Biden euphoria will quickly hit turbulence in Middle East
Well, it is only just 2021 and what a month we have already had. New and more transmittable forms of the coronavirus disease; a US president in denial about a lost election; an attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill; Iranian “suicide drones” on patrol and long-range ballistic missiles apparently falling within 100 miles of US naval ships in the Indian Ocean; Hamas and its fellow armed Islamists mounting joint military exercises in Gaza; Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar making up; and Israel striking Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syria yet again.
The outgoing Trump administration has imposed a raft of new sanctions on a bunch of bad guys, including the former Iraqi national security adviser, and designated the Houthis as a terrorist organization — all meant (so we are told by the commentariat) to make life difficult for the incoming Biden administration. In return, the Biden administration has promised to try to reverse some, if not all, of these measures. The US has dispatched, recalled and then re-sent an aircraft carrier to the region, along with some highly visible B-52s. Iran continues to ratchet up its enrichment activity and talks of war while hoping to avoid it. Meanwhile, in the background, you can hear once again the steady beat of that old diplomatic dance favorite — J.C.P.O.A, J.C.P.O.A.
In the UK, Brexit has more or less happened. There aren’t desperate queues at Dover (though the BBC has tried very hard to find them) and life goes on. In Germany, we have a replacement at last for Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (though not necessarily as chancellor): A man who questioned the attribution of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings to Russia, accused the US of trying to weaken Bashar Assad in his righteous struggle against Al-Qaeda and Daesh, defends Vladimir Putin, and supports a policy turn to China.
The governments of France and Austria continue to battle Islamism. As a result, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whom Joe Biden has in the recent past criticized publicly — accuses Emmanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz of Islamophobia or mental deficiency, doubles down on his purchase of the pointless S-400 Russian anti-aircraft defense system, and tries to make nice with Greece and Israel over the eastern Mediterranean, while the Turkish economy continues to stagnate. Meanwhile, over in Tehran, Ali Khamenei says it would be pointless negotiating with the US, while President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, by opposing a parliamentary demand to let enrichment rip, try to suggest they might want to do so if the conditions were right.
What connects all of this? It is that popular Broadway hit, “Waiting for Joe,” in which a chastened US emerges from the moral wastelands of the Trump years and finds itself reborn under the paternal guidance of a wise and genial patriarch who has taken care to appoint a range of old Obama-era hands — Jake Sullivan, Bill Burns, Wendy Sherman, Samantha Power and Lloyd Austin (all played by Tom Hanks) — and some highly able, zesty and zeitgeisty newcomers (many of them women, people of color and/or LGBTQ, we are encouraged to understand), all of them committed to multilateralism, democracy, decency, integrity and public service. Brett McGurk is back too, perhaps rather to the dismay of many of those Iraqis, Kurds and Turks who dealt with him in his previous incarnations.
It is certainly true that Donald Trump seems to have been the sort of person, motivated by “ambition, avarice and personal animosity” and willing to foment electoral “tumult and disorder,” about whom the authors of the Federalist Papers warned us 230 years ago. Not that it matters, but I am glad he is going. I am also glad to see honorable and experienced people like Burns returning to government service. And I am very much in favor of hard-headed multilateralism and productive collegiality among like-minded countries.
If left unchecked, the swirling tides of various social justice movements will simply add to what is already a high degree of polarization
Sir John Jenkins
But it would also be wise to pause a moment or two before simply being carried away by our emotion at Trump’s departure and Biden’s arrival. However their personalities differ and however principled Biden and his team might be, some things remain intractably the same, and the challenges of managing a fractured world — and indeed fractured domestic politics — have not got any easier.
First of all, there is clearly an issue with domestic political cohesion within the US, as there is in many other Western democracies. For a variety of reasons — growing economic inequity, the increasing gulf in social, political and economic capital between highly educated, mobile and internationalist elites and others, a growing contempt for nation, community and religion, the rise of the cult of progressivism and so forth — political polarization has become startlingly severe. That is fueled by bizarre conspiracy theories on all sides, intolerance of dissent, the weaponization of language, and the online mobbing of opponents. All of which erodes social trust and poisons open and rational debate, both of which lie at the heart of the democratic project.
Already we have seen a variety of claims about what exactly happened during the invasion of the Capitol. Was it a genuine attempt to overthrow the government — and indeed do serious harm to those in Congress — or was it just a cosplay mob that got out of control? So far, the answer to this depends on your political position. But the truth will eventually emerge through the legal processes that have already started. And this gives me some hope. Trump was a menace, aided and abetted by significant numbers of senior Republicans, who should have known better. But the forces of law and order have in the end done what they are supposed to do. Biden became the president on Wednesday. The system has worked.
