A year into Joe Biden’s administration, the United States has continued the past two administrations’ policy of downgrading U.S. military commitments in the Middle East. Ambitious objectives from the past, such as regional transformation and democratization, have been replaced by a more modest overriding priority, namely ensuring regional stability, so the United States will not be drawn back into the byways of the Middle East’s conflicts.
The Biden administration has also focused on two more specific aims beyond regional stability. It is seeking a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany (P5+1), as a means of avoiding an arms race in the region. And it is continuing to focus on combating terrorism, particularly that which may threaten U.S. territory.
However, a major shortcoming is that each of these objectives is being carried out in isolation of one another. While the regional challenges that Washington faces are interconnected, its policies are not. Actions meant to achieve one set of goals are having a contrary impact on others. Such dynamics are undermining Washington’s intentions. That is why the administration should engage in policy directions that address regional challenges more cohesively. Otherwise, the risk is that U.S. actions will not bring greater stability and security, but the contrary.
Seeking a Stable Regional Environment
The overriding U.S. objective, namely the creation of a stable regional environment allowing the United States to disengage militarily from the Middle East, is fraught with contradiction. As the United States has disengaged and the post–Cold War Pax Americana in the region has receded, Washington has failed to initiate a process of filling the void that it is leaving behind.
As a consequence of this, regional states have become much more proactive in advancing their security interests and influence independently of others. This has often meant shaping military and political outcomes in other countries, some of them quite far away. Such interventions have led to a much more fragmented region in which stability has remained elusive.
For example, the United Arab Emirates, once a relatively minor regional actor, now has sway along the Horn of Africa and in Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, and even Egypt. Turkey, which had tended to look toward Europe over a decade ago, is now active in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Qatar. Most significantly, perhaps, Iran continues to exploit fractures in several Arab societies to expand its regional influence. While such affirmations of power may be natural, if the United States seeks genuine stability, it must coordinate its disengagement with security and other arrangements negotiated among Middle Eastern states, thereby shaping the aftermath.
That perennial bugbear, the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a good example of the complexity of the regional environment. There have been steps to enhance understanding, such as the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states, which the Biden administration endorsed. However, the outcome will not be stability. One motivation for the accords was to forge alliances against Iran, which could facilitate military action in the future. Moreover, the accords have upended the land-for-peace principle once central to negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. This has allowed Israel to continue to build settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, complicating a resolution of the conflict and rendering a two-state solution all but impossible.
With regard to great power relations, the security void the Americans are leaving in the Middle East has allowed its major global rivals, China and Russia, to make gains. While this need not be a permanent factor of instability—indeed great power arrangements could ultimately alleviate tensions in the region—for now it is likely to turn the Middle East into a confrontation area, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Since 2015, Russia has capitalized on U.S. reluctance to involve itself in the Syrian conflict and has achieved substantial diplomatic and military results with minimal investment. Moscow has also expanded its reach throughout the Arab world, even forging close relations with long-standing U.S. partners, and has minimized its losses by frequently using mercenaries close to the Russian state to pursue its political, economic, and security objectives.
China, meanwhile, has continued to deepen its economic and diplomatic ties with Middle Eastern and North African countries. Beijing has expanded its economic and trade partnerships, as well as infrastructural, financial, technological, and energy initiatives. It has also launched multilateral diplomatic forums, including the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, and has signed multiple agreements with Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, even assisting Riyadh in developing a ballistic missile capacity. For Middle Eastern countries, ties with China are a way of diversifying their dealings with the global powers, or eluding the United States altogether. However, for Washington it may underline the limitations of downgrading its military presence in the Middle East, since the region may soon emerge as a contact point in its competition with China.
There has been a singular flaw in the process of reducing U.S. commitments in the Middle East. It has left democracy and human rights by the wayside. While neither was ever a major priority for Washington in the region, defense of democracy and human rights has represented an essential aspect of U.S. identity, and is seen by U.S. officials as necessary for social and political stability.
Washington today has less clout to push for democratic change, while interests continue to trump a values-based approach. For example, though the United States has expressed concerns about Egypt’s human rights record, in January it approved a major $2.5 billion arms sale to the country. Such behavior has created more room for states to engage in antidemocratic activity and disregard human rights. Most regional political elites and militaries viewed the Arab uprisings of 2010–2011 as an existential threat. This has been evident not only in their undermining of democratic transitions across the region—notably in Tunisia and Sudan—but also in growing restrictions on civil society and freedom of speech.
