WASHINGTON ( Associated Press) — Joe Biden took office seeking to reshape US foreign policy in the Middle East, with an emphasis on promoting democracy and human rights. In reality, he has fought on several fronts to significantly separate his approach from that of former President Donald Trump.
Biden’s visit to the region this week includes a meeting with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto leader who US intelligence officials say approved the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
Biden had pledged as a candidate to recalibrate the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he described as a “pariah” nation after Trump’s more accommodating stance, which ignored the kingdom’s human rights record and increased the military sales to Riyadh.
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But Biden now appears to be making the calculation that there is more to be gained by courting the country than by isolating it.
Biden’s first stop on his visit to the Middle East will be Israel. Here again, his stance has softened since the strong statements he made when he ran for president.
As a candidate, Biden condemned the Trump administration’s policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. As president, he has failed to pressure the Israelis to stop building Jewish settlements and offered no new initiatives to restart long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Biden has also upended Trump’s 2019 decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which reversed more than half a century of US policy.
The Biden administration “has had this pretty confusing policy of continuity on a lot of Trump issues — the path of least resistance on a lot of different issues, including Jerusalem, the Golan, Western Sahara, and most other issues,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Now Biden appears to be trying to strike more of a balance in his Middle East policy, focusing on what is possible in a complicated part of the world at a time when Israel and some Arab nations are showing a greater willingness to work together to isolate Iran, their common enemy. — and consider economic cooperation.
“Biden is walking in, essentially making a decision,” Sachs said. “And the option is to adopt the emerging regional architecture.”
Biden used an op-ed in the Washington Post on Saturday, the same pages where Khashoggi wrote much of his criticism of the Saudi government before his death, to declare that the Middle East has become more “stable and secure” in his nearly 18 years. months in office and rejected the notion that his visit to Saudi Arabia amounted to a relapse.
“In Saudi Arabia, we reverse the blank check policy we inherited,” Biden wrote. He also acknowledged that “there are many who disagree” with his decision to visit the kingdom.
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He pointed to his administration’s efforts to pressure a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis to accept a UN-brokered ceasefire, now in its fourth month, after seven years of a war that has left 150,000 dead in Yemen. . Biden also cited as achievements his administration’s role in helping broker a truce in last year’s 11-day war between Israel and Gaza, the decline in the Islamic State terror group’s capacity in the region, and the end of the US combat in Iraq.
But Biden’s overall record in the Middle East is much more complicated. He has largely shied away from tackling some of the region’s most perplexing problems, including some that he blamed Trump for exacerbating.
Biden often talks about the importance of relationships in foreign policy. His decision to visit the Middle East for a trip that promises few tangible achievements suggests that he is trying to invest in the region for the long term.
In public, he has spoken of insights gained from long hours over the years spent with China’s Xi Jinping and assessing Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He has enjoyed building ties with a younger generation of world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japan’s Fumio Kishida.
Biden has met with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, has a long-standing relationship with King Abdullah II of Jordan, and was deeply involved as vice president in helping President Barack Obama end the Iraq war. But Biden, who came of age on the foreign policy scene during the Cold War and sees the rise of China as the most pressing crisis facing the West, has turned less to the Middle East than to Europe and Asia.
“He doesn’t have the personal relationships. He doesn’t have the duration of relationships,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It comes at an uncertain time for the Israeli leadership. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid dissolved the Knesset last month as their politically diverse coalition fell apart. Lapid, the former foreign minister, is now the acting prime minister.
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Biden will also face new questions about his commitment to human rights following the fatal shooting of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Independent investigations determined that she was likely shot by an Israeli soldier while she was reporting from the West Bank in May.
The Abu Akleh family, in a scathing letter to Biden, accused his administration of apologizing to the Israelis for the journalist’s death. The State Department said last week that US security officials determined that Israeli gunfire likely killed her, but “found no reason to believe this was intentional.”
Two of the most-watched moments during Biden’s four-day visit to the Middle East will come when he meets Israeli opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and when he sees the Saudi crown prince.
But neither meeting is likely to dramatically alter the political dynamic between the United States and the Middle East.
Both leaders appear to have set their sights on a post-Biden America as the Democratic president struggles with lagging poll numbers at home fueled by skyrocketing inflation and unease with Biden’s handling of the economy, experts say. analysts.
“In my view, these two leaders now look beyond the Biden administration and look forward to the return of Donald Trump or his avatar,” said Aaron David Miller, who served as adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Islamic affairs. Israelis. negotiations and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think it’s a complex journey, and I think we have to be extremely realistic about these expectations.”
Biden’s prospects for progress in getting the United States to return to the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by Obama in 2015 and withdrawn by Trump in 2018, remain elusive. The administration has been indirectly involved in the Vienna talks aimed at bringing Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the agreement. But talks so far have been fruitless.
As a candidate, Biden promised that the Saudis would “pay the price” for his human rights record. The sharp rhetoric helped Biden contrast himself with Trump, whose first official foreign trip as president was to the kingdom and who praised the Saudis as a “great ally” even after Khashoggi’s killing.
Biden’s harsh warning to the Saudis came at a time when oil was trading at about $41 a barrel; now, prices are closer to $105. High oil prices are hurting Americans at the gas pump and driving up the prices of essential goods, while helping the Saudis bottom line.
White House officials have said energy talks would be a component of the Saudi leg of the president’s visit, but have downplayed the possibility of the Saudis agreeing to further increase oil production because the kingdom says it is almost ready. in its production capacity.
But Bruce Riedel, who served as a senior adviser on the National Security Council to four presidents, said the visit to Saudi Arabia is “completely unnecessary” under the circumstances.
“There is nothing that Joe Biden is going to do in Jeddah that the secretary of state or the secretary of defense, or frankly, a very good ambassador can’t do on their own,” Riedel said. “There is no outcome of this that really warrants a presidential visit.”
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.