Will Biden Seize His Middle East Moment?
His upcoming trip provides an opportunity to establish unprecedented Arab-Israeli cooperation against the Iranian threat.
In the case of President Joe Biden’s Middle East policy, it turns out that it is better to be lucky than good. Despite the fact that his major policy initiatives in the region have largely come to naught, the geopolitical stars have nevertheless aligned to give Biden what may be an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen collective security when he travels to the Middle East next month—one that his predecessors could have only dreamed of.
Whether Biden can take advantage is an open question. His instincts toward the region have been off from the start. He pursued a policy of open-ended negotiations and accommodation with the anti-American regime in Iran to try to entice it back into the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran repaid Biden’s goodwill by using the talks as cover to further escalate its nuclear program and regional aggression, putting it closer to developing a nuclear bomb than at any point in its history.
Meanwhile, with pro-American Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main counterweight in the Persian Gulf, Biden openly sought to downgrade relations to punish the Arab world’s most influential state and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), for his multitude of sins—from his engagement in the civil war in Yemen to the horrific murder of U.S.-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, all no doubt made infinitely worse for Biden and his Democratic base by MBS’s excessively cozy relationship with the much-despised Trump administration.
Operation Ostracize MBS turned out to be no more productive for advancing U.S. interests than Biden’s Iran policy, culminating in the shocking spectacle of a Saudi leader refusing to even take Biden’s phone call in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the face of the greatest challenge to the U.S.-led rules-based international order since World War II, a country whose security has been totally reliant on U.S. power for eight decades felt so aggrieved that it answered an American president’s desperate plea for help in calming global energy markets by effectively telling him to go pound sand.
To his credit, Biden seems to have realized that both of his original lines of strategic action in the Middle East—appeasing Tehran and alienating Riyadh—have reached a dead end and require serious adjustment. Thus, his decision to travel to Israel and Saudi Arabia later this month, with the apparent goal of not only repairing relations with MBS, but of rallying Washington’s traditional regional partners behind what could be a new U.S.-led alliance system grounded in unprecedented Arab-Israeli cooperation against the Iranian threat.
That historic opportunity exists, of course, because of the Abraham Accords, the process of regional normalization supercharged by the series of peace deals that Donald Trump brokered in the final months of 2020 between Israel and four Arab states. While members of Biden’s senior team have regularly paid lip service to the accords, the administration’s actual level of investment in their advancement has been relatively paltry. There’s no sign whatsoever that Biden himself has expended any significant presidential capital on the effort to deepen and expand the accords during his first 16 months in office. For anyone who knows anything about the history of Middle East peacemaking, that’s hardly a recipe for getting big things done.
Indeed, if anything, Biden’s Saudi and Iran policies have been an impediment to progress. The Saudis are the big prize in the normalization sweepstakes, and MBS has made clear that he sees enormous benefits from making peace with Israel, the region’s dominant military and technological power. But such a game-changing move would also carry significant risks for the kingdom—with religious extremists both at home and abroad only too eager to wield the incendiary charge of “betrayer of Islam” against the House of Saud. The chances that MBS will be prepared to take on the radicals by making significant steps toward Israel are inversely correlated to his belief that Saudi Arabia’s most important security partner, the United States, not only doesn’t have his back, but is working to empower his greatest enemy in Iran.
If Biden can begin correcting that perception during his upcoming trip (which will include not only bilateral discussions with Israel and Saudi Arabia, but a summit in Jeddah with leaders from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq), the table is now being set for a major breakthrough in regional military cooperation, specifically on the issue of building an integrated air defense network to combat Iran’s increasingly lethal arsenal of missiles and drones, the largest in the Middle East.
The Wall Street Journal reported on June 26 that, in March the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East secretly convened his counterparts from Israel and six Arab states to discuss expanding air defense cooperation against the growing Iranian threat. Despite their lack of formal diplomatic relations, the top generals from both Israel and Saudi Arabia attended.
It's not hard to figure out why. Thanks to the Yemen war, no country on earth has endured more attacks from Iranian-supplied missiles and drones than Saudi Arabia. No country stands to benefit more from gaining access to Israel’s unparalleled experience in building the world’s most successful missile defense system. It’s a match ready to be made, waiting only for a president prepared to put the full weight of America’s power and leadership behind it.
It would be a major victory for Biden, the cornerstone of a new American-led security order that would pay huge dividends not only in containing the escalating threat from Iran, but in stemming the dangerous rise of Chinese and Russian influence in the region. Better yet, Biden would be certain to have broad support in Congress, where earlier this month a bipartisan group of legislators from both chambers introduced the DEFEND Act, urging the administration to move rapidly to help build an integrated air defense system between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Despite all Biden’s missteps, history is calling him in the Middle East. The opportunity to transform the region in ways overwhelmingly favorable to America’s interests lies within his grasp—if he’s prepared to seize it. Going to the region is an important first step. But reversing his failed policies of the past year will be the key.
John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the Randi and Charles Wax senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.. He was the lead author of the Institute’s recent report, “A Stronger and Wider Peace: A U.S. Strategy for Advancing the Abraham Accords.”