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The isolationist temptation and Biden’s Middle East policy

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 had made the United States the world’s only remaining great power. Yet for many Americans, appreciation grew that problems overseas concern them and can hurt them.

U.S. President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken after delivering remarks at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken after delivering remarks at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.
Douglas J. Feith
Douglas J. Feith

The Biden administration appears to have no great ambitions in the Middle East. Its policy will likely reflect America’s inclination in recent years to relinquish global responsibilities. There are only two Middle Eastern issues—the Iran nuclear deal and Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations—that President Joe Biden has shown particular interest in tackling. In engaging on those issues, administration officials may conclude that there are several Middle East policy bequests from former President Donald Trump that are worth preserving despite his appalling malefactions.

Retreat from global action

In the last dozen years, the United States has stopped acting as the predominant global power—a radical change, particularly evident in the Middle East.

For American officials during the Cold War, the whole world was one chessboard. All major developments were of concern. Being a global power meant worrying that events anywhere could affect important U.S. interests. In contrast, in most other countries, officials received news from remote places with detachment, or perhaps indifference—in any event, with resignation, for there was not much that they could do about it.

From World War II on, U.S. officials created capabilities to operate worldwide and to handle multiple challenges simultaneously. Some regions, of course, commanded greater attention in Washington than others. The general assumption, however, was that the United States could not afford to turn its back on any. Thinking strategically meant, as always, seeing the interconnectedness of everything on the chessboard.

Until recently, U.S. officials saw the Middle East, given its oil and geography, as particularly important. Then came the Obama and Trump administrations. Former President Barack Obama rejected his predecessor’s idea of a Global War on Terrorism, with its focus on radical Islam and Arabs, and therefore on the Middle East. He wanted a more modest U.S. role in the world and, in the Middle East in particular, he favored disengagement. He rejected the idea that major events there required U.S. attention.

There was only one Middle Eastern project in which Obama invested heavily: a new relationship with Iran. For him, Iran’s nuclear program was not of overriding concern; it was important largely because it stood in the way of a new cooperative U.S.-Iranian relationship. Hence Obama’s willingness to drop one demand after another to conclude the nuclear deal. That distressed Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. They view Iran and its nuclear-weapons ambitions as a life-and-death threat to themselves.

As for the region’s great upheaval—Syria’s collapse into civil war—the Obama team was hands-off, despite the huge strategic and humanitarian stakes. Russia, Iran and Turkey all intervened in Syria. Millions of Syrians fled the country as refugees, with politically disruptive effects not only in neighboring states, but also in Europe. The United States shared the sidelines with the world’s minor powers, those incapable of affecting events even when they had interests at risk.

Trump denounced his predecessor’s national security policies, but shared the general desire to disengage from the Middle East. His record in the region was a jumble of not entirely consistent elements. It included important pro-Israel diplomatic initiatives, including recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, approval of permanent Israeli possession of the Golan Heights and rejection of the charge that Israel’s West Bank settlements are inherently illegal. It also included successful Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy that unconventionally prioritized agreements with Arab states, rather than with the Palestinians.

Regarding Iran, Trump abrogated the nuclear deal, strangled Iran’s oil exports through economic sanctions and ordered the January 2020 airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. And, in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he gave U.S. forces more aggressive rules of engagement, which produced notable battlefield success.

On the other hand, Trump quickly withdrew most of those forces from Iraq and Syria. And, regarding the Syrian Civil War, he, like Obama, kept America on the sidelines. Trump showed no concern about Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces efforts to entrench their military capabilities in Syria. And he was reluctant, and often unwilling, to take action against aggressive Iranian moves.

In early 2019, Iranian officials threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if U.S. economic sanctions continued. Four oil tankers were then attacked in the Persian Gulf and, a few weeks later, mines damaged Norwegian and Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. U.S. officials said Iran was to blame. Trump, however, said it was not America’s responsibility to deal with any of this. Then a drone attack destroyed Saudi oil facilities and cut Saudi oil exports in half. Again, U.S. officials assigned responsibility to Iran. What the Iranians were doing was what U.S. officials, for decades, envisioned as a nightmare scenario of aggression and intimidation. Trump, however, said he was not interested in coordinating any response with the Saudis.

His policy of inaction in the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean generated no major debate in Washington. This signified a remarkable transformation of American strategic thinking. It would be too much to say that the United States has become isolationist, but there has clearly been growth in isolationist sentiment, especially regarding the Middle East.

