Eric Bordenkircher, a research fellow at UCLA's Center for Middle East Development, spoke to participants in a February 5 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about whether and how the Biden administration's Middle East policy will differ from that of the former Obama administration.
Bordenkircher, who authored a recent Middle East Quarterly article on this topic, argued that Biden's policies look to be neither a wholesale repeat of Obama's nor fully independent, but a hybrid – neither Obama 2.0 nor Biden 1.0, but "Obiden 1.5" – that ultimately will not serve American interests very well.
"Biden has hired a lot of former Obama advisers," notably Jake Sullivan, Antony Blinken, Jeffrey Prescott, Ely Ratner, and Colin Kahl. This is problematic not only because Obama's Mideast policies were "not particularly successful" in the region and were a "spectacular disaster in Libya," but also because these advisors haven't learned from past mistakes. "Unlike the Bush administration," said Bordenkircher, the Obama administration "didn't reevaluate its policy" in the Middle East as failures mounted. "There [was] a little more humility within the Bush administration to kind of admit defeat and the fact that, 'Hey, we didn't do this quite right' and pull back a lot of these ideas." Even after they left their positions, Obama's advisors remained wedded to the idea that "Obama was the golden child and that his policies worked."
Thus, Biden's Mideast policy team is determined to re-enter the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime, once considered the signature foreign policy "achievement" of the Obama administration. "They're going to do whatever it takes in order to re-enter it," not just because they think it was a good agreement but because it represents their overarching belief in multilateralism. Failure to restore it "questions the overall policy of the administration."
An equally concerning trend within Biden's team is a strong desire to push back on the Trump administration's "America first" approach by promoting policies with "an emphasis on democracy ... human rights ... alliances ... [and] institutions." While Bordenkircher acknowledges these ideas are laudable in principle, they "don't resonate very well in the Middle East."
Another problem with Biden administration policies is that they are "incongruent ... [and] don't go together." The administration is "unable or unwilling to see the linkage between policies or their harmful effects," said Bordenkircher. Most notably, Biden is advocating policies that conflict with his goal of reviving the JCPOA.
Biden is advocating policies that conflict with his goal of reviving the JCPOA.
The Obama administration worked to ease its Arab Gulf partners' wariness over its entry into the JCPOA by pledging to supply them with military arms and supporting the Saudi intervention in Yemen to stop an Iranian proxy, the Houthis, from taking over. Incongruously, Biden recently signaled that his administration wants to reduce U.S. involvement in the Saudi conflict and restrict military support to the kingdom.
Such moves are incredibly "short-sighted" and likely to "complicate our relations" at a time when the Biden administration needs the cooperation of allies on Iran and other crucial security issues.
More generally, the Biden administration's insistence on promoting human rights in the region is "problematic" because "substantial change" on human rights can only evolve over the long term. Destabilizing the region and damaging relations with allies in the short term won't move that ball forward.
If the Biden administration is serious about renegotiating the JCPOA, it must recognize that "the agreement needs to be stronger," and that this can be achieved only by "working from a position of strength." The U.S. will "need the Saudis on board in order for the JCPOA to happen." America has gained leverage from the Trump administration's maximum pressure sanctions on the Iranian regime. It can still "use that leverage to get more out of the Iranians," but not if it weakens its hand by alienating key allies and repeating Obama's unwillingness to "critique Iranian behavior outside of the nuclear deal."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.