After the elections in the United States, many countries in the Middle East are wondering whether a change in administration will bring about major changes in politics. Amid this uncertainty, some countries will be vying for influence in Washington, trying to take advantage of the end of one government and the arrival of the new one.
In contrast to many parts of the world, the Middle East is a region where US policy has changed dramatically in recent decades. The countries in the region are talked about as if they were political footballs, with governments seen as friendly to one or the other. For example, the Obama administration was seen as cold towards Israel, while President Donald Trump tried to embrace Israel by relocating the U.S. Embassy and cutting funding for the Palestinian Authority. With regard to Iran, the same shift took place, from the Iran deal in 2015 to the “maximum pressure campaign” of the last three years.
Other countries feel a change of policy that lies ahead. While Trump supported Saudi Arabia and traveled to Saudi Arabia for a summit in May 2017 to celebrate arms sales to the kingdom, the Biden government seems to be rather critical of Riyadh’s role in the Yemen conflict. In the meantime, although the rulers of Turkey and Egypt do not get along with each other, they both shared an antipathy towards the Obama administration and tried to get together with the Trump government.
The most hopeful in the region are the Kurds – important allies of the US in Iraq and Syria – who felt disappointed by the American policy of the last years and hope that Biden will bring some stability. Trump had vowed to leave Syria in 2018 and again in 2019, paving the way for a Turkish offensive against US partners on the ground – the Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Now there is a tentative hope that the USA could stay.
It is not envisaged that foreign policy will change radically every few years. Successful management of U.S. interests and the maintenance of U.S. leadership requires consistent policies and the belief of local leaders that they cannot simply put one government under pressure and move on to the next. Foreign policy is not a car dealership, but rather a car brand. The “Brand America” must be something that people can count on.
From Baghdad to Tehran to Cairo, governments throughout the region expect a new government to bring a new foreign policy. This is dangerous for the USA. A global superpower cannot succeed if small countries abroad believe they can simply wait four years to get what they want or buy influence through lobbying. This means that the next government should take a step-by-step, consistent approach and not give the feeling that it will make a radical about-turn on key issues such as Iran, Israel and the US troops in Iraq and Syria. Consistency does not mean refusing to learn from the mistakes or successes of the past years, but it does mean making it clear to allies and opponents that the US will not be pushed around and that Washington can be relied upon.
A good start would be for Biden to praise the new relations between Israel and the Gulf States. Moreover, Iran – which has just sent its foreign minister to South America to protest against the US – should not believe that it will be given a red carpet welcome in the US after Trump’s team has left. 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 to see if Trump’s approach, which was normally isolationist, works.
Many hope for more U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but they also do not want more so-called regime change wars or more attempts to impose American views. Thirty years of experience have taught countries that the US tends to zigzag so often that it is best not to put all your eggs in one basket in D.C. The Biden administration can learn from this and become clear about its goals without promising too much. At least the first step should be to stand by America’s allies and partners.
Seth J. Frantzman is Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a senior Middle East affairs analyst at the Jerusalem Post and author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Battle for the Middle East (2019). Twitter: @sfrantzman.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.