Isolationism: The Obama and Trump variations

It is well known that isolationism was politically powerful in 19th- and early-20th century America—hence, the late U.S. entry into World War I. It remained potent in the 1920s and ’30s, keeping the country out of World War II until Pearl Harbor. During that war and afterward, isolationism went into abeyance. It exerted little influence over U.S. foreign and defense policy during the half-century of the Cold War, when the United States willy-nilly led the world’s liberal democratic nations.

The West’s Cold War victory did not immediately trigger a revival of isolationism. Many Americans understood that they continue to have vital interests affected by world affairs.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 had made the United States the world’s only remaining great power. Yet, for many Americans, appreciation grew that problems overseas should concern them—and could hurt them.

That recognition has had multiple threads. U.S. prosperity depends on international trade and investment. Global environmental and climate-related issues affect American interests. Humanitarian disasters abroad, such as the genocidal mass murders committed in the mid-1990s in Rwanda and Burundi, raise moral questions for Americans. Former President Bill Clinton said his greatest regret was failing to act to stop that bloodletting in Central Africa, and some academics and others argue that mass atrocities anywhere impose on capable states a “responsibility to protect.” Civil wars in other states can become far-reaching calamities; those in Syria and Afghanistan, for example, flooded Europe with refugees. And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that a disease in China can devastate the lives and livelihoods of people everywhere.

Security-related realities also warn that isolationism is unrealistic. Large Chinese and Russian investments in military power are giving them peer- or near-peer competitive status. Middle Eastern pathologies spawn jihadist movements responsible for terrorist attacks in the United States (and in Europe and elsewhere). Through nuclear weapons and missile programs, even small states such as North Korea and Iran can put American cities at risk. Russia, China and others also pose cyber threats that endanger U.S. infrastructure and even our political processes. (Another argument against isolationism is that the civil liberties of Americans at home are less secure when democracy seems endangered abroad. The Red Scares after World Wars I and II illustrated this point. The former gave rise to the Palmer raids and the latter to the investigations by Sen. Joseph McCarthy [R-Wis.] and the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

Nevertheless, political support in America for isolationist policies has burgeoned lately, especially regarding the Middle East. U.S. public opinion shifted strongly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was easy to understand why many Americans would want to disengage from a region rife with violent, corrupt, anti-American, religious extremists and authoritarians. As noted, Obama and Trump both favored such disengagement, though each for his own reasons.

Neither Obama nor Trump wanted the United States to continue to play its longstanding role as leader of the free world. Obama and his team insisted that the United States lacked the necessary moral qualifications. Since World War II, they argued, America’s record was mainly a blend of arrogance, overreach, inhumanity and failure.

Typical on this point were the writings of Samantha Power, whom Obama appointed as his ambassador to the United Nations. In The New Republic in 2003, she wrote that thoughtful foreigners see the United States as a “runaway state international law needs to contain.” She urged “instituting a doctrine of mea culpa,” implying that, like the Nazis, Americans owed apologies to the world. Recalling when, in 1970, West Germany’s chancellor “went down on one knee in the Warsaw ghetto” to ask forgiveness for Nazi crimes, she suggested the United States should take the same approach. (Biden has nominated Power to head the U.S. Agency for International Development, and press reports say she will have a seat on the National Security Council.)

The Obama team saw danger in America’s freedom of action. To deal with international problems, they wanted to bind the United States to multilateral institutions and approaches, not in the hope of greater effectiveness, but to restrain the United States. In other words, the goal was not to make the United States more influential, but less assertive. The thinking was that U.S. freedom of action was not an aspect of sovereignty to be safeguarded, but a temptation to unilateralist militarism of the type that produced the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

The Obama administration argued that Americans confronted enemies around the world—in Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere—largely because America threatened and abused the people there. It explained anti-Americanism not as a result of hostile ideology—communism, radical Islam, authoritarian hostility to democracy—but largely a result of well-grounded resentment of American bad behavior. The prime expression of that view was Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech, which ascribed the poor state of U.S. relations with Iran not to the ideas that today motivate mass chants of “Death to America,” but to alleged U.S. misdeeds in the early 1950s, a quarter-century before the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being.

