One year on: Biden's presidency and the Middle East

Biden
8 min read
20 January, 2022
Analysis: With a focus on Russia and China, Biden's first year as US president has been marked by a largely passive approach to the Middle East aimed at managing the status quo.

Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on 20 January 2021 was held under unprecedented tight security in a sprawling barricaded downtown Washington, DC just two weeks after insurrectionists had staged a deadly riot at the Capitol.

For many, the day symbolised a triumph of democracy over an attempted coup.  

But one year on, questions remain over the strength of America’s democratic institutions, as well as its ability to influence other countries. There are fewer places where US foreign policy is struggling more than in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Muslim world.  

Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, left him with a stripped-down State Department, immigration roadblocks that have still not been rectified, a deal with the Taliban that led to a hasty US and allied evacuation, Middle East "peace deals" that excluded the Palestinians, and the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or the Iran nuclear deal) which becomes increasingly difficult to renegotiate as time goes by.

Though many point to policies from the previous administration that have made Biden’s job difficult, the current president nevertheless was aware of the challenges he would be taking on when he ran for office, and with a year now under his belt, he still has the opportunity to make his mark on US Middle East policy. 

"In the Middle East, the Biden administration is pursuing a status quo policy"

The State Department and immigration 

When Biden came to office, he promised that the US would resettle 125,000 refugees for this fiscal year, much higher than Trump’s cap of 15,000.

It looks like he will put a dent in this goal (though not come close to meeting it) following the evacuation of US soldiers and Afghan allies (mainly interpreters and their families) from Afghanistan in late August, who were then sent to staging bases in the US and around the world.  

However, many of the approximately 65,000 new arrivals continue to face bureaucratic hurdles. Of those who have left the bases, most were paroled into the US, meaning they were vetted but didn’t go through the typical steps that would lead them on a path to permanent residency.

It is estimated that more than 200,000 Afghans who are eligible for US visas remain in Afghanistan. In addition to Afghans, tens of thousands of Iraqi allies remain in limbo as they go through the immigration process.  

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At the beginning of the year, the International Refugee Assistance Project published a list of 22 suggestions for the Biden administration to improve its refugee admissions process. Much of it resembles what Biden promised when he took office, which includes making the process more transparent, more efficient, and hiring more people to work on the applications.

These improvements would also benefit regular immigrants, whose applications have also been backlogged for the past four years.  

It could take years to rebuild America’s immigration infrastructure, which has been low functioning since Trump took office and slashed the State Department’s budget by around 30 percent and implemented widespread hiring freezes. Meanwhile, discussion of immigration through the US southern border has taken up much of the administration’s attention. 

One year on: Biden's presidency and the Middle East
The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan two weeks before the US was due to complete its troop withdrawal. [Getty]

Afghanistan 

When Biden campaigned for president, he promised to end America’s forever wars. This meant withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, that would mean withdrawing combat forces while leaving behind 2,500 service members in an advisory and training role.

In Afghanistan, that would mean honouring a deal that Trump had made with the Taliban, which removed all but around 5,000 service members and promised a full withdrawal by May.  

It is unclear if Biden could have done anything differently than the hasty mass evacuation that took place at the end of August. What was clear immediately after the withdrawal was that Afghanistan’s US-backed government could not stand on its own.  

“In Afghanistan, I think the Trump administration locked Biden into a withdrawal. Trump had done a treaty with the Taliban pledging to get out by May,” Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, tells The New Arab.

"The consequences of America's 20-year occupation as well as its hasty withdrawal will be felt in and around Afghanistan for years to come"

“I think the Biden administration believed the only way to stay would be to break the treaty. That would mean a war.” 

Even in retrospect, Cole says, “I think Biden did the right thing. He and his team were misled by a façade of normalcy in Afghanistan. They were told they had 300,000 forces that could stand against the Taliban.” 

Although most of the news coverage at the time framed the US withdrawal as binary (as in, should the US withdraw or not?), many Afghans were unhappy with the US presence as well as the Taliban.

Some had hoped for a multinational security presence, or at least a more organised withdrawal. The consequences of America’s 20-year occupation as well as its hasty withdrawal will be felt in and around Afghanistan for years to come. 

