24 September 2020

Trump vs Biden. Different foreign policy options for the Middle East

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

There are less than two months left until the US presidential elections will take place and, indeed, there is nothing clear yet. The polls show that Joe Biden few percentages above Trump, but the difference is not that big and a similar situation was also registered at the 2016 elections. And we all know how that ended. A few major disadvantages are shadowing Trump’s campaign: the bad medical crisis management, the negative economic results of this year, a direct consequence of this crisis, the unusual way of developing the electoral campaign, which does not allow a direct contact with his voters and that will affect, most likely, how the vote will be held. Nor Joe Biden’s campaign is unexposed to problems. His past was brought to light, his age is always in the center of the discussion and his relations with the feminine staff in his previous mandates as senator and vice-president were also hot topic debates. A debate that’s far from ending. However, currently, his victory is more certain than that of the current president. This has made the foreign policy observers to identify Biden’s options in terms of the US relations with the rest of the world, mirrored to what happened during the four years of Trump’s Administration in the field. And the comparisons revealed major differences between the two approaches, especially related to Middle East.

Image source: Profimedia

The Trump Administration and its phase victories

A second presidential mandate would start, for the current US president, from his foreign policy successes achieved lately in changing some relation reports between his Middle East ally, Israel, and some Arab states. Normalizing the relations between the Jewish states and the United Arab Emirates, and the recent participation of Bahrain to this picture, is an image victory, both in the foreign and internal plan, so it can also be manifested electorally.  The US president takes the leader position, the one who inspires peace in a region marked by conflicts and major contradictions.

“Inspired” by the UAE and Bahrain gesture, other Arab states might also join them and come to terms with Israel and open diplomatic bridges with this country. Especially those who praised this development, like Oman, for example, or those which stated, unwillingly, through third parties, like Sudan, that they would be interested in what this options brings.

The results would be the emergence of new force and interests axes, built between Israel and a series of Arab states, oriented on combating Iran’s influence, eventually Turkey’s as well, wherefore the Palestinian issue, previously the center of Middle East’s disputes, will be shadowed.

This new alliance was allowed by the different agenda of the Arab States in the Persian Gulf, wherefore the Palestinian problem is a collateral matter, the Iran threat being more concrete and present. Of course, the economic and military advantages brought by Israel and the US have also been important to that end.

The economic pragmatism of president Trump met with the local Arab leaders’ one, with Israel’s will to continue to break the “Arab front”, resulting in a political and security doctrine that’s more coherent in the region against the developments in other parts of the world.

The US, with president Trump, if he gets reelected, will act and react in Middle East following this “proxy alliance”, at the same time continuing the decrease operations of the military forces dislocated in the area and the disengagement, in general, from the local problems.

Currently, president Trump’s security doctrine on the Middle East region is, actually, aiming at convincing more and more Arab states to give up seeking, among their national priorities, to solve the Palestinian and the sacred places issue.

It seems to go against the involvement of the current US Administration in solving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, exclusively manifested by starting new proposals to solve the conflict, and building new negotiations team especially dedicated to this objective. Placing this issue on the second plan is, however, a likely scenario for Donald Trump in case he gets reelected.

The details of the current American proposals reveal they want actually to please Israel’s security needs and, in certain moments, to offer direct support to the current prime-minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his fight against his internal political enemies. As proved many times, even when signing the agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, the US negotiators team, led by Jared Kushner, are rather oriented towards an Israeli -Arab political construction, the Palestinians only being occasionally mentioned in this process.

This will have direct consequences and will decrease the interest of the future administration, if that will be Republican as well, to promote new proposals or continue to convince the Palestinian side to accept the previous ones.  The maxim that accompanied the Trump’s Administration offer, “take it or leave it”, will be reminded, if needed, to the Palestinians.

The Trump Administration 2 and the regional security challenges

A steadfastness of Trump’s foreign policy, especially in the last period, was promoting the withdrawal of the US military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.  This will continue, especially in terms of the forces dislocated whose number goes above the number of US military dislocated in the permanent based in the region. In some of the places, the immediate consequences will be the weakening of the situation in some of these states, like Iraq, where there are strong internal paramilitary forces who are also controlled by foreign forces and will take advantage of this situation. The Iraqi prime-minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, for example, will have a pretty complicated mission in the following period.

Managing the regional situation will be in the hands of the US’s regional allies, and the US will only get back with strong forces when the situation will ask for it. Like it happens now in Syria. But, in general, it will continue to decrease the US military presence and use some leverages to keep the US influence.

This will mostly be obvious for Iran. A new Trump Administration will continue the economic pressure on Teheran, and the Iranian leaders are, most likely, circumspect when it comes to the reelection of the current president for a new mandate. The US economic sanctions will continue, but, also will continue Iran’s closure to China and Russia. The Iranian democracy will not get any advantage from this, as the coercive measures against the regime will create the proper platform to justify the internal repression and the foreign military interferences. Washington will further bet on a card that did not prove to be the winning one, the political collapse of the current authorities in Tehran.

The US-Turkey bilateral relations are still in an unclear situation, as the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not give any sign of stepping back from the approaches that provoked so much frustration in Washington. Turkey’s efforts under Erdogan to become the main Sunni power in the Middle East, the defender of Palestinians and the Sacred Places, even more than the Arab states, is unanimously seen in the region and beyond as deeply destabilizing.

And the weird situation when a NATO member state joins Alliance’s enemy to promote the regional policies which are different that the US’s and its allies could continue, favored by the US approach under Trump’s Administration which involved stepping back from making decisions that could affect the relation with Ankara.

This will allow for other regional powers, besides Turkey, such as Russia, but also global powers, like China, to fill the gap created by the US in the Middle East. It is noteworthy watching whether this alliances system created by the US in the last few months around Israel can prevent this development and if the partnership with Turkey will be replaced by another one. It is an almost impossible mission considering the regional status and the geographic position Ankara has. Middle East’s position, a world’s strategic point, even if it is denied by the current US administration may get back to this position and forces the possibly new Republican leadership in Washington to political reconsiderations.

Is a future president Biden a too optimistic prognosis?

The chances of a future democratic administration to the White House seem, at this point, quite strong. Trump lost a series of political battles, has managed quite bad the pandemic, he lost, after that, this main advantage, the positive economic results created in the first three year of his mandate. The list of disadvantages is even longer: the accusations the Congress brought against him, his contradictory personality, which created political divisions, the investigations on the Russian influence, hiding texts about his own incomes, the connections with the right organizations, relations with people that have troubles with the US justice.

However, it is too premature for Biden to be considered a winner. The unique electoral campaign, which does not allow the direct testing of the relation with the voters, as well as the Trump’s threats on how the vote will be held, counted and recognized, are creating huge uncertainties.

Still, Biden has the first shot at the presidential elections, and this has direct consequences on how the program of the current democratic president is analyzed to identify his foreign policy options. As for Senator Biden, his options are not that hard to guess, two vice-president mandates and six mandates as US senator are enough to know everything about how he sees the problem of international relations and, here, the Middle East ones.

Trump’s isolationist and nationalist policies were felt in Eastern Europe and Latin America firstly, where leaders and parties with similar programs were elected in the last years.

Unlike him, Biden wanted to get back the old Europe, to remake the bridges with US’s traditional allies and do the same internally, where the social and political braches increased during the Trump Administration’s mandate. The democratic candidate is seen as the one who can bring the US to a common denominator, deleting part of the divisions marking the American society now. What does that translate to the foreign policy? In some of the case, a true reset button of the US’s current administration approaches. This is also Middle East’s case.

Resetting US’s policies in the Middle East. The Obama model

A future Biden president will restart the Obama Administration’s policies on the management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The unilateral territories’ annexation, hence including the one Netanyahu announced in the Jordan Valle, will not be encouraged in Washington, and the level of the diplomatic representation of the Palestinians in the US will get back to the before-Trump period. The US will, most likely, reopen its own consulate in the Palestinian area of ​​Jerusalem, but no decision will be made to relocate the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. It will also return to the financial support of organizations managing the issue of Palestinian refugees.

A future Democratic president will have to accommodate his own choices about Israel - Biden considers himself a Zionist, probably in a sense close to the initial policies of the Israeli Labor Party - with those of a good portion of the Democratic Party's elected representatives, much more criticism for the actions of the current Israeli prime minister. One way out could be the same as that used by President Obama, a limited commitment to the political issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will avoid both extensive political responsibilities and calls for economic sanctions against the Jewish state, if it continues, for example, the territories’ annexations. Of course, given these conditions, the resolution of the conflict is postponed sine die, but radical social explosions and political decisions are avoided.

Biden, elected president, will return to the policies of the one for whom he worked as vice president regarding relations with Iran. From the statements made so far, a democratic administration could return under the Agreement with Iran/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Tehran will also be part of the road. This means that the position of a Biden Administration could be close to that of the Europeans, members of the agreement, which involves renegotiating some clauses of the agreement, but keeping it. And it is also possible, as proposed by France, to negotiate an additional agreement on Iran's long-range missile program and its regional security policies. The policy of extended sanctions against Iran, imposed by Washington, divided the international community and was rejected, albeit sometimes platonic, by the European allies of the United States. A new approach to this issue will bring these relations to the before 2015 period, a perspective demanded by many Western European capitals.

Such a position will not, however, arouse much enthusiasm in the Arab capitals in the area, especially in Riyadh, where the Iranian threat is perceived much more directly. Nor in Jerusalem.

As for the presence of American forces in theaters of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Biden cannot avoid public pressure to return them to their bases. The difference from the Trump Administration will be in cooperating with regional or NATO allies to make this process one of common alliances and commitments and not one-sided decisions. The Middle East was not a priority during the Obama administration either, when the focus of foreign action was already shifting to the East Asia-Pacific region. It is hard to believe that Biden will choose a different policy towards the region and the US military presence, his goal may be, rather, to restore cooperation between the US and other EU and NATO states with interests in the region, provided they accept the role of the US leader.

November - the last ball

Foreign policy issues are not part of the agenda, except accidentally, in the US elections. For now, the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming more and more difficult, and the electoral campaign is taking place on the three major topics of interest to the American voter: managing the medical crisis, restoring the economy, creating new jobs for those around 10% of official American unemployed (half produced by this crisis).

This difficult situation will have to be addressed by any administration that will come to power in the US, after November 2020. Economic problems will fill the first months of the Oval Office's tenure, so that foreign policy, major decisions that can change developments in terms of position. The US on the international arena will be a secondary priority. And relations with the Middle East, all the more so.

The development of the current electoral campaign is one that might create surprises, contestations, protests, votes’ recount, calls for justice. There is no certainty that November will be enough to announce a winner and it is no certainty either that, if Biden wins, he will not be firmly contested by Trump. He even announced possible frauds for the e-mail votes, which might make the difference between the two candidates. The US society is already strongly polarized and controversial developments could mark the beginning of a new presidential mandate, regardless of the name to be registered.

If Trump wins, the firmness of his negotiations team will be immediately directed towards other regional objectives (“The Moor did his job. The Moor can get a new mission”), meanwhile for Biden, if he gets elected, the region will, most likely, stay the same it was under the Obama Administration, somewhere in the footer of the page.