Obama hoped he could overcome the anti-Americanism of America’s enemies by paying tribute to their resentment and showing a willingness to make amends. In the Middle East, this view led to the diplomatic outreach to Iran, a key element of which was the negotiation of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Trump scorned the frame of mind that blamed America for the world’s problems and that offered apologies. His contempt for the breast-beating and multilateralism of his predecessor’s administration was embedded in the America First slogan. (When he embraced the slogan, Trump, no close student of history, appeared unaware that it had been the rallying cry of Charles Lindbergh’s campaign to keep the United States out of World War II.) Yet, as we have noted, Trump for his own reasons adopted some of Obama’s foreign policies, in particular, disengagement from the Middle East.

Trump’s idea of America First has been a knock not just at the United Nations, but also at NATO. He views all multinational bodies skeptically, even suspiciously. He was blunt to the point of brutal in denouncing the free-rider problem of various American alliances that had drawn numerous but ineffectual protests from U.S. presidents for decades. Trump did not buy the idea that subordinating American interests, as determined independently by the U.S. president, to decisions of such bodies makes either the United States or the world better off. In making this point, Trump used extraordinarily harsh language, but the substance of his position was not radical. Before Obama, U.S. presidents of both political parties consistently defended U.S. freedom to act independently as an element of American sovereignty.

Trump disparaged U.S. allies for failing to invest in their own defense, lacking military capability and remaining passive when concerns they share with the United States come under threat. He was willing to protect some American interests, but if they were important mainly to U.S. allies, he was disinclined to protect them. In Syria, he put the United States on the sidelines, except for fighting ISIS. Turkey’s anti-American President Recep Erdoğan decided to send forces into Syria, largely to crush Turkey’s Kurdish enemies. The targeted Kurds included forces that for years fought side-by-side with American troops against ISIS in Syria, but Trump left them to the mercy of the Turks. Then he rattled pro-U.S. officials in Arab Gulf states by refusing to act against Iran for its attacks (mentioned above) on those ships in and near the Persian Gulf and on the Saudi oil fields.

On America’s political right, Trump has legitimated the disengage-from-the-Middle-East tendencies that Obama introduced into U.S. policy. The Trump administration has not been consistently or thoroughly isolationist; he was not consistent or thorough about anything but helped accustom Americans to bystander status in the region even when Iranians, Turks, Russians and Chinese were taking action opposed to U.S. security interests.

Biden, Iran and the Palestinians

Biden has shown no interest in reviving America’s role as the predominant world power. For his top officials, unsurprisingly, he is nominating people who (like himself) served Obama, so the major strategic ideas of the Obama years are likely to resurface in the Biden period. This includes the “pivot to Asia”—Obama’s plan to disengage from the Middle East to allow greater attention to the Indo-Pacific. The problem with the “pivot” was not the sensible idea of recognizing the paramount strategic importance to the United States of China and the Pacific. The problem, rather, was the naive notion that America could pivot or swivel toward Asia simply by turning its back on the Middle East, as if the price of ignoring the Eastern Med and Persian Gulf regions is negligible.

It is likely that Biden will try to remain uninvolved in major Middle Eastern developments, such as the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, the deterioration of Lebanon and the political instability in Iraq and Iran. He says he has four priorities, of which the first three are the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery and racial equity. The only non-domestic priority is climate change. (He may, find himself drawn into Middle Eastern affairs anyway, for the region has a way of ensnaring even those American officials intent on staying out.)

There are, however, two Middle Eastern matters on which the Biden team has said it intends to act: the Iran nuclear deal and Palestinian-Israeli relations. A key question is whether that team will take due account of how circumstances have changed since they were last in office.

Iran is economically debilitated. Unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration proved far more effective than commonly thought possible, even by “hawks.” The sanctions cut Iranian oil exports by 80 percent—from approximately 2.5 to 0.3 million barrels per day. Iran’s currency lost half its value against the dollar. This lowered the standard of living in Iran and forced it to cut subsidies to its proxy forces in Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere.

As a result, Biden administration officials have an opportunity to press Iran to accept concessions that Obama failed to obtain in the original nuclear deal. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan (also a former Obama administration official), said he hopes Iran will agree to revive that deal, which implies the easing of U.S. economic sanctions. If the deal is reinstated, he said, the Biden team would then try to limit Iran’s missile program.

The implication is that Biden is not interested in taking advantage of Iran’s current economic vulnerabilities. He has not shown an intention to fix the nuclear deal’s major flaws—for example its sunset arrangements, weak verification provisions and loose constraints on uranium enrichment. Nor is he committed to maintain economic pressure until Iran ends support for the Houthis, Hezbollah and other terrorists, ceases to threaten Israel from southern Syria and refrains from attacking Arab oil production and transport.

