What do Biden cabinet nominees mean for US Middle East policy?
Joe Biden’s foreign policy nominees have said they will re-prioritise human rights in relations with Middle East governments.
United States President-elect Joe Biden has officially introduced the first members of his cabinet, an array of foreign policy and national security nominees who he says will seek to restore international agreements and bolster relationships with allies after four years of President Donald Trump’s divisive “America First” policies.
In particular, Biden – and notably his nominees for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan – have outlined a dramatic shift in Middle East policy that will emphasise diplomacy and human rights. Biden also nominated career diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield for US Ambassador to the United Nations.
Experts say the new policy approach will include more pressure on Saudi Arabia and Egypt over human rights, a mission to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and a relaunch of attempts – with less concession for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – to bring Palestinian and Israeli officials back to the negotiating table.
The new administration will likely first realign “the US with Europe, including the EU [European Union] and NATO and the individual EU countries before making any major moves,” said William Lawrence, an American University lecturer and former US Department of State official under the administration of President Barack Obama.
The Biden administration will “then try to act in a way which stabilises conflict areas” in the Middle East and “moves towards ceasefires and peace deals while spending more US effort taking care of the victims of these conflicts,” Lawrence told Al Jazeera.
Biden’s inner circle
In Biden’s foreign policy nominees, the US is “returning to the idea of an administration,” Paul Salem, the president of the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.
That means a US foreign policy arm that “implements a coordinated, consistent policy” and signals to foreign leaders they’re “dealing with a coherent organism”, he said.
“Under Trump, there was no administration. There were people serving temporarily for a few months each in positions, none of whom had, really, the support of the president nor often knew what the president actually wanted,” he said. “That meant an extremely incoherent administration when it comes to foreign policy and extreme confusion among foreign governments.”
Leading Biden’s foreign policy will be Blinken, who has advised the president-elect for nearly two decades and served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration.
Blinken has been critical of foreign policy in Yemen, Libya and Syria during the Obama administration, and has expressed remorse over the decision not to intervene in Syria’s civil war.
“The last administration has to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying, but we failed. We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees,” he said in a May interview with CBS. “And it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”
Blinken also called Trump’s 2019 withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, which effectively abandoned Kurdish allies in the region, “a huge mistake and something that we’ll pay for”. He has said he supports keeping US boots on the ground there.
In a call with Arab American community leaders in July, Blinken said Biden would prioritise “human rights and democratic principles” in the Middle East, while rebuking Trump’s cozy relationships with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
In regards to Saudi Arabia, Blinken said Trump had “basically given a blank cheque to pursue a disastrous set of policies, including the war in Yemen, but also the murder of Jamal Khashoggi”. He has also derided Trump for reportedly referring to Sisi as his “favourite dictator” during a candid moment at the 2019 Group of Seven (G7) Summit.
In 2018, Blinken and other Obama administration officials released an open letter to the Trump administration calling for the withdrawal of support for Riyad’s military campaign against Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, which has lead to a humanitarian disaster, a high number of civilian casualties, and allegations of war crimes committed by both sides.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said “the most dramatic change in policy” for the incoming administration will be towards Saudi Arabia, which could include the cutting off of arms sales to the kingdom, as well as the withdrawal of the about 5,000 troops stationed there.
Iran nuclear deal
Meanwhile, in 43-year-old national security advisor Sullivan, Riedel said, Biden is “showing he intends to do what he says, which is to try to revive the nuclear deal and reopen communications with the government of Iran”.
Sullivan, who served as then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and the head of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton, was instrumental in the early backchannel negotiations that eventually lead to the Iran nuclear deal, in which Tehran agreed to reduce its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed a campaign of “maximum pressure” sanctions.
In a 2019 New York Times op-ed written with William J Burns, Sullivan wrote that Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and imposition of “maximum pressure” sanctions has largely backfired, leading to Tehran’s “increasingly provocative actions in the Gulf” and the advancement of its nuclear programme.
“Rather than joining the United States in a united front to isolate Iran, America’s allies and partners are trying to act as mediators between what they see as two rogue actors: Washington and Tehran,” he wrote.
Former State Department official Lawrence noted that bringing Iran, which was defiant regarding Trump’s attempts to negotiate a new pact and has urged Biden to return to the 2015 deal, back to the able is one area that could see discord in the early days of the new administration.
“I think there’s significant disagreement within this group over how confrontational to be with Iran over non-nuclear issues,” he said, “and how to reassess the maximum pressure strategy.”
Approach to Israel
The Biden administration is expected to take a harder line with Netanyahu than Trump, particularly in light of attempts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, while remaining a staunch defender of Israeli interests.
“The Trump administration gave the Netanyahu government one gift after another, from moving the embassy to Jerusalem to closing off relations with the Palestinian Authority,” the Brookings Institution’s Riedel said. “I don’t think you will see the Biden administration handing out so many freebies.”
Blinken, in a recent interview with the Times of Israel, said that Biden would “never walk away from Israel’s security, even at times when he might disagree with some of its policies”. He has also said he opposes any “effort to delegitimise or unfairly single out Israel”, including by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and actions by the United Nations.
While hailing recent normalisation agreements between the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Israel, Blinken has also been wary of the State Department’s subsequent approval of the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. He told the Times of Israel that the deal had the markings of a “quid pro quo” and that the Biden administration would take a “hard look” at the sale.
Director of Intelligence
Biden’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, has also faced opposition from some progressives and human rights campaigners over her Middle East record.
Critics have said Haines, a deputy national security adviser under Obama and the first woman to serve as the CIA deputy director, helped reduce the impact, through redactions, of a 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report that revealed the extent of CIA torture programmes in the so-called “war on terror” in the Middle East during the administration of President George W Bush, according to the Daily Beast.
She has also been criticised for supporting the Trump nomination of CIA Director Gina Haspel, who was directly connected to the agency’s torture programme.
Meanwhile, Obama-era officials have defended Haines, saying she was a leading voice inside the administration calling for restrictions on a widening drone campaign in the Middle East and South Asia. That lead to more transparency and higher standards for who could be targeted.
Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told the Daily Beast “the fact of the matter is that more innocent civilians would have died and a far wider set of targets would have been pursued without the changes that she secured”.