Biden’s security strategy reflects waning US interest in the Middle East

Washington envisions a security architecture that integrates Israel into the region

The US is eager to rid itself of the burden of bearing the main responsibility of ensuring the security and stability of the Middle East.
Andrei Cojacaru
The US is eager to rid itself of the burden of bearing the main responsibility of ensuring the security and stability of the Middle East.

Biden’s security strategy reflects waning US interest in the Middle East

On 12 October 2022, the administration of United States President Joe Biden finally released its long-awaited and much anticipated National Security Strategy (NSS).

Traditionally, presidents have released their NSS in their first year of office, but Biden’s strategy was delayed for a variety of reasons — most pressing of which were the international implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

The fact that it was released some 18 months after his inauguration meant that the strategy merely confirmed policies already in place and being practiced.

Having said that, the official release of the strategy confirmed the reversal of the priorities of the Trump administration — especially concerning Iran, North Korea, Nato, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and others.

This article focuses on Biden’s strategy in the Middle East.

However, to fully understand the administration’s policy in the region, it is useful to put it in a geopolitical context. It is also important to take into account Washington’s relationships with its main competitors and adversaries — Russia and China.

The NSS is essentially a strategy that seeks to secure US national interests, which are basically domestic, in an external environment that is usually unpredictable, shifting, mostly inhospitable and sometimes hostile.

Every administration has a multifaceted strategy. However, it is mainly about US leadership in the world and how to preserve it and spread American values of freedom and democracy — sending a message to allies and adversaries alike.

All the strategies reflect, in one way or the other, two dominant features that shape American foreign policy: idealism and realism and the tension between them. The Republican administration’s accent is on realism, whereas Democratic ones tend to be more idealistic.

All strategies are influenced by both the domestic situation in the US and the prevailing international environment. In fact, they seek to shape the external environment to improve the circumstances of the American citizen.

Differing strategies

The US has issued NSS updates since 1987, in compliance with a Congressional act.

Initially, they came at intervals of one or two years until 2002. However, since 2006, the frequency was reduced to one per term in office. All in all, there are now 18 strategies covering six presidents, including the latest one.

President George W. Bush’s strategy was known for introducing the pre-emption doctrine that contributed to his administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq. It also paved the way for the War on Terror that outlasted his presidency and cast a dark shadow on successive ones.

Seen in this photo L-R are: Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Secretary of State Colin Powell, US President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft in August 2004.

President Barack Obama’s strategy — true to the idealistic streak of democratic administrations — aspired to move the world away from nuclear weapons, but also sought an expansion of American soft power to conquer disease and global poverty.

President Donald Trump’s strategy was aptly labelled as “America First”, indicating that the US would pursue its national interests with little regard for its allies and partners. It declared that the era of counterterrorism was being replaced by a revival of superpower competition against what it called “revisionist” powers.

All NSS strategies emphasise that the US shares the international arena with allies, partners, competitors and adversaries. While they articulate global policies, they also adapt them to specific regions of special importance to the US.

Allies and adversaries

US allies have been the same for decades — essentially those who Washington believes share the values underpinning freedom and democracy. These allies are mostly in Europe and around the Pacific rim.

The main adversaries and competitors of the US — depending on the time the NSS was issued — have consistently been the former Soviet Union, then Russia and China.

Not surprisingly, the first NSS issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 was very critical of the USSR. Only a year later, in acknowledgement of the reforms undertaken by Soviet leader Gorbachev, the 1988 strategy reflected the shift in the US attitude towards Moscow.

The shift continued under President George Bush who served one term in office but issued three strategies — in 1990, 1991 and 1993 — to cover the historic moment of the demise of the Soviet Union and its implications for the international system.

By 1994, under President Bill Clinton, Russia became a partner. Then it gradually started to lose favour after the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, which was reflected in Obama’s 2015 strategy.

The 2022 Biden strategy describes Russia as “declining and battered” and says that it “poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and a source of disruption and instability globally.”

Women, one wounded, leave their partially destroyed residential following a Russian missile strike in Kharkiv, on February 5, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Likewise, the US attitude to China underwent a gradual change in recognition of its growing global stature and importance. It was described in the 2010 Obama strategy as merely a “centre of influence”.