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The Abraham Accords 

The Abraham Accords, a series of bilateral normalisation deals between Israel and several of its Gulf neighbours, were led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and did not involve the Palestinians.

Though it was consistent with Trump’s policy of favouring Israel and the Gulf states, it was inconsistent with America’s long-time policy of at least involving Palestinians in talks over these major deals.  

As it stands, Saudi Arabia continues to shun the deal on the grounds that it excludes the Palestinians. As for Morocco, which agreed to normalise relations with Israel in exchange for the US recognising its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, the US under Biden appears to have quietly reverted to its long-time policy of neutrality in that conflict.

Meanwhile, Sudan, whose coup in late October continues to affect the country’s stability, has not appeared to have benefited from its normalisation deal with Israel. 

Though Biden rarely mentions the Abraham Accords by name, those who remain most affected by Trump’s policies towards Israel are the Palestinians. The US embassy to Israel will stay indefinitely in Jerusalem. The US consulate in Jerusalem (that mainly serves Palestinians), which Biden had promised to reopen, remains closed for the foreseeable future. 

"Biden's policy toward Israel and Palestine is in a holding pattern"

“I don't see a possibility for a renewed peace process soon,” Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College, tells TNA.

“Due to Biden's uncritical support for Israel, I don't see his policy changing much when it comes to Israel and Palestine. I anticipate him to try to strengthen the PA and try to be more inclusive of them compared to the previous administration. Still, even then, this is done out of concern that if the PA collapses, it will constitute a security issue for Israel.”  

Biden also has to think about the delicate balance of Israel’s current coalition government

“Biden's policy toward Israel and Palestine is in a holding pattern,” David Lesch, history professor at Trinity University tells TNA.

“The administration is hamstrung by the split nature of Israel's national unity government, which is not going to be able to take any assertive action on the Palestinian issue; indeed, the sides are actively trying to avoid it in order to keep the coalition afloat.” 

Palestinians return to the rubble of their homes destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on 24 May 2021 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. [Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images]
Biden has taken a "hands-off" approach to Israel and Palestine. [Getty]

Iran 

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) might be one of Biden’s most difficult policies to implement. Even though the deal was already mapped out during Barack Obama’s administration, opposition to it is strong in the US and in the Middle East.  

The deal cannot be re-started from where it left off, given the changes that have taken place since Trump withdrew in 2018. The US has imposed a number of severe sanctions, while Iran has increased its nuclear capabilities, possibly leaving little time for any deal that could curtail their nuclear ambitions. 

James Devine, associate professor of international politics at Mount Allison University, believes Biden might have missed an opportunity to re-enter the deal during his first weeks in office, and he now has to juggle multiple issues. At this point, Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi might be looking at Biden’s level of strength.

"We're getting to the point now where the Iranians are looking at the deal and they see alternatives to the US" 

“With the new [Iranian] administration, it did get more complicated,” Devine tells TNA. “The Iranians are probably looking at how Biden is doing domestically. He doesn’t look strong. If he loses control of the congress and senate, that doesn’t look good.” 

Moreover, he suggests that Iran is less in need of a deal than it was back in 2015 when Obama made it one of his signature foreign policies.  

“Iran might have alternatives to the US,” he says, noting that it recently signed an oil deal with China. “We’re getting to the point now where the Iranians are looking at the deal and they see alternatives to the US. The Democrats look weak.” 

He says, “It’s hard to predict where this will go.” 

Sina Toosi, a senior research analyst for the National Iranian American Council, sees the deal as critical for the US having leverage with Iran, and he still sees a small window of time. 

“There’s still time. This month is very critical,” he says. “If we have another crisis with Iran, it will prevent us from doing anything else. This needs to be resolved diplomatically.”  

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US policy in other parts of the Middle East 

With these key issues at the forefront, other areas that are just as important have been left out of major discussions. These include the increasing normalisation of the Gulf states with Syria, which the US has said it is against.

Saudi Arabia, which Biden said he would hold accountable for its human rights record, has seen very little pressure from this administration. Yemen continues to suffer from a famine amid war, while Afghanistan has recently also reached that critical stage.  

“In the Middle East, the Biden administration is pursuing a status quo policy,” says Cole. “It’s not giving the region much attention. There’s much more focus on Russia and China.” 

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews