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Biden Finds It Difficult to Change Course After Trump in the Middle East

Joe Biden entered the office to reshape American foreign policy in the Middle East and place a high value on advancing democracy and human rights.

In practice, he has had trouble substantially distinguishing his strategy from that of former President Donald Trump on several fronts.

As part of his trip to the area this week, Biden will meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich nation who U.S. intelligence agencies say gave the go-ahead for the killing of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.

After Trump’s more accommodative stance, Biden promised as a candidate to reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he called a “pariah” country.

He also promised to increase military sales to Riyadh while ignoring the country’s human rights record.

But Biden seems to be realizing now that engaging the nation rather than alienating it will yield greater rewards.

Israel will be the first country Biden visits during his Middle East trip. Again, since making his hard statements about running for president, his position has changed.

As a candidate, Biden criticized the West Bank settlement policies of the Trump administration. As president, he has been powerless to persuade Israel to stop constructing Jewish settlements and has made no new proposals to revive the long-stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Furthermore, Biden upheld Trump’s decision in 2019 to reverse more than 50 years of American policy by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

The Biden administration “has had this rather confusing policy of continuity on many issues from Trump — the path of least resistance on many different issues, including Jerusalem, the Golan, Western Sahara, and most other affairs,” claims Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

At a time when Israel and some Arab countries are demonstrating a greater willingness to work together to isolate Iran, their common enemy, and to consider economic cooperation, Biden appears to be attempting to find greater equilibrium in his Mideast policy.

Biden is focusing on what is possible in a challenging region of the world.

Biden is essentially entering and making a decision, Sachs said. The alternative is to embrace the newly developed regional architecture.

In a Washington Post op-ed published on Saturday, Biden argued that in his nearly 18 months in office, the Middle East has become more “stable and secure” and rejected the idea that his trip to Saudi Arabia amounted to a step backwards.

These are the same pages where Khashoggi wrote much of his criticism of Saudi rule before his death.


In Saudi Arabia, Biden wrote, “we changed the blank-check policy we inherited.” Additionally, he recognized that “there are those who disagree” with his choice to travel to the kingdom.

He cited his administration’s initiatives to persuade the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition to accept a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, which is now in its fourth month and has seen 150,000 people killed in Yemen over seven years of conflict.

Additionally, Biden listed the reduction in power of the Islamic State terrorist organization in the area and the termination of the U.S. combat operation in Iraq as successes of his administration. These events occurred during the 11-day Israel-Gaza War last year.

But Biden’s record in the Middle East as a whole is much more nuanced. Most of the time, he has refrained from addressing some of the most pressing issues in the region, including ones that he has blamed Trump for making worse.

The value of relationships in foreign policy is a topic that Biden frequently discusses. His choice to travel to the Middle East for a trip that offers nothing in the way of immediate success shows he is aiming to make a longer-term investment in the area.

He has discussed in public the knowledge he gained through spending many hours over the years assessing Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China.

He has enjoyed forging relationships with a new generation of world leaders, such as Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, and Fumio Kishida, the foreign minister of Japan.

Biden has a close friendship with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and has met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. As vice president, he played a significant role in helping President Barack Obama end the Iraq War.

But Biden, who grew up in the Cold War era of foreign policy and sees the emergence of China as the most urgent threat facing the West, has been more focused on Europe and Asia than the Middle East.

“He doesn’t have the interpersonal connections. He lacks the longevity of relationships, according to Jon Alterman, the Middle East Program Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He shows up when Israeli leadership is in a precarious position. Last month, the Knesset was dissolved by Yair Lapid and former prime minister Naftali Bennett after their coalition’s political disarray. Currently, Lapid, a former foreign minister, serves as acting prime minister.

In light of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist, being fatally shot, Biden will also be questioned once again about his support for human rights. She was probably shot by an Israeli soldier in May while covering events from the West Bank, according to independent investigations.

The Abu Akleh family wrote a blistering letter to Biden accusing him of absolving Israel of responsibility for the journalist’s killing. Last Monday, according to the State Department, American security officials assessed that she was likely killed by Israeli gunfire but “found no basis to infer that this was deliberate.”

Biden’s meetings with former Israeli prime minister and leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu and his encounter with the Saudi crown prince will be two of the four days he spends in the Middle East’s most awaited events.

The political relations between the United States and the Middle East are unlikely to be significantly altered by either encounter, though.

Both leaders appear to be aiming for a post-Biden America as the Democratic president battles poor poll ratings at home brought on by surging prices and discontent with Biden’s management of the economy, according to observers.

According to Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations and is currently a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “both of these leaders are now looking past the Biden administration and looking very much forward to the return of Donald Trump or his avatar.”

We should be very realistic about these expectations since I believe it to be a complicated trip.

Obama mediated the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, but Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2018.

Biden’s chances of making headway on re-entering the agreement remain slim. Indirectly, the administration has taken part in Vienna negotiations aimed at bringing back into conformity with the agreement of both Washington and Tehran. But so far, the discussions have been ineffective.

Biden pledged as a candidate that Saudi Arabia will “pay the price” for its history of violating human rights.

The incisive language helped Biden set himself apart from Trump, who made the kingdom his first official foreign trip as president and who continued to hail them as a “wonderful partner” even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

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When Biden issued his stern warning to the Saudis, oil prices were hovering around $41 a barrel; today, they are more closely associated with $105.

While harming Americans at the gas pump and raising the cost of necessities, the Saudis’ bottom line is benefited from the high oil prices.

However, they have downplayed the possibility that the Saudis will agree to further raise oil production because the kingdom claims it is virtually at production capacity.

White House officials have suggested that energy talks will make up one component of the Saudi leg of the president’s visit.

Bruce Riedel, a veteran adviser on the National Security Council for four presidents, however, claimed that Saudi Arabia’s travel is “totally superfluous” in light of the current situation.

There is nothing that Joe Biden will accomplish in Jeddah that the secretary of state, the secretary of defence, or, to be honest, a truly effective ambassador, couldn’t accomplish on his own, according to Riedel.

“There won’t be any result from this that really justifies a presidential visit,”

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