Values the United States has often held up as important, such as ending impunity for crimes, have become empty talk from the region’s perspective. And yet, allowing crimes to go unpunished remains a major driver of social dissatisfaction and uncertainty. Nowhere is this truer than in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime committed horrific crimes during the country’s conflict, creating a massive refugee problem. As Arab allies of the United States have begun to normalize relations with the Syrian regime, with Washington’s tacit approval, there appears to be little concern for bringing Syrian officials to justice. Nor is there momentum to resolve the refugee problem, which the Syrian regime will try to use as leverage to impose normalization on its neighbors, who host vast refugee populations. Yet such engagement with Syria is undercutting U.S. efforts to use economic pressure to force compromises from the Assad regime. Without transitional justice, leaders throughout the region will have no incentive to refrain from committing crimes against their populations or others, which will only result in greater volatility.
The Off Again, On Again Nuclear Deal With Iran
Negotiations in Vienna to revive the JCPOA have yet to yield results. The United States has faced a dual challenge of engaging with and containing Iran. For now, it remains unclear whether Tehran will return to the conditions imposed by the accord. If no agreement is reached and Iran nears the stage of building a nuclear device, surrounding states will most probably seek to develop nuclear programs of their own, while Israel will contemplate attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. The repercussions could be catastrophic for the region. Indeed, this is the outcome Washington hopes to avoid by resuscitating the JCPOA.
However, is the contrary true? If the nuclear agreement goes back into effect, or even if a lesser agreement is reached that freezes uranium enrichment by Iran in return for some sanctions relief, is stability ensured? Probably not. Any easing of sanctions is likely to translate into additional funding for Iran’s regional allies and proxies—in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. To many Arab governments, especially in the Gulf, these groups’ activities are profoundly destabilizing, and may provoke responses from them that are equally so.
Greater financial support from Iran would allow Hezbollah to expand its influence in Lebanon by exploiting the country’s social and economic breakdown, strengthening the party’s social support and protection schemes amid increasing impoverishment. It would also allow Iran to continue arming Hezbollah in anticipation of a conflict with Israel. The United States is aware of the risk, and has cooperated with other countries to ensure that Lebanon’s collapse does not give Iran more opportunities to consolidate its influence there. The decision last year to allow Egypt to send natural gas to a Lebanese power station, via Jordan and Syria, was an example of this reasoning, even though it meant finding ways around legislation sanctioning the Syrian regime. Lebanon’s electricity crisis has been so catastrophic for its economy, that an exception was deemed necessary.
Similarly, in Yemen, additional Iranian funding for Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, would sustain the conflict there and continue to pose problems for Saudi Arabia’s national security. Houthi control over parts of Yemen’s western coastline has also allowed the group to threaten maritime traffic in the Red Sea, particularly near the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait.
Much the same holds true for Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, more Iranian money for mainly Shia paramilitary groups means that these organizations will continue to challenge Baghdad’s authority and its consolidation of a sovereign Iraqi state that can control its borders and drive domestic reconciliation. This could worsen Sunni-Shia relations, at a time when the so-called Islamic State is trying to revitalize its networks, especially in some Sunni-majority parts of the country.
In Syria, Iran’s influence (as well as Russia’s) has helped Assad resist a United Nations plan for the country. The absence of a political settlement is only prolonging the displacement of millions of refugees languishing in neighboring states, adding to their political, social, and economic challenges. Without a political solution that guarantees their safe return, the Syrian refugees may remain in indefinite exile.
Paradoxically, therefore, an agreement to avoid an arms race and reinforce regional stability may lead to less stability, therefore more arms purchases. What American policymakers ignore is that Iran, after decades of being in a standoff with the United States and many Arab states, has as its primary objective the survival of its regime and its political and social system. An essential dimension of this is maintaining the upper hand over Arab countries in the wider region.
Keeping the Extremists at Bay
Finally, combating terrorism remains a mainstay of U.S. concerns in the Middle East. However, by focusing on the problem solely from a security angle, the Biden administration will only replicate the errors of previous administrations. Policymakers continue to underestimate how extremist groups have exploited feelings of political exclusion and socioeconomic injustice to garner support. When the United States addresses terrorism in isolation of regional dynamics—which may seem justified in light of the terrible crimes that extremist groups have committed—it is looking at the symptoms, not the causes, of why many people resort to violence. Persistent regional tensions and conflicts, minimal confidence in political leaders and institutions, the politicization of sectarian identities, large income inequalities, significant underdevelopment, and the increasing impact of climate change are all likely to continue driving discontent, which in some cases will translate into greater support for brutal extremist groups.
