US Middle East Policy: The Trump-Biden Doctrine in Action

by | Mar 27, 2023 | English

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By Charles W. Dunne, Arab Center Washington DC, 

All US presidents, it seems, need their own foreign policy “doctrine.”

President James Monroe famously started the trend in 1823, and many others—TrumanEisenhowerNixonReaganCarterBush, and Obama, to name a few—followed in his footsteps. Presidents deploy these doctrines to enunciate a powerful statement of national purpose and resolve on the global stage, usually involving a declaration of high principles and, all too often, an implied warning of military action, when necessary, in defense of American interests.

In Washington foreign policy circles today, there is talk of an emerging “Biden Doctrine.” It has broadly been defined as the imperative of exercising US leadership in the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism—a struggle that is mainly fought on ideological grounds, but sometimes on actual battlegrounds, as in Ukraine.

As with most other presidential doctrines from the last 75 years, the Biden doctrine means one thing on the world stage and something else in the Middle East. High-minded and principled when applied to the broader global struggle against the advance of autocracy and repression, in the Middle East the Biden Doctrine does not so much reinvent the US approach to the region as reinforce its traditional emphasis on security issues, military commitments, and arms sales, while largely ignoring seemingly intractable problems such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the destabilizing civil war in Syria, and, to a troubling extent, human rights abuses in the region. The Biden administration, it seems, has borrowed more than a few pages from the Trump playbook.

The “Trump Doctrine”—insofar as the former president had one—can be summarized as “America First,” or as the 2017 National Security Strategy more elegantly put it, “principled realism.” In the Middle East, this translated into steady relations with ruling elites, a preoccupation with arms sales and security issues, downplaying human rights and democracy, and ignoring the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, punishing the Palestinians with aid cutoffs, and focusing instead on regional integration via the Abraham Accords, Trump’s main foreign policy achievement. Despite sweeping changes in rhetoric and some policy tweaks to his predecessor’s approach, President Biden’s doctrine in the Middle East might more accurately be called the Trump-Biden Doctrine.

The Biden Doctrine Emerges

Shortly after the Biden administration took office in 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken heralded the president’s approach to global affairs with a pledge to place “human rights at the center of US foreign policy,” and, as Biden said in his 2022 State of the Union Speech, to take the field in “the battle between democracy and autocracies.” Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December 2021 set the stage and named the stakes; US support for Ukraine after the February 2022 Russian invasion became the focal point and rallying cry. The new approach was intended, in part, to distinguish Biden from his predecessor, who generally minimized human rights in his foreign policy and famously befriended autocrats, including President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s controversial crown prince.

The “Biden Doctrine,” as it has come to be called, aims at revitalizing democracy as a model of good governance capable of “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity,” as Biden himself put it. The second Summit for Democracy, scheduled to take place later this month, is designed to build global momentum to address “emerging challenges to democracy” worldwide.

The Biden Doctrine in the Middle East, Explained

In a speech at the Atlantic Council’s inaugural Rafik Hariri Awards in February 2023, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, spelled out how the “Biden Doctrine…now guides US engagement in the region.” Its key elements were articulated by the president in his meeting with the GCC+3 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in July 2022, and were incorporated into the administration’s National Security Strategy three months later. The doctrine rests on five “declaratory principles”: partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, integration, and values.

The first of these, partnerships, “guides everything we do,” McGurk explained in his speech. The approach centers on “the expansion and deepening of the Abraham Accords, or new formats such as the Negev Forum.” The forum, named for a desert summit hosted by Israel in March 2022, includes the four main signatories of the Abraham Accords, plus Egypt and the United States, and comprises a framework of working groups designed to build out Arab-Israeli relations in the diplomatic, economic, and security fields, with parallel work also continuing in bilateral diplomatic contacts between the parties.

The principle of deterrence, McGurk stated, means that, “The United States will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize freedom of navigation through the Middle East waterways…nor tolerate efforts by any country to dominate another or the region through military buildups, incursions, or threats.” The diplomacy principle commits the United States to “reduce tensions wherever we can, to de-escalate, and end conflicts wherever possible through diplomacy.”

American diplomatic efforts have yielded some important results, including improvements in relations between Gulf states, an Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement, and a cease-fire in Yemen.

The fourth principle, integration, is similar to the concept of “partnership,” involving US efforts to foster “political, economic, security connections between US partners.” And the fifth principle, values, as McGurk noted, involves promoting “human rights and the values enshrined in the UN Charter.

