Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations: “If Iran returns to comply with its nuclear obligations, I will return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear agreement), and I will use it as a starting point in confronting Tehran’s other malicious behavior in the region.”[19] Biden also believes that Trump’s approach toward Iran has pushed the country closer to China and Russia, and has led to the isolation of the United States. In contrast, Iran has resumed its nuclear activities. Hence, one may expect that Biden – if he won the election – would decide to engage with the Iranian nuclear deal as he supported the agreement Obama administration signed in 2015. Biden and many advisors working on his campaign realize the importance of abandoning Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy in dealing with Iran and would prefer returning to dialogue. In April 2020, Biden, and several Democrats, called for easing sanctions to allow Iran to obtain medical aid for combating the new Coronavirus epidemic, making him a favorite among supporters of a comprehensive settlement with Iran in US circles.[20] However, if Biden wins the race, returning to the previous nuclear agreement will not be easy because dangerous developments have occurred on the ground, including Iran’s resumption of many of its nuclear activities over the past two years. This will almost certainly require the forging of an alternative approach that takes into account these developments, as is understood from a statement by Anthony Blinken, Biden’s international affairs adviser, who was deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. Blinken said: “Many different developments have taken place since Washington withdrew from that nuclear agreement.”[21] This explains why some believe that Biden may go beyond the “return to the nuclear deal” rhetoric and instead negotiate a more robust agreement that provides for extended timetables. Such talks should consider the gaps in the nuclear deal and Iran’s activities designed to destabilize the region, especially its support for sectarian and armed militias in neighboring countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.[22]
  2. The region’s crises and conflicts: Since his arrival in the White House in January 2017, President Trump’s policies indicate isolation, to steer clear of Middle East crises and conflicts, and avoiding efforts to settle them. His decision to pull out American forces from Syria in December 2018 embodies this policy, especially considering Trump’s opinion that his country’s interference in the Middle East was its worst decision ever that has cost the US trillions of dollars. He even went on to say that his country cannot continue to be the world’s policeman and that if countries neighboring conflict zones are concerned, they must themselves resolve them.[23]In the United States, Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria has been widely opposed by both the Republicans and Democrats. They claim that it poses a threat to US interests in the Middle East. Several members of the US Senate sharply criticized this decision. They said that the US faces threats from terrorist groups operating in Syria and Afghanistan, and a hasty withdrawal could jeopardize the US national security and the progress that has been made in this regard.[24] Joe Biden takes a different position. According to him, the Middle East conflicts necessitate continued American presence in the region and active engagement in resolving the crises. Biden rejected Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from northern Syria, considering it a “betrayal of the Kurds.” He also criticized Turkish intervention in northern Syria, stressing that Ankara must pay a heavy price in return.[25] Biden also tends to maintain the military presence in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, to ​​fight the remnants of ISIS and to expand engagement in Syria. This what one can understand from statements by Antony Blinken in which he said: “The continued presence of American forces on the ground will be necessary to retain influence.”[26]
  1. The war against extremism and terrorism: On issues of extremism and terrorism, Trump and Biden’s views are almost alike. Both express the United States’ steadfast stance on this issue, which stems from the belief that extremist and terrorist organizations pose an increasing threat to US interests in the Middle East region where these organizations are mainly based. This was confirmed by the American strategy to combat terrorism, announced in October 2018, which places a high priority on combating terrorism and extremist organizations, mainly ISIS and Al-Qaeda.[27]
  2. The position on political Islam: Trump considers the political Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, a threat no less dangerous than extremist and terrorist organizations. Trump believes that its containment must be one of the goals of American foreign policy and the world. On April 30, the White House announced that the Trump administration is classifying Muslim Brotherhood as an international terrorist organization.[28] Despite the legal difficulties, Trump’s tough stance demonstrates his conviction that the group represents the intellectual basis on which extremists and terrorists draw their literature and ideologies that incite violence and hatred. Transnational terrorist organizations, with Al-Qaeda and ISIS at the forefront, derive their terrorist ideology from the group that does not believe in homelands and seeks to reach power by various means, including by resorting to force and violence. Joe Biden embraces former President Obama’s vision on political Islamist groups, which Obama supported after they took charge in Egypt in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring.” Perhaps this explains why the groups and organizations close to the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States offer considerable support to Joe Biden in the electoral race. These groups realize that Trump’s second term means he will classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.[29] Some feel that the Muslim Brotherhood pins high hopes on Joe Biden to revive the region’s political Islam project once again.[30]