Addressing terrorism is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to long-term solutions. Playing Whac-a-Mole with extremists—defeating them in one place, only for them to rise again elsewhere—is futile. When extremist groups are defeated, more attention must be given to stabilizing the aftermath than is now the case. That means improving governance, carrying out equitable reconstruction, and reintegrating into states those who had lived under these groups’ authority by providing them with opportunities. The United States may not have the bandwidth to do so today, but its antiterrorism strategy will suffer as a consequence.
Possible Policy Directions
What are some paths out of the contradictions in U.S. Middle East policy? The first and most basic step is to review policies to ensure that they are consistent with one another. The United States has all the policymaking mechanisms to do so, but somehow their impact on decisionmaking in the Middle East has not been evident. Given the interconnectedness of the most salient issues in the region, the United States cannot address these in distinct silos.
This integrated approach has to rest on two foundations: As the United States shifts its focus globally toward competition with China, it has to fill the void that it has created in the Middle East, rather than leave an unpredictable free-for-all that benefits its rivals. And second, it must address areas of perennial contention, perhaps with new ideas, to ensure these will not undermine its principal goals.
A first step in these directions is for the United States to work with its allies and rivals to try to lay the foundations of a regional security architecture, which can create a context that widens the scope of U.S. policy, while simultaneously promoting regional development. The old order is shattered and a new one is in the making. The United States, Russia, and China, despite their differences, all agree on the need to guarantee a stable Middle East and North Africa. The same holds true for many countries in the region, which are exhausted by war, as conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya have become stalemates.
On the security front, a priority of the United States could be to facilitate a collective regional position regarding Iran, a starting point to address the negative repercussions of its behavior in the region. Washington could do so as it reduces its military footprint in the region, retooling its security assistance in line with this aim. Even if Iran refuses to participate in such an endeavor, as is near certain given the U.S. presence, the United States could encourage Arab states to formulate a consensual response to destabilizing Iranian actions. If this were to take place in the context of an agreement over the JCPOA, such an effort would reintegrate Iran into the region while also devising a common position on Iranian activities that leaves the door open for a broader discussion of regional security arrangements, perhaps in collaboration with China and even Russia.
Any regional security architecture must encompass agreement on the situation in Syria. Washington can work with the other members of the P5+1 to set conditions on Arab normalization with the Assad regime. This format is advisable because it is the same one for negotiating the JCPOA with Iran, and includes European countries, Russia, and China, reassuring the many states with stakes in Syria. Without a meaningful political process, the problems caused by Syria’s conflict, above all the fate of millions of Syrian refugees, will remain unresolved.
This could be tied to the establishment of a framework for multilateral cooperation that tackles regional development. The focus on security challenges obscures nontraditional security threats such as climate change and rapidly deteriorating socioeconomic conditions. Insecurity has a negative impact on development and growth, while threats to security can have socioeconomic roots—competition over natural resources, economic and social inequalities, economic and political exclusion, and natural disasters, among others. A regionally coordinated approach, facilitated by the United Nations and the United States, could address trade, transport, shared water resources, and climate change, and could accompany the move toward a post-hydrocarbons economy, building on the wealth and talent in the region.
A second direction of U.S. efforts could be to build on current regional dialogue initiatives. In this way, the United States would bolster efforts that are organic to the region. As negotiations over the JCPOA run their course, Washington should, for example, support ongoing Saudi-Iranian negotiations. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in talks facilitated by Iraq, and the United States can work to strengthen the Saudi position and ensure that the outcome has a bearing on stabilizing the situation in key regional zones of confrontation, including Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. In this way, it would help to address the fears of many Arab countries that the JCPOA’s revival will come at their expense.
A third direction of U.S. behavior is to bring new ideas to the table to help resolve enduring conflicts. There is a tendency to assume that such conflicts, because they are caught in a cycle of endless repetition, are containable. That’s true until it isn’t. A case in point is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Because it is enabling the formation of an apartheid state and allowing gross violations of Palestinian rights, the conflict is having regional repercussions by feeding into interstate rivalries. This can pose serious security challenges if countries, such as Iran, arm militant groups with more advanced weaponry. In light of this, Washington must consider a fresh paradigm for resolving the conflict. This could involve moving away from the Oslo framework and a two-state solution, to one securing inalienable Palestinian rights. Regional stability is not only about managing current tensions, it is about anticipating the blowback from unresolved tensions.
Despite the global challenges and competing priorities the United States faces, the need for more cohesive U.S. policy engagement in the Middle East and North Africa has never been greater. Pursuing objectives that end up clashing with each other is certain to lead to the very outcomes the United States wants to forestall. The void Washington is leaving as it disengages is one that antagonistic regional states are filling themselves. What follows may once again pull the United States back into a region it feels has already absorbed too much of its energy.