There is rebuilding to be done, not least within the Republican Party (the party, remember, of Abraham Lincoln). But the Democrats need to think hard about themselves too. Their self-indulgent obsession with a Russian plot to put Trump in the White House distracted them from the business of making things better. They failed to impeach him once and may well fail again. And people remember that many Democrats who fulminated against the “MAGA” insurrection were fine when social justice mobs were tearing down statues and torching federal buildings last summer.
If left unchecked, the swirling tides of various social justice movements will simply add to what is already a high degree of polarization. That is a recipe for political conflict and policy impotence. And it is not clear where the new administration as a whole will come down on this. Biden himself is an avuncular, old-fashioned pragmatist. But what about Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “The Squad?” And all those other Democratic activists now baying for revenge? With a significant proportion of the 74 million people who voted for Trump still believing there was something wrong with the election, it will be a major challenge for the Biden administration to fix this.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the problems of endemic conflict, governance, corruption, legitimacy, economic stagnation and social division remain deeply entrenched. Some of Biden’s incoming officials have publicly acknowledged that the Obama administration made mistakes in failing to act over Syria or Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including the subversion of its neighbors, funding of destructive Shiite militias, and missile proliferation. And there has already been some suggestion that the US will need to rethink its strategy, especially if it is serious about a successor to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — or a renegotiated version of what we already have. Tehran is demanding compensation for the losses it has allegedly suffered as a result of US sanctions. While that seems to me to be a non-starter, there are probably other things the US could offer as incentives, as Dennis Ross and others have suggested, including access to frozen assets and further waivers to third countries that import Iranian energy products in return for serious and verifiable steps from Tehran. Or it could hang tough and focus on more pressing issues elsewhere. But it is not going to be easy: It never is with Iran.
Reconstructing a more collegiate and strategically informed US position in the Middle East and North Africa will not be simple
Sir John Jenkins
Meanwhile, the Iranians continue to double down in their effort to get US military forces out of Iraq and Syria — and ultimately out of the region entirely. The Khomeinist militias in Iraq have been bellicose even by their standards, threatening US personnel and property and even their own government, firing rockets and planting improvised explosive devices, while Iran pretends to restrain them. Meanwhile, Khamenei, Rouhani and Hassan Nasrallah issue threats of revenge against Israel, which they have publicly blamed for the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last November. And Iran’s friends and allies continue to embed themselves in the institutions not just of the Iraqi, Syrian or Lebanese state, but of daily life: Banks, schools, cooperatives, hospitals and clinics, the justice system, construction companies, real estate, insurance, transport, and so forth.
Some things that happened under Trump are highly bankable. The normalization process between Israel and certain previously hostile Arab states represents a potentially profound shift in the security architecture of the region. Much of the commentary on the “reconciliation” of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain with Qatar strikes me as overblown: If Qatar does not seriously change its behavior or its relationship with Islamists, Iran and Turkey, fundamental problems will remain. But at least it removes the issue of closed borders and overflights from the to-do list.
If Erdogan, in turn, genuinely means to dial down the tensions with Turkey’s neighbors, that would be good. But Washington will still need to take a view on the question of Gulf security and the equally complicated politics of northeastern Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government, not to mention its relations with dysfunctional governments in Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, where Ankara — a NATO ally after all — is unlikely to help much. It will be faced with elections in Israel, Iran, maybe Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, where the need for US re-engagement remains pressing. It will also need to decide how much effort to put into rolling back Russian influence, when China and the whole Pacific region are shaping up to be defining issues well ahead of schedule.
In Europe, all the noises about a reset will come up against the usual French self-aggrandizement and German ambivalence. They already have, with the European Commission’s signing of an EU-China investment agreement in the face of serious US reservations — and apparently without consultation. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, has said the EU needs to be a geopolitical player in its own right, which is an interesting and perhaps slightly worrying concept, given the historical role of NATO in guaranteeing European security. In truth, the only truly Atlanticist states within the EU are now the Netherlands and Denmark. And the only properly capable European Atlanticist state is the UK (as US administrations keep having to rediscover). This will be another area where triangulation will be difficult.
None of this is meant to suggest that a Biden administration is not a good thing. After Trump, it most certainly is. But not everything the Trump administration did was bad. It got China right, it changed the equation on relations between the Arab states and Israel, it didn’t try to promote half-understood political change and it squeezed Iran hard. There were also continuities with Barack Obama: Over military force reductions, an unwillingness to get drawn into unnecessary (and some occasionally necessary) conflicts, a focus on counterterrorism and trade, and a realist position on Turkey. And reconstructing a more collegiate and strategically informed US position in the Middle East and North Africa will not be simple, with the same competing demands as each of the three previous administrations have faced, only this time rebooted. After the euphoria of Biden’s inauguration, prepare for a different sort of turbulence. But also, prepare to help.
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.