Seeking a New Balance for U.S. Policy in the Middle East

By Brian Katulis and Peter Juul

Getty/Planet Observer/Universal Images: GroupA true-color image compiled using data acquired by Landsat 5 and 7 satellites shows parts of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.
The ongoing crisis in Afghanistan has raised concerns about how the United States can best manage and balance its interests and values in complicated places around the globe. The fallout from events in Afghanistan will impact America’s approach in other key regions in the world, including the Middle East. As with its recent moves in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has signaled it seeks to decrease its military engagement in the broader Middle East.The Biden administration’s first six months in the Middle East focused on limiting direct U.S. involvement in the region, instead prioritizing the COVID-19 pandemic response and the economic crisis at home while starting to address key global challenges such as climate change and competition with China and Russia. One common mantra among some members of the new Middle East team in the Biden administration is “no more failed states,” indicating modest and pragmatic goals for U.S. policy in the region. This new approach is more cautious than the previous administration’s efforts in the Middle East, which took risks in its policies on Iran and sent decidedly mixed signals about America’s overall posture in the region.Looking ahead to the next six months and beyond, the United States is likely to face challenges on two main fronts. First, diplomacy with Iran over the revival of the nuclear deal has not produced a breakthrough at a time when Iran and its proxies continue to threaten U.S. troops and U.S. partners. These forces continue to undermine stability in key parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Yemen. Second, existing tensions between Israel and some of its neighbors, including Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a range of groups operating from Syrian territory, could erupt into a wider conflict. Navigating these two fronts—Iran and the Arab-Israeli front—in a way that produces increased stability and reduces threats from retrograde groups will be one central strategic challenge for the Biden administration in the Middle East.But the biggest emerging challenge facing the region remains the chronic human security challenges that threaten to produce even greater violence and unrest. First among these is the unfinished COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, this summer witnessed record heat waves that led to widespread electricity shortages across key countries in the Middle East already experiencing poor services and governance hampered by endemic corruption. Furthermore, the looming climate crisis has already produced more acute challenges for water security in places such as Iran. Finally, broad deficits in freedom across most parts of the Middle East and North Africa—which remains dominated by autocratic governments—presents another overwhelming challenge to the goal of supporting democracy and human rights.Early on, the Biden administration sought to put diplomacy first by working with European partners and other global powers to reengage Iran in diplomatic talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.1 It also appointed special envoys tasked with ending conflicts in Yemen and Libya as well as one to address multiple issues in the Horn of Africa. Those efforts all engaged regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This summer Biden hosted the leaders of Jordan, Iraq, and Israel.2 In addition, Biden’s secretaries of State and Defense and their respective Middle East teams began engaging leaders and officials in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other key partners to coordinate a new approach on the region.The Biden administration also signaled its intent to rebalance America’s military posture in the Central Command area of operations as it conducted a global posture review. The most significant move made by the administration in this broader area of operations was a complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, an effort that has come with major complications still being managed by the United States. In addition, the Biden administration repositioned military assets and equipment from key parts of the Middle East. And even as the administration sought to rebalance its approach, it conducted military strikes against adversaries threatening U.S. troops and partner countries across the region, including strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.The May conflict between Israel and Hamas drew the United States more directly into the Israeli-Palestinian issue than the Biden administration had initially planned. A prolonged political deadlock in Israel and continued divisions among Palestinians led this administration to adopt a restrained approach involving renewal of some U.S. aid stopped by the previous administration and the restart of diplomatic contacts with Palestinian Authority leaders.4 The crisis that erupted in May drew the United States into a role of working with key regional actors such as Egypt and taking practical measures to end the conflict.5 But the current environment on the Israeli-Palestinian front continues to face challenges from major gaps in basic human security, including the ongoing pandemic.In sum, the conditions that produced popular uprisings across key parts of the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 remain present, as overwhelming economic, social, political, and human security demands could spark movements for change and generate instability. These challenges present an opportunity for the United States to recast its overall engagement with the Middle East to put a higher priority on diplomacy backed by a balanced security strategy, with a stronger focus on broader human security issues that will impact the region and inevitably affect the broader international system.This brief offers highlights of the Biden administration’s actions in the Middle East and North Africa in its first six months on five key fronts: human security, conflict resolution, Iran, Arab-Israeli affairs, and overall U.S. military posture and engagement in the region. It provides an assessment of where the administration has had success thus far and where it’s fallen short. In addition, this brief looks ahead to the challenges the region will present moving forward.Human security The Biden administration delivered targeted COVID-19 aid and other assistance aimed at helping the people of the region and supporting certain key governments. These initial moves were overshadowed by crises such as the spring conflict between Israel and Hamas and diplomacy and tensions with Iran. Still, the moves made by the Biden administration on the human security front represent important steps to engage the people of the region and address concerns that impact regional security and political dynamics.