By 2015, the scope of US cooperation with China was “unprecedented” and by the time of Trump’s strategy in 2017 it was presented as “a challenge to American power, influence, and interests”. In Biden’s NSS, China was ultimately the major competitor.

As for the regions that are the main priorities for the US, they have not changed much. It is always Europe and East Asia (later the Indo-Pacific). The Middle East always features, but towards the tail end.

The exception came during the heyday of President George W. Bush’s presidency between 2001 and 2009 and its “War on Terror”, which emphasised the importance of the region.

President Biden’s strategy, unlike previous ones, delves into the workings of American democracy. It sees the world as more divided and unstable. But more importantly, it recognises that although the international environment has become more contested, the US remains the world’s leading power.

Strategic challenges

The usual tension between idealism and realism is reflected in the dilemma of preserving US leadership while having to acknowledge its diminishing capacity to influence the external environment.

It posits that the contested international environment, or geopolitical competition, is reflected in two strategic intertwined challenges.

The first is a competition between the major powers — democracies on the one side and autocracies on the other — to shape the future international system.

The second is that there are shared challenges that cross borders: climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases, terrorism, energy shortages, and inflation.

The implementation of Biden’s strategy is based on seven pillars:

1) for the US there is no dividing line between foreign policy and domestic policy

2) alliances and partnerships are the most important strategic asset

3) China presents the most consequential geopolitical challenge

4) smaller autocratic powers such as Iran and North Korea act in aggressive and destabilising ways

5) engagement with countries on their own terms

6) globalisation needs an adjustment

7) international institutions, including the United Nations, need to be modernised and strengthened.

Turning to the main competitors of the US — China and Russia — the strategy recognises that while they are increasingly aligned, they pose different challenges. The strategy stipulates that it “will prioritise maintaining an enduring competitive edge over China while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia.”

Although the strategy views Russia’s soft power and diplomatic influence as having waned, it maintains that Moscow poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and a source of disruption and instability globally.

Although the strategy views Russia's soft power and diplomatic influence as having waned, it maintains that Moscow poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and a source of disruption and instability globally. 

Meanwhile, China is viewed as moving towards "authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy" and "the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective." 

The Middle East 

Turning to our primary focus, the Middle East, the Biden strategy confirms that core American interests in the region have remained the same — oil, Israeli security, freedom of navigation and stability.

Then comes combatting terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, albeit with an exception made for Israel.  

Now that the US has become a net exporter of oil, Israel's military superiority is guaranteed and with the threat of terrorism all but localised in the region and the African Sahel, the Biden strategy implicitly acknowledges that there is little in the region that directly threatens US national interests. 

The strategy is more realistic in the sense that it "eschews grand designs in favour of more practical steps that can advance US interests."  

It no longer seeks the transformation of societies, specifically through regime change, stipulating that the past pursuit of "military-centric policies are underpinned by an unrealistic faith in force and regime change to deliver sustainable outcomes while failing to adequately account for opportunity costs to competing global priorities or unintended consequences." 

The strategy also recognises that structural deficiencies in societies and political systems will persist and, therefore, contents itself with "encouraging reform". It accepts that conflicts will persist, and that the US will only "help" with "finding solutions." 

A more structured strategy 

In comparison to the three previous strategies issued under former presidents — Trump in 2017, and Obama in 2015 and 2010 — the section on the Middle East is more structured.   

It offers a policy framework for the region based on clear priorities:  

1) strengthening partnerships and building alliances 

2) freedom of navigation with a clear reference to both the strait of Hormuz and Bab Al Mandab 

3) de-escalation of conflicts and promoting solutions when possible 

4) regional integration.  

5) the promotion of human rights, which comes seemingly as an afterthought 

A handout picture provided by the Iranian Army office on December 31, 2022, shows Iranian troops during a military drill in Makran beach on the Gulf of Oman, near the Hormuz Strait.

When it comes to the military posture of the US, the framework focuses on deterrence and strengthening partner capacity, enabling regional security integration, and countering terrorist threats — all of which are designed to help limit external actors' military expansion in the region.  

There is no reference to whom these external actors may be, presumably it is Russia and, to a lesser extent, China. 

The one policy the strategy maintains from Trump's NSS is "to deepen Israel's growing ties with its neighbours and other Arab states, including through the Abraham Accords, while maintaining our ironclad commitment to its security." 

But it clearly departs from that of Trump's strategy when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  

While the Trump strategy completely ignored the two-state solution, the Biden strategy reverted to the traditional US position of promoting "a viable two-state solution that preserves Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state while meeting Palestinian aspirations for a secure and viable state of their own along the June 1967 lines."  

Absent, however, is any reference to the issue of Jerusalem, which Trump recognised as the capital of Israel.  

When it comes to Iran, given the nature of the negotiation process, the strategy confirms the US desire to continue with diplomacy to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons while indicating that it is "prepared to use other means", which implies the use of force.  

Concerning ongoing conflicts in the region — namely in Yemen, Libya and Syria — the strategy indicates that the US "will combine diplomacy, economic aid, and security assistance to local partners to alleviate suffering, reduce instability, and prevent the export of terrorism or mass migration from Yemen, Syria, and Libya, while working with regional governments to manage the broader impact of these challenges."  

In other words, Washington will not take the initiative and will merely support the efforts of regional parties and international organisations. 

Israeli integration 

Probably the area that deserves special attention is the American interest in fostering military integration in the region as a path to reducing its own military commitments.  

The strategy stipulates that it will encourage such integration "by building security connections between and among US partners, including through integrated air and maritime defence structures."  

This cannot be considered as anything other than a euphemism for a security architecture that integrates Israel into the Middle East. 

The US position is probably based on two core beliefs.  

The first is that a regional security system is the best means to both secure Israel's security interests and ensure regional stability. By integrating Israel through a military arrangement, it would secure integration through the best, and possibly irreversible, means.  

The second is that no military power in the region, individually or collectively, independent of Israel, can even partially replace American military power.  

Same interest, different approach 

It is important to note that both the US and Russia believe that the establishment of a Middle East regional security architecture serves their interests. But, not surprisingly, they have different approaches.  

While both countries see Arab nations and Israel as part of the architecture, they clearly differ on Iran.  

Regarding Turkey, the matter is more complicated. Ankara is a member of Nato and, at the same time, maintains a special security relationship with Moscow, as witnessed in Syria. Ultimately, there may be a way to integrate Turkey.  

Washington approaches the establishment of a regional security architecture as a means to gradually relieve it of its military commitments.  

At this stage, Washington seems to favour the Israeli vision with its emphasis on military cooperation and confronting Iran. The US is aware that it cannot afford a security vacuum that its adversaries would fill.  

At this stage, Washington seems to favour the Israeli vision with its emphasis on military cooperation and confronting Iran. The US is aware that it cannot afford a security vacuum that its adversaries would fill. 

Russia, on the other hand, has long advocated a regional security architecture and has put forward a number of proposals in this regard. The intention behind them is to build up regional cooperation in a manner that would replace US military presence.  

Israel, Turkey and Iran, together with the Arab countries, would be part of this security system envisioned by Moscow. 

As China has not been particularly involved in the security of the region, it is not clear where it stands in this regard. Most likely, at least in the medium term, Beijing would prefer both US and Russia to shoulder the burden of maintaining security and stability in the region. 

In short, while the US seeks to avoid further involvement in the region, particularly in the military sense, it acknowledges that it can only succeed in reducing its military commitments if it is able to encourage the establishment of a regional security system which would include Israel — not eventually, but at the start of such developments.  

In conclusion, the US will not commit additional resources to resolve conflicts in the Middle East, but it will support its friends and allies. It will not seek to transform the region, but it will pursue regional political, economic and military integration. 

The US does not see any serious competition with either China or Russia in the region. Simply put, the US no longer has core interests in the Middle East.  

The US is eager to rid itself of the burden of bearing the main responsibility of ensuring the security and stability of the Middle East.  

This is so that it may devote its attention and resources to shoring up its democracy at home, maintaining its economic competitiveness, combatting transnational threats and focusing on managing its relations with China, Russia, and the Asia-Pacific region.   

- Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy is a former Egyptian ambassador and senior UN official 




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