The five principles of the Biden Doctrine in the Middle East are reasonable enough, and decidedly reflect the administration’s strategy to encourage regional parties to work together to deal with their own problems so the United States can devote more of its time and attention elsewhere. American diplomatic efforts have yielded some important results, including improvements in relations between Gulf states following a Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar, an Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement, and a cease-fire in Yemen, brokered in part through US diplomacy. In many ways, the emphasis on cooperative problem-solving and diplomatic engagement is both overdue and welcome. However, the supposedly fresh approach outlined in the Biden Doctrine may not be so fresh after all.

Regional Security Still the Name of the Game

In practice, it is not yet clear that the Biden Doctrine actually moves US policy in the region significantly closer to its goal of broad-based regional integration requiring less involvement from the United States. Trade relations between Arab states and Israel—one of the administration’s key aims—are soaring; but much of this is occurring bilaterally between Israel and its partners, with or without encouragement from Washington, and without taking Palestinian rights into account. The regional cooperative framework on economic and transnational issues that Biden has touted still remains largely on the drawing board. The focus areas of the Negev Forum’s working groups, where it seems much of the work on cooperative programs in health, education, water and food security, tourism, and the like will be carried out, have yet to be formally established, and any actual joint projects remain largely notional.

If cooperative efforts to address these issues are still in their infancy, security and military cooperation are not. Indeed, this is the main driver of the Biden Doctrine and the backbone of most of its declaratory principles. In his speech, McGurk highlighted the “two hundred military exercises, strategic dialogues,” and the like that have taken place so far, as well as US efforts to erect an “integrated air and maritime defense architecture in the region” and what McGurk billed as “the largest joint military exercise ever in that part of the world” (namely, Juniper Oak), among other deterrence activities, exercises, and related diplomatic efforts. The security element of the Biden Doctrine is bolstered by tens of billions of dollars in ongoing US weapons sales to the region and the burgeoning arms trade between Israel and its Arab partners.

The security sphere that is now taking shape may indeed mark the dawn of a “new Middle East.” But just as in the “old” Middle East, the United States will be required to expend massive amounts of diplomatic and military effort to knit together longstanding rivals and make the whole thing work. In fact, the depth and breadth of the security commitments that the US is reportedly considering in the region, bilaterally and collectively, strongly suggest that Washington is on course to become more deeply entrenched in the region’s security issues and not less, as earlier talk of a “pivot to Asia” and away from the Middle East has begun to fade amid new strategic realities. Saudi Arabia’s reported demand for American security guarantees as a condition for normalizing relations with Israel would, if granted, mark a major expansion of US military commitments and tie the United States even more tightly to the region, in what would be the clearest signal yet of Washington’s intention to remain the region’s strongest and most influential outside actor.

Resolving Palestine-Israel Conflict Lacks Urgency

What is most remarkable about the application of the Biden Doctrine to the Middle East is not the traditional emphasis on security issues, but the apparent abandonment of efforts to resolve two of the most dangerous and destabilizing conflicts in the Middle East: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the civil war in Syria.

The Trump administration led the way, abandoning traditional core elements of US policy that were intended to avoid prejudging key issues in a negotiated final status agreement between Israel and Palestine. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the American embassy there, and closed the US consulate, which had been responsible for US relations with the Palestinians. Trump cut $200 million in bilateral assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and ended US aid to Palestinian refugees though the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The Trump administration also recognized Israel’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war, reversing another long-standing US policy. It further issued a half-hearted Israel-Palestine “peace plan” that imposed heavy obligations on the Palestinians in return for possible limited self-rule, and promoted the Abraham Accords to advance Arab-Israeli peace by sidestepping the Palestinian issue altogether.

The incoming Biden administration has made only minor course corrections to this set of policies. It restored aid to the Palestinians and appointed Hady Amr, a former Brookings Institution scholar, as Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs, a sort of non-resident ambassador to the Palestinians. But the other elements of Trump’s policy remain intact.

The Biden administration has neither endorsed nor pursued the Trump “peace plan,” but it has not advanced an alternative either.

The Biden administration has neither endorsed nor pursued the Trump “peace plan,” but it has not advanced an alternative either. Instead, it has warmly embraced the Abraham Accords, installing them as the foundation of its Middle East policy and the core of the Biden Doctrine in the region. The administration has demonstrated little appetite for playing an active role in re-energizing a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and has limited itself to facilitating occasional emergency meetings to manage violence in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. During his meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last July, Biden expressed sympathy for Palestinian hardships but acknowledged that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations.” Instead, he called only for a “reinvigorated dialogue” between the US and the PA, and pledged generic support for a “two-state solution,” which he admitted is “so far away.” He also failed to offer any ideas on how to get there.