COVID response: A domestic and global policy priority with specific actions in the Middle East and North AfricaMore than 230,000 people across the Middle East and North Africa have died from COVID-19, with Tunisia, Iran, and Lebanon hardest hit as a proportion of their populations. Over 56.4 million people in the region have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with vaccination rates in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Israel at 60 percent and higher. The United States has provided more than 3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to nations in the region. Tunisia received 1 million Moderna doses via COVAX—the international vaccine distribution mechanism—as well as 200,000 Pfizer doses delivered under private contract with the Tunisian government 500,000 Pfizer doses have been directly delivered to Jordan 500,000 Pfizer doses have been delivered to Iraq via COVAX 500,000 Moderna doses have been delivered to the West Bank and Gaza via COVAX and 302,400 Johnson and Johnson doses have been delivered to Morocco via COVAX.8 In August, the U.S. State Department announced that it had provided 151,200 doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine to the people of YemenEconomic and aid engagement: Restarting some programs and initiating new effortsThe Biden administration restored more than $250 million in assistance to the Palestinians cut by the Trump administration $183 million for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency $150 million for economic assistance and $15 million for emergency COVID-19 response.10The U.S. International Finance Development Corporation announced the launch of the Joint Investment for Peace Initiative, a new program created by the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act that will focus on promoting investment in Palestinian-owned small- and medium-sized businesses that work with American and Israeli partners.11 In early August, the Biden administration announced $100 million in additional economic support to Lebanon and $165 million in addition humanitarian aid to Yemen.Climate change: Planting the seeds for future cooperation Record heat waves struck the Middle East this summer, with temperatures reaching over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran over the summer. Elderly and neglected power grids wilted under this hear, with electricity cuts and water shortages leading to protests in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled to the region, visiting the UAE in early April to attend a regional climate forum in Abu Dhabi and traveling to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in June to discuss climate issues and renewable energy with all three countries. Egypt will host COP27, the next iteration of the U.N. Climate Change Conference. The leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE were invited to President Biden’s April virtual climate summit. At the summit, the United States and UAE agreed to create the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate—an initiative that will be formally launched at the COP26 summit in Glasgow and includes Israel—while Qatar and Saudi Arabia agreed to establish a Net-Zero Producers Forum along with the energy ministries of the United States, Canada, and Norway.Human rights:Voicing support as a priority, awaiting major actions During the Biden administration’s first six months in office, a number of repressive Middle Eastern governments released political activists and human rights campaigners from prison. Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, for instance, was released from prison in February, as were two other activists with American citizenship. In mid-July, Egyptian authorities released three activists and three journalists days after human rights criticism from the U.S. State Department. Quiet U.S. diplomacy were part of the efforts to gain these releases.Conflict resolutionThe Biden administration came into office seeking to lower tensions across the region, and it has been active in the diplomatic arena in Yemen, Libya, and the Horn of Africa. It has taken modest steps to engage on the Syrian conflict, with a focus on humanitarian aid delivery.ConclusionIn its first six months in office, the Biden administration has shown a clear desire to limit direct American engagement in the Middle East in favor of a focus on higher foreign policy priorities such as Asia and Europe and the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it has made some high-profile moves such as starting talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal renewing diplomacy to end the fighting in Yemen and extending cross-border humanitarian access to Syria for another year, in general, the Biden team has adopted an approach that seeks to limit the costs of U.S. engagement. In so doing, however, it risks putting the United States in a reactive strategic position, beholden to events instead of seeking to proactively shape trends through diplomacy and other forms of engagement.
The Biden administration’s inclination toward a hands-off approach may end up placing the United States in a crisis management mode similar to the one that overtook the Obama administration from 2014 to 2016 in reaction to the rise of the Islamic State group. If the Iran nuclear deal cannot be revived—which seems more likely now than six months ago—tensions between Tehran and Washington will remain high. On a more fundamental level, though, the region’s basic human security problems will not go away, particularly those likely resulting from climate change. As a result, even the more modest and pragmatic goals the Biden team has set out for itself in the Middle East will require strategic reengagement in a region that’s been largely on the back burner during the administration’s first six months in office.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a senior policy analyst on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress The authors would like to thank Mara Rudman, Gordon Gray, and Rudy deLeon for their suggestions in helping shape up the issue brief.