In the wake of the U.S. election many countries in the Middle East are wondering if a change in the administration will bring with it major changes in policy. Amid this uncertainty, some countries will jockey for influence in Washington, trying to exploit the end of one administration and the new administration coming into office.
Unlike many parts of the world, the Middle East is one region where U.S. policies have shifted wildly in the last decades. Countries in the region are talked about like political footballs, with administrations seen as friendly to one or the other. For instance, the Obama administration was viewed as cold towards Israel while President Donald Trump sought to embrace Israel, moving the U.S. embassy and cutting funding to the Palestinian Authority. On Iran the same shift occurred, from the 2015 Iran Deal to the "maximum pressure" campaign of the last three years.
U.S. policies in the Middle East have shifted wildly in recent times.
Other countries sense a shift in policy ahead. Whereas Trump was supportive of Saudi Arabia, traveling there in May 2017 for a summit and celebrating arms sales to the kingdom, the Biden administration appears more critical of Riyadh's role in the conflict in Yemen. Meanwhile, even though Turkey and Egypt's rulers don't get along with each other, they both shared antipathy towards the Obama administration and tried to get an in with the Trump administration.
Most hopeful in the region are the Kurds—key allies of the U.S. in Iraq and Syria—who felt disappointed by American policy in the last several years and hope Biden will bring some stability. Trump had vowed to leave Syria in 2018 and again in 2019, opening up the way for a Turkish offensive against U.S. partners on the ground—the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Now there is tentative hope the U.S. could stay.
Foreign policy is not supposed to shift radically every few years. Successful management of U.S. interests and maintenance of U.S. leadership requires consistent policy and a belief among local leaders that they can't just browbeat one administration and move on to the next. Foreign policy isn't a car dealership, it's more like an automobile brand. "Brand America" needs to be something people can count on.
"Brand America" needs to be something people can count on.
From Baghdad to Tehran to Cairo, governments across the region expect that with a new administration comes a new foreign policy. That's dangerous for the U.S. A global superpower can't be successful if small countries abroad think they can just wait four years to get what they want, or buy up influence through lobbying. That means the next administration should be incremental and consistent, and not give the sense that it will reverse course radically on key issues, such as Iran, Israel and U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. Consistency doesn't mean refusing to learn from the missteps or successes of previous years, but it does mean being clear to allies and adversaries that the U.S. will not be pushed around and that Washington can be counted on.
A good start would be for Biden to praise the new relations between Israel and the Gulf states. In addition, Iran—which just sent its foreign minister to South America to lash out at the U.S.—should not think it is going to get a red-carpet reception in the U.S. after Trump's team leaves. On sensitive issues, such as Turkey's aggression against NATO allies like Greece, and questions about what will happen in Afghanistan or Libya, Washington should put out feelers and see whether Trump's approach, which was usually more isolationist, is working.
Many hope for more U.S. engagement in the Middle East but also don't want to see more so-called regime change wars or more attempts to impose America's views. Thirty years of experience have taught countries that the U.S. tends to zig-zag so often that it is best not to put all their eggs in one basket in D.C. The Biden administration can learn from this and be clear about its goals, without promising too much. At the very least standing by America's allies and partners should be the first step.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.