It is no surprise, then, that the administration is content to advance its vision for regional integration without considering the Palestinians. The PA was not invited to the Negev Forum summit last year and has refused to participate in its working groups. Some observers inside and outside the administration have expressed hope that a means will be found to utilize the Negev Forum and the Abraham Accords more broadly to improve prospects for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, but consideration of the Palestinian issue within this framework seems focused largely on what can be done to help the West Bank economically without addressing even the most basic Palestinian political demands. This tactic is essentially a rerun of the American approach to the peace process of the 1990s and early 2000s, which failed to lead either to a more prosperous Palestine or a final status agreement.

Syria Falls Down the List of US Priorities

Syria, too, has largely fallen off the administration’s radar. While US and European sanctions on the Assad regime remain in effect, the United States has done little to push for a resolution since the end of Obama’s second term in 2017. The Biden administration has maintained a small US presence in Syria focused mainly on countering the threat from the so-called Islamic State, but otherwise has largely ignored the issue, even as Russia and Iran have continued to strengthen their positions in the country, posing a heightened threat to regional stability and US influence and interests. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have begun the process of rehabilitating Assad and his regime. This is a very troubling indicator for an American policy aimed at confronting global authoritarianism and deterring military challenges to the US-backed regional order in the Middle East. Here again, Biden has seemed to take his cue from Trump, whose neglectful and haphazard Syria policy was widely criticized.

US “Values”: Missing in Action?

As mentioned above, the fifth principle of the Biden Doctrine is “values”; and here current American strategy again seems oddly passive. McGurk’s speech at the Atlantic Council neglected to specify which values the United States will valorize as it pursues its policy in the Middle East. The speech talks of “respecting each country’s sovereignty and independent choices,” while committing only to “raise concerns regarding basic rights” and to “urge partners to act in words and deeds in line with the essential principles of the UN Charter.” McGurk’s remarks did not spell out what those rights and principles are for the purposes of US policy; nor did they reference the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would have been welcome, and even expected in such a context.

This is a far cry from the aggressive posture on human rights that Biden brought with him to office, but it is consistent with a similar formulation former President Trump delivered in his speech to Arab and Muslim heads of state in Riyadh in 2017. In that speech, Trump declared, “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values.” He did not, however, name those values.

This reluctance to be more specific on the practical application of American values and concern for human rights in Washington’s engagement with Middle Eastern governments might be excused as normal diplomatic reticence if it were not for the fact that Biden as president has appeared to soft-pedal the human rights abuses in the region that he seemed so eager to criticize on the campaign trail. Nothing better symbolized this retreat than the notorious “fist bump” Biden shared with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to Saudi Arabia last summer. The Middle East was largely ignored during the administration’s “Summit for Democracy” in December 2021. And since then, Biden’s focus on Ukraine and energy markets has put a premium on keeping things steady in the Middle East, in part by avoiding tough talk with regional leaders. McGurk’s Atlantic Council speech suggests that this is less a temporary exigency than a settled policy course; the administration seems to have decided to downplay human rights and democracy—as well as other difficult issues such the Palestine-Israel conflict—in favor of maintaining predictable cooperative relations with Israel and the region’s autocrats.

American Ambitions Diminished

If, as the National Security Strategy notes, over the last 20 years the United States has “too often defaulted to military-centric policies,” the Biden Doctrine has so far done little to change that. In practice, the administration’s policy does not reimagine US engagement and goals in the region so much as reinforce existing policies, especially those focused on security issues and military cooperation, further entrenching the United States in the politics and problems of the region. The reluctance to seek an end to bitter conflicts in Syria and especially in Palestine, ignores two of the most important sources of instability in the Middle East. And the backtracking on human rights and democracy in favor of “regional integration” not only undermines the administration’s effort to confront global authoritarianism, but lets the region’s leaders know that they can use the Abraham Accords as an impunity shield. Given the similarities between the two administrations’ policies in the Middle East, this approach should more accurately be referred to as the Trump-Biden Doctrine.

Despite some undeniable but very confined successes, the Biden Doctrine in several important ways has shrunk the scope of American policy in the region, rather than broadened it. That may be welcome news for many in the region after decades of war, but in the end may not serve either Washington’s interests or those of the peoples of the Middle East.

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