The future of the US Middle East policy If Trump wins the elections, he will continue to adopt the same policies toward the Middle East as he believes his policies are always right. However, if Joe Biden wins, the US policies would likely witness some changes that would reflect his vision of the US foreign policy and the nature of the role that the United States is supposed to play in the Middle East. Some developments are expected if that indeed is the case:
  1. This raises prospects of the United States returning to actively engage in the region’s crises and participating in efforts to settle them, unlike Trump’s approach, which considers the United States’ intervention in the Middle East region mistakes. He believes that countries in the region should resolve crises by themselves. Biden believes in the importance of the United States returning to exercise its leadership role in the world. The Democratic nominee expressed this vision in an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs, published in the journal’s March/April 2020. Entitled Why America Must Lead Again?,[31] the article included features of Biden’s Middle East policy, which is based on; maintaining economic, military and political ties with the traditional US allies in the Middle East; promoting active intervention in the Middle East; and the return of American diplomacy to contribute effectively to finding solutions to the region’s crises. In this context, it is not unlikely that Joe Biden will adopt Obama’s policies as many of Biden’s potential aides and advisors in the White House have served in the Obama administration and formulated the US policy toward the region. Notable among them is Antony Blinken, one of Biden’s current key advisers, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Indeed, some reports indicated that Biden is likely to choose most of his administration members from his Obama administration team such as John Kerry, former Secretary of State, Susan Rice, the former national security advisor, and many others.[32]
  2. A new path to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: If Biden wins, perhaps the US will look for a new formula to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict against the backdrop of widespread opposition to Trump’s peace plan, commonly referred to as “the deal of the century”. Biden may endeavor to reach an understanding with the Netanyahu government on removing from its agenda the issue of annexing areas in the West Bank, and developing another formula, hoping that negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel for resolving the outstanding issues between the two parties could be resumed. On the other hand, a Biden administration is likely to turn a blind eye to Trump’s decisions that have sparked widespread controversy, foremost among which are the decisions to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the American embassy.[33]
  3. The Iran nuclear deal: While Biden has made it clear that he supports the US’s return to the Iran nuclear agreement, such a return may take longer, especially considering President Trump’s Iran policy has proven effective. The policy of “maximum pressure” and the threat of effectively using force, as was the case of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, made Iran aware that the US is serious about its threats. This is a real gain that the Biden administration cannot easily compromise. Therefore, Biden’s potential policy toward Iran is likely to combine “hard” power with sanctions strategy. Biden may link the US return to the nuclear agreement with other issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for armed militias whose actions destabilize the region’s security and stability. European countries that are party to the nuclear agreement – France, Britain, and Germany – support this vision, which links the nuclear deal with Iran’s policies that have been causing grave concerns and tension in the region.
Conclusion The Middle East still has immense significance in the US foreign policy, not only at the economic and geopolitical levels but also because of its relevance to the struggle among the major world powers over asserting status and influence within the global order. Indeed, there are pillars on which the US Middle East policies are based. These policies do not differ as a result of the president’s affiliation, whether a Republican or a Democrat. What changes, however, are the mechanism and tools employed for implementing the US policies. Republican administrations tend to use “hard” power and sanctions to confront their opponents in the region. For example, the administration of former President George W. Bush used military force to topple the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. President Trump has repeatedly threatened to use force against Iran if it crosses the “red lines” as it did in assassinating Qasem Soleimani. This administration also applies the “maximum pressure” strategy that aims in essence to change the behavior of the Iranian regime. In contrast, the US Democratic administrations tend to pair between the tools of “hard”, “smart” and “soft” powers in achieving their goals in the Middle East region. Hence, if Trump wins the election in November, the US Middle East policy will remain unchanged. But things may witness some changes if Joe Biden is the winner. He calls upon America to regain a leadership role in the Middle East and get actively involved in the efforts made to resolve the region’s ongoing crises and conflicts.  
