“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
Renewed Middle East diplomacy has two current priorities: steadying the supply of oil and hitting a “reset” on US leadership in the region in the pursuit of long-term interests. Enter: The Jeddah Summit. The meeting between President Joe Biden and the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq perhaps could have been tackled at a ministerial level had Russia not weaponized global energy commodities following the latest chapter of its invasion of Ukraine, but the effects of the spike in oil prices on Americans forced Biden to put aside campaign rhetoric about making Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (also known as MBS) a “pariah.”
At the Jeddah Summit, Biden and other leaders addressed critical issues of human security, including food, energy, and economic security, aid to the Palestinian people, and security integration to counter Iran. However, the trilateral summit that same week between Turkey, Russia, and Iran in Tehran addressed more hard security issues in the region, including the Syrian civil war has been the most destabilizing regional conflict in the past two decades. Furthermore, Syria wasn’t even on the agenda in Jeddah. This is ironic, given that Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria reversed the momentum of the conflict against US-backed Syrian rebels and not only cemented Russia’s footprint but also saw the expansion of Iranian proxies in the region.
Regional powers in the Middle East, as well as other external powers, have moved past US regional hegemony — and so have US policymakers. And that they are not looking to the United States as the guarantor for matters of peace and security indicates that the last chapter of US policy toward the Middle East has ended. However, current affairs are an opportunity for the Biden administration to rethink — and reshape — US policy in the Middle East, including supporting regional solutions for defense and human security.
The real question, then, is: Does Washington understand the challenges to its own credibility to reorient the United States as a valuable and viable partner on matters of peace and security?
REBUILDING US CREDIBILITY IN THE REGION
It took a Russian war in Europe to remind Washington of what most Americans believe: that the Middle East still matters. But there is without question bad blood between Democrats and the region’s leadership (and people) as a result of the events in the 2010s. Biden’s first trip to the Middle East indicates that the White House recognizes that the pursuit of US interests in the Middle East, a region that has always been at the crossroads of modern competition between great powers, requires more than the rhetoric that plays in Iowa and New Hampshire, and on Twitter and MSNBC.
Thinking beyond partisan lines, the Biden administration is confronting damage that occurred during the two-term Obama administration as much as it is inheriting President Donald Trump’s policies. The 2010s was a decade that saw, among other things, Arab democratic uprisings and opportunities squashed and squandered; a successful and attempted military coup in both Egypt and Turkey; half a million dead Syrians and the destabilization of the Levant; and, the proliferation of Iranian-backed militias from Iraq to Yemen. It saw the rise of the Islamic State in the wake of political vacuums in Iraq and Syria that were directly or indirectly Washington’s doing. This was the legacy that followed President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize-earning 2009 Cairo speech.
As responsible stewards of US foreign policy and national security that has been unbalanced by polarized US domestic politics, Biden administration officials need to continue working to reset leadership and engagement in the Middle East well beyond gas pump politics.
In recent years, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have no longer counted on US leadership to guarantee their national security. For example, each has intervened in Yemen, Syria, and Libya to not only influence political outcomes but also to oppose armed groups they view as national security threats. But their interventions have contributed to more instability and humanitarian suffering. In Syria, as the current NSC Senior Director for Europe Amanda Sloat explained, Turkey viewed the US counter-ISIS partnership with Syrian Kurdish factions with direct links to the separatist PKK group as a bridge too far and an affront to the NATO alliance. In Yemen and elsewhere, the Arab Gulf states and Israel saw Iran’s support for Houthi and other Shia proxy groups as enabled by the Obama administration’s sanctions relief via the pursuit of the arms control deal with Iran. And the West’s support for the Arab Spring, which saw the empowerment of Islamist political parties that posed a threat to the Arab Gulf’s model of Islam-flavored monarchies, inspired more activist foreign policies by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, overseeing the regression of democratic movements from Tunisia to Egypt.
The United States’ traditional partners, including Turkey, which is also a NATO member, have enjoyed free reign because they witnessed the impunity enjoyed by the region’s worst offender, Bashar al-Assad. When Washington, after encouraging regional and international backing of the Syrian Revolution against Assad, failed to back up its own “red line” when he verifiably used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, who in Ankara, Riyadh, or Abu Dhabi could be blamed for having a crisis of confidence?
