As President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris begin to form their administration, it will now have to articulate a vision for the next four years of foreign policy at a global level and regional levels in areas such as the Middle East.
While Biden may seek to repair trans-Atlantic relations, pursue the elusive “pivot” to Asia, as well as reinvigorate multilateral efforts to fight climate change and Covid-19, let’s not forget the tumultuous year that has been 2020 was ushered in with concerns over “World War III” erupting in January after US President Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Nonetheless, the year may conclude with the possibility of defusing the tensions between the US and Iran.
This article first serves as a reflection over the last four years, entering the debate as to whether there was a Trump doctrine. I argue that there was one, at least towards the Middle East, and defining it provides Biden with policy opportunities to repudiate his predecessor’s destabilising legacy.
Assessing the Trump Doctrine
Defining a Trump doctrine that encapsulates US foreign policy on a global level has proven elusive. One defining feature, however, was Trump’s ambivalence to America’s allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
For example, Baghdad was in a precarious position in the middle of Trump’s conflict with Iran, who had deemed Iraq as a mere staging ground for the US to contain the Islamic Republic. Iraq’s position can be compared to South Korea’s position vis-a-vis US-North Korean tensions, or the American president’s ambiguous support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, or to Afghanistan, caught in between the tumultuous vortex of American-Pakistani relations.
Trump’s mercurial approach to global affairs has been described as incoherent and unpredictable. In stronger terms, Max Boot warned that those who attempt to define a Trump doctrine are on a “fool’s errand.”
Yet, there had been a relative consistency to Trump’s policy to the Middle East: containing the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the latter resists these attempts, either in the waters of the Gulf or in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, where it projected influence via allied militias and governments.
In this regard, Kori Schake argued that Trump had pursued a coherent Middle East foreign policy: “His strategy is to limit American involvement, to push responsibility for outcomes in the region back onto states in the region, and to let power determine outcomes.” The author situates Trump’s policy within the realist school, pursuing “offshore balancing” via Israel and Saudi Arabia, as he sought to withdraw US forces from the region.
Trump’s policy exhibited realist tendencies, such as resisting the multilateral efforts under the Obama administration that led to the signing of the of 2015 The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the “Iran deal.”
However, from a pragmatic, realist perspective, the bilateral conflict between Iran and the US had been managed under the Obama administration, when Biden was Vice President, by both the Iran deal and a de facto alliance in combatting Daesh in Iraq.
Trump’s repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal served as the primary causal factor in intensifying tensions, escalating into direct violence. This violence played out primarily on Iraqi soil, albeit with a brief period of clashes in Syria and the waters of the Gulf in May 2019.
From a realist perspective, upon Trump assuming office, the Iran deal had contained the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. By withdrawing from the deal, Iran’s breakout capacity to create a nuclear went from a year to three to four months, leaving this issue for the Biden administration to address.
Trump’s domestic base dictating foreign policy
Trump sought to polarise in order to mobilise his base and promises he made to his core constituencies affected his policy to the Middle East. Four years ago, his first priority in this regard was to negate the policies of his predecessor Barack Obama, whether it was his domestic legacy, such as “Obamacare” or his diplomatic triumph, the “Iran deal.”
In October 2017, Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, arguing that it failed to prevent the development of Tehran’s ballistic missile program and end its support for terrorism. They also re-imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic, under a “maximum pressure” campaign to force it to renegotiate a deal with his administration. When Trump withdrew from the deal, it increased bilateral tensions between Washington and Tehran, leading Iran to pressure American forces in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Ironically, Trump’s second promise was to withdraw the US from “forever wars” in the three aforementioned countries. Trump had wanted to withdraw troops from these combat zones, yet he could not withdraw them immediately during his first term for fear of granting Iran a strategic victory, ultimately creating a “Catch-22” situation for himself going into the 2020 election that he ultimately lost.
Biden’s agenda for the Middle East
Based on calls I have had with acquaintances in Iran, the mood on the street is jubilant as the hopes of the Trump-imposed sanctions will be lifted, which have impacted their financial security and have hampered the medical efforts there to contain Covid-19.
While the sanctions may not be lifted immediately, it has given Iranians a rare commodity of hope for the future. In a teaser for a Biden doctrine, revealed in his August Foreign Affair’s article, he promised to restore multilateralism and repair relations with European allies, which include re-engaging with the Iran deal.
In terms of Trump’s “offshore balancing,” Biden is unlikely to give Saudi Arabia and Israel a “blank check” with regards to the war in Yemen or future strategies of annexation, respectively.
As vice-president, Biden familiarised himself with the situation in Iraq and the nation’s policymakers, a relief to Baghdad, who sees Trump as a president who pursued American policy without any regard to Iraq’s sovereignty.
The rivalry between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran, a conflict between a superpower and regional power, has served as a constant variable shaping the Middle East region. The Trump doctrine exhibited an obsession with Iran, as a result of the US president’s unrelenting drive to undo the legacy of his predecessor, Barrack Obama.
Biden, by undoing Trump’s policy to Iran, has the opportunity to remake the Middle East. Restoring the American commitment to the Iran deal should be a priority for his administration as of January 2021.
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Author: Ibrahim Al Marashi @ialmarashi
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an associate professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of The Modern History of Iraq, 4th edition.