Regarding Palestinian-Israeli peace, the president may, out of long-practiced habit, try to resurrect the diplomacy of the pre-Trump era. But Israel’s normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, all made in the latter half of 2020, have redefined the art of the possible.

It was long assumed that the Arab states will make peace with Israel and increase strategic cooperation with the United States only after the Palestinians make peace. The recent normalization deals discredit that notion. They suggest the opposite may be the case. Closer cooperation with the United States (mainly against Iran) and peace deals with Israel may allow the Arab states to disrupt Palestinian politics in ways that would encourage peace with Israel. Palestinians may be moved to acknowledge that they have no better option than compromising to end the conflict.

Palestinian strategy aimed for international pressure to do to Israel what such pressure did to South Africa’s apartheid regime: to bring it to its knees and compel relinquishment of power. The strategy became bankrupt, however, and the recent normalization deals exposed its hopelessness. If the Palestinians stick with it, it is they and not the Israelis who will suffer increasing marginalization. Their leaders may continue to delegitimate Israel, calling it evil names—a Crusader state, a settler colonialist state, an apartheid state or not a state at all, but simply “The Occupation.” Israel can let these calumnies roll down its back as it bolsters its economy, military power and influence in the world, including through additional normalization or peace deals with Arab and Muslim states.

Biden administration officials do not want to ignore the Palestinian problem. They say they will try to resolve the conflict. Ending it, after all, would improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis (even more the former than the latter), and serve U.S. interests in regional stability.

In making his push for peace, Biden may be inclined to pressure Israel to conclude a deal with the current Palestinian leadership. He may pick up where the Obama administration left off, trying to please Palestinian leaders by allowing the United Nations Security Council to call Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal.

That approach, however, would likely not move the parties toward peace. It would founder for the same reasons that such efforts have failed time and again for more than 50 years. The problem is neither Israeli settlements nor Israeli intransigence. Successive Israeli governments have been willing to make reasonable compromises for peace and settlements have never been insuperable obstacles to peace. The actual problem, squarely on the side of the Palestinians, is the ideological inflexibility and corruption of their leaders. Palestinian Authority officials are notoriously corrupt. Those of Hamas are notoriously extremist. Both sets of officials, in fact, exhibit both traits. This is why progress toward peace requires empowerment of a new Palestinian leadership.

The world incentivizes Palestinian leaders to perpetuate the conflict with Israel. Because they are widely celebrated as embodying an important, as-yet-unfulfilled national cause, those leaders are granted extraordinary diplomatic attention and generous financial aid, much of which they divert improperly for the huge houses they have built for themselves in Ramallah, Gaza and elsewhere. Were they to settle the conflict, reducing themselves to mere functionaries in a state in poor condition, they would lose much of what they value in life—international solicitude, money and personal pride in heading what they see as a noble revolutionary struggle against a hated enemy.

Proper leaders would not put corrupt personal considerations over the well-being their people could achieve through peace. But the Palestinians do not have proper leaders.

P.A. leader Yasser Arafat demonstrated this corruption by rejecting the generous peace offers of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the last half of the year 2000. Clinton expressed shock and horror at Arafat’s action. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were similarly disappointed when Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, rejected the generous peace offer of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the last months of the Bush administration.

Despite peace promises in the Oslo Accords, P.A. leaders have for decades been pursuing a strategy in the Arab League, the United Nations and worldwide to delegitimate, isolate, demoralize and weaken Israel. Israel’s new normalization deals explode that strategy.

The normalization deals represent a severe judgment against Palestinian political leaders. Abbas and his fellow P.A. officials, who are running the West Bank, have long been fighting violently against their rivals in Hamas, who are running Gaza. The two groups disparage each other. Meanwhile, as noted, each discredits itself through gross corruption and ineffective pursuit of the Palestinian national cause.

Israel’s new friends in the Arab world have an interest in changing the economic and political landscape of Palestinian politics. They may be able to do so in cooperation with the United States and those foreign powers that still provide financial aid to the Palestinians. They may be able to empower Palestinians who are not enmeshed in the perverse incentive system that requires perpetuation of the conflict against Israel. Therein lies the best hope for progress toward peace.

If the Biden team has its eye on the prize, it will direct its energies not at recreating the old “peace process” but at working with Arab states to encourage the rise of new Palestinian leaders. It will seek out men and women who have transcended anti-Zionist ideology and who are more interested in improving their people’s lives than keeping alive hopes of eliminating Israel and “liberating” all of Palestine. Do such people exist? Are there Palestinians who would negotiate peace with Israel without equating compromise with dishonor and whose goal is not an unachievable ideal of self-defined justice but the best agreement possible?