More than any other conflict, Syria represents the calamitous tension between good intentions and bad policy. It is no coincidence that many in the Biden national security leadership cadre, including top Obama-era officials, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, would have been in favor of more robust humanitarian intervention, which has not occurred. Today, despite having initially backed and armed Syria’s rebels, Arab and regional parties contend with Russia, Iran, and China having cemented Assad’s rule. And in March 2022, the UAE officially hosted Assad in perhaps the most visible affront to US policy in the region.
This is the context in which one should understand US strategic competition in the region. China and Russia’s ambitions and track record are varied, but the United States, with its military, economic, and humanitarian footprint, as well as its history of people-to-people diplomacy and diaspora ties, outweighs Beijing and Moscow in hard and soft power assets. But per Princeton University’s Arab Barometer project, the people of the Arab world increasingly prefer China’s transactional, economic footprint in the region over the United States. This may be more of a reflection of Arab peoples’ disdain for US foreign policy and trauma from the Arab Spring-era crackdowns on democratic uprisings than it is an embrace of Beijing’s brand of authoritarian stability. But the bottom line is that, for decades, the American model is perceived as not having delivered — and US power is now seen as increasingly fungible. Leaders in Washington can continue to remind the region’s people that it is a, if not the, leader in humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen or Syria, but Arab publics are more concerned about the presence or absence of US leadership in addressing core drivers of regional instability.
Biden’s statement on not leaving a “vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran” reflected the correct view that strategic competition will not be confined to the Indo-Pacific. And the high-level engagement with Gulf autocrats and Israel — despite the Democratic Party base being increasingly critical of Saudi Arabian and Israeli human rights abuses — represents intent to salvage equities damaged in the past decade.
Soliciting continued buy-in for the US Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, a key outcome of the Jeddah Summit, as well as support for EU and Japanese multilateral investment strategies, despite many regional states having signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, sends the message that China will not be the only choice available for the region’s development. And recent progress on the ceasefire in Yemen demonstrates the power of US diplomacy when political will is present.
RESPONSIBLE STEWARDSHIP IN THE REGION
If the yardstick for this administration’s foreign policy is its impact on the US middle class, then how does the president’s Middle East trip affect the average American? The bottom line is that the visit and the Jeddah Summit amplified US leadership in, and support for, regional solutions to security and economic challenges. More immediately, the United States seeks Saudi buy-in to ensure Russia does not weaponize energy insecurity to blunt international support for Ukraine. Support for Ukraine is deeply popular in the United States, but the economic price of said support is a potential spoiler. Biden may not have secured promises from the Kingdom, but he would not be doing his job in providing relief at the gas pump to the American people if he did not engage with the leader of OPEC+.
Democrats must continue to think empathetically about addressing core sources of regional instability and distrust while accounting for the need to reorient finite US national security resources to the Indo-Pacific and recommitting to European security. What should distinguish — and be an accelerant for — Democratic leadership is a commitment to human rights and dignity while amplifying the draw of US democracy, norms, institutions, and enterprise. But the hard US national security interests’ prioritization over Democrats’ commitment to human rights, as seen in the stark imagery of the Biden-MBS fistbump, will always be a vulnerability to any Democratic presidency. An example is MBS’ whataboutist mention of the murder of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, in response to Biden bringing up MBS’ role in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
As responsible stewards of US foreign policy and national security that has been unbalanced by polarized US domestic politics, Biden administration officials need to continue working to reset leadership and engagement in the Middle East well beyond gas pump politics. The next possible president who inherits the regional file may be far less likely to emphasize human rights in foreign policy but will be faced with the same security, economic, and development challenges that run through the region. Neither a Democratic nor a Republican administration will be able to do so — in the Middle East or any other region — if US credibility is consistently in question.
This is not a call for expending finite national security resources for every problem in the region, but to think strategically and empathetically about the core anxieties of the region’s peoples. The United States must remain interested in recommitting to the people of the region where US credibility and power have fallen victim to far more than diplomatic formalities and campaign rhetoric.
Adham Sahloul is a national security professional and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative. He previously volunteered as a foreign policy advisor to the Biden-Harris and Pete Buttigieg 2020 presidential campaigns and holds an MA from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Sahloul has published in Foreign Affairs, War On the Rocks, and Lawfare. Views are entirely his own.