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A nation must think before it acts.
President Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy (NSS) addresses two trends in America’s Middle East policy that have been apparent over his tenure: military de-escalation and regional integration. A year after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the NSS emphasizes what was implied in that decision—that US military involvement cannot effectively promote stability, and by extension, the goal of democratization, through efforts at regime change. The statement exclaims that, “it is time to eschew grand designs in favor of more practical goals,” namely regional stability and the advancement of US interests such as countering Russian and Chinese aggression, and shoring up domestic industry. In addition to Afghanistan, the Trump-era Abraham Accords—the 2020 joint agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to normalize diplomatic relations—appear to be the second hinge point of this policy statement.
Building on this mission statement, the framework expounds five principles to guide US policy in the Middle East that build on the grander narrative of the NSS as a whole, including (1) the promotion of a rules-based order, (2) freedom of navigation in the Gulf and the protection of national sovereignty, (3) a commitment to solving conflicts with diplomacy, (4) promoting regional integration on political, economic, and security fronts, and (5) the promotion of a human rights agenda.
The administration faces difficult challenges across all of these points at present. Ahead of the release of the NSS, the administration and Congress have taken a great affront to the decision of OPEC+ to cut oil production. Analysts are split on the decision—Marc Lynch reads the policy as a rejection of the administration’s efforts to line up its allies against Russia with regards to the oil market, Omar Al-Ubaydli sees it as a natural reaction the increase in American oil production (a policy that is itself consonant with the rest of the NSS’s emphasis on industrial policy), and many commentators see it as a personal affront to Biden and an attempt to influence the midterm elections. Each of these reads has an element of truth to it, and generally point up a major conundrum inherent in the NSS—thus far, regional integration has largely been led by Gulf monarchies that compete with the United States in the oil market and who share relatively dim views of the NSS’s commitments to rules-based orders, democratization, and human rights.
Similar conundrums abound elsewhere in the region as the emphasis on stability and integration would seem to favor illiberal regimes in Turkey and Syria which have been weathering severe challenges in recent years, and which, in the case of Turkey, have been underwriting attacks on Armenian sovereignty carried out by Azerbaijan. In a similar vein, the NSS offers only muted support for anti-regime protests that are sweeping Iran this month, and a reiteration of support for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine that few living in the country see much hope for at present, underscored by renewed violence between settlers and residents in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem this past week.
A transcript of a frank conversation between President Barack Obama and pool reporters before leaving office January 2017 was released recently in which the former president expressed exasperation that people do not understand the extent to which the US underwrites the world order, particularly where human rights and democracy are concerned. It seems clear from this NSS that Biden is departing from this view as far as the Middle East is concerned, committing more energy to underwriting stability, however authoritarian, rather than rights.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.