Encouraging the rise of new and better Palestinian leaders is the most promising way to open a path to peace. Trying to cut a deal with the current leaders would be like banging one’s head against a wall that has resisted such banging for decades.

A serious, long-term effort to empower new Palestinian leaders may work. In partnership with the Arab states that have made peace and normalization deals with Israel, the Biden team could help create conditions to make Israeli-Palestinian peace possible.

The unsung benefit of Trump’s Golan policy

On March 25, 2019, the Trump administration proclaimed that “the United States recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel.” The president explained that “aggressive acts by Iran and terrorist groups, including H[e]zb[o]llah, in southern Syria continue to make the Golan Heights a potential launching ground for attacks on Israel” and any future peace agreement “must account for Israel’s need to protect itself from Syria and other regional threats.”

There’s another important justification that Trump failed to spell out, but Biden should take into account in case he is urged to reverse U.S. recognition.

Syria will someday have a post-Bashar Assad government which may reach out to the United States to establish relations. Wanting to respond favorably, U.S. officials would likely urge it to make peace with Israel. If the Golan Heights are considered an open, unresolved issue—thought of, in other words, as “Israeli-occupied”—Syria’s new leaders, for domestic reasons, will have to demand its return. Yet Israeli officials, for compelling security reasons, will say no. This sets up a diplomatic stalemate. U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, however, preempts that problem.

Israel, in self-defense, took control of the Golan in the 1967 Six-Day War and has ever since retained control of this strategically invaluable plateau, from which Syrian soldiers used rifles to kill Israeli farmers who were plowing fields in the Galilee. Artillery on the Golan could strike all across northern Israel to the Mediterranean. Only a few thousand Syrian nationals live in the territory, mostly Druze, who in general have deep-rooted ties to Israel’s Druze citizens. Especially given the brutality of Assad and his Iranian allies in the Syrian Civil War and the lack of any constraint from the “international community,” it is not realistic to expect Israel ever to relinquish control over the Golan. Acknowledging this reality, the U.S. government recognized Israeli sovereignty there.

That U.S. officials no longer consider the Golan an open issue is one of the consequences of Syria’s civil war. Syria’s permanent loss of the territory is part of Assad’s legacy, together with the death of the half-million Syrians killed in the civil war, the displacement of half the country’s population and the exile of nearly 6 million people.

To make peace or to improve relations with the United States, future Syrian leaders will not have to take responsibility for relinquishing the Golan. They will be able to explain to their people that it was lost permanently by the Assad regime, which severely damaged the country in so many ways. This could prove of great value to Syria, Israel and the United States in years to come. Though Trump administration officials did not make this point, it does add to the merit of their initiative on the Golan.

Eyes forward 

The well-known comment that one can’t step in the same river twice was an ancient philosopher’s way of noting that the world changes continuously. Also well-known is the observation that generals are forever fighting their last battle. Both points are commonplaces because people so often make decisions by looking backwards rather than ahead.

Members of the Biden team should guard against this tendency. There is no stepping back into the Obama era. There’s no point in refighting the original debate over the Iran nuclear deal. Their duty is to assess where the United States stands today—what threats and opportunities we face, the resources at our disposal and which recent developments have helped or hurt our ability to advance U.S. interests. It is harder than usual to do this coolly and rationally because of America’s polarization.

Trump has enormously increased the poison in the political atmosphere. Erratic, reckless and divisive throughout his term, he surpassed himself this past Jan. 6 by helping instigate the insurrectionary mob invasion of the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of Biden’s election.

Under the circumstances, Biden administration officials are presumably averse to crediting anything the Trump administration did. But it would be a mistake to discard all of it. Some of the policies had useful results. This was true in particular in the Middle East and especially regarding anti-Iran sanctions, the Golan’s status and the Arab state normalization agreements with Israel. If Biden is looking ahead and thinking strategically, he will salvage what is valuable from the wreckage of his predecessor’s administration.

Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served from July 2001 to August 2005 as U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. 

This piece was published originally in April 2021 by the Maritime Policy & Strategy Research Center and the Ezri Center for Iran & Gulf States Research, both at the University of Haifa, as an appendix to a symposium report titled “The Gulf States: From Periphery to Center.” See the full report here.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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