Biden Missteps in the Middle East are China’s and Russia’s Gain

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  • Early in his administration, President Biden alienated our allies in the Middle East by prioritizing domestic politics over security in the region.
  • The administration’s missteps have afforded China and Russia opportunity to increase their influence in an important part of the world.
  • President Biden should embrace the Abraham Accords, abandon his pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, and rebuild the U.S. image as a reliable security partner in the region.

American policy in the Middle East should promote a more stable region with effective governance, improved security, and cooperation to counter terrorists and other threats to the United States. Yet President Biden’s policies have thrown American influence in the Middle East into doubt and created an opportunity for Russia and China. The botched Afghanistan withdrawal, the advertised pivot to the Indo-Pacific, overly restrictive arms sales policies, an Iran policy that makes our Middle Eastern partners less safe, and a belated embrace of the Abraham Accords have created a narrative of U.S. disengagement. Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East did not alter that impression. The United States will need to rely on our partners in the region to achieve our national security interests beyond the Indo-Pacific, like preventing the spread of jihadism and stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

President Biden entered office with a Middle East united against the Iranian threat and on the heels of the Abraham Accords, an unprecedented boon to Middle East peace. Under these agreements, struck in 2020, four Arab states – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – agreed to recognize the State of Israel and opened the door to further cooperation.

The Biden administration quickly undid that progress. From the