References [1] Biden accuses Trump of failing to deal with Coronavirus pandemic, Russia Today website, June 17, 2020, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/30QPosC. [2] Trump holds Obama and Biden responsible for the deaths of 17,000 Americans, Al-Hurra website, April 18, 2020, [in Arabic]: https://arbne.ws/32SZVq3. [3] Jonathan Freedland, Trump will cling to power. To get him out, Biden will have to win big, the Guardian, July 17, 2020: https://bit.ly/3hIHAjN. [4] Maria Annala, ‘"Covid-19" Pandemic threatens US elections’, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, June 2020: https://bit.ly/3g1iPPa. [5] Aaron Blake, President Trump’s full Washington Post interview transcript, annotated, The Washington Post, November 28, 2018: https://wapo.st/3jvcOwn. [6] For more details on the importance of Israel in the US Middle East policy, see: Dr. Hala Saudi, American Policy Toward the Arab World in the Aftermath of the Second World War: Dr. Ahmed Youssef Ahmed and Dr. Mamdouh Hamza (eds.), The Creation of Hatred in Arab-American Relations, Cairo, 1st Edition, September 2002, pp. 57-58. [in Arabic]. [7] US Presidential Elections and the Middle East Issues, Rafic Hariri Center for the Middle East, November 7, 2016, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/32Lynmd. [8] To access the 2019 US State Department’s annual counterterrorism report, see: [in Arabic] Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: https://bit.ly/3jA5jUK. [9] Samuel R. Berger, Stephen Hadley, James F. Jeffrey, Dennis Ross, and Robert Satloff, Key Elements of a Strategy for the United States in the Middle East, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 2015: https://bit.ly/3jyXQW4. [10] Dr. Khalid Hashim Mohammed, The US Strategy in the Middle East between the Constants and Variables, The Democratic Arab Center, Berlin, April 15, 2019, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/3jyGqJ1. [11] For more details about the energy position in the US policy towards the Middle East region, see: Dr. Salim Kati’ Ali, The American Strategic Realization of Energy Security, Future Center for Strategic Studies, January 12, 2017, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/3fVWB0R. [12] Dr. Ayman Ali, Will There Be an End to the “OPEC-Phobia” Phenomenon? Al-Khaleej Newspaper (Sharjah), October 11, 2018, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/2OLexiU. [13] Michael Young, How Important Will Middle Eastern Politics Be in the U.S. Elections This Year?, The Carnegie Middle East Center, March 5, 2020: https://bit.ly/30CoaGi. [14] Izzat Ibrahim, The Absent Agenda: How Biden Views the Middle East?, The Egyptian Center for Thought and Strategic Studies, June 9, 2020 [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/2CYpwmq. [15] Michael Young, op.cit. [16] Hussein Ibish, What a Joe Biden Presidency Might Mean for Gulf Arab Countries?, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), May 27, 2020: https://bit.ly/2D2SrFS. [17] Mark Fitzpatrick, How can the United States support Iran’s response to the coronavirus and bolster diplomacy? The International Institute for Strategic Studies, March 16, 2020: https://bit.ly/2UNhMtA. [18] Izzat Ibrahim, The Absent Agenda: How Biden Views the Middle East? op.cit. [in Arabic]. [19] Hussein Ibish, op.cit. [20] Hussam Itani, Would Biden Return to the Nuclear Agreement with Iran? Asharq Al-Awsat Newspaper, London, issue number (15199), July 9, 2020, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/3eYLgvU. [21] Dr. Wahid Abdul Majeed, Biden, and Trump ... The Limits of Difference, Al-Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), July 22, 2020. [in Arabic]. [22] Hussein Ibish, op.cit. [23] For more details about Trump’s vision for the Middle East conflicts [in Arabic], see: Uri Friedman, The Consequences of Donald Trump Washing His Hands of the Middle East, The Atlantic, October 23, 2019: https://bit.ly/2WW9xN0. [24] Trump faces opposition from his Senate party representatives over withdrawal from Syria, France 24 website, February 1, 2019, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/2ZZgIWF. [25] Izzat Ibrahim, The Absent Agenda: How Biden Views the Middle East? op.cit. [in Arabic]. [26] Hussein Ibish, op.cit. [27] For more details about the content of this strategy, [in Arabic], see: National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America, The White House, Washington, DC, October 2018: https://bit.ly/32MPowo. [28] President Trump’s administration is in the process of classifying the Muslim Brotherhood group as a “terrorist organization”, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), April 30, 2019, [in Arabic]: https://bbc.in/3hzpFvO. [29] The Stake of the Muslim ’Brotherhood’s Institutions: Byden paves the ’Group’s Path for a Supportive America, Al Roeya Newspaper, 24 June, 2020 [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/3jBtJ05. [30] Dr. Ayman Samir, Arabs between Trump and Biden, Al Ghad website, April 9, 2020, [in Arabic]: https://bit.ly/32NLbZA. [31] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, https://fam.ag/2P0cdVz. [32] For more details about Biden’s relations with members of the former US President Barack ’Obama’s administration, [in Arabic], see: Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, Joe Biden’s Secret Governing Plan, Axios website, March 9, 2020: https://bit.ly/32PNB9Q. [33] Dr. Wahid Abdul Majeed, op.cit. [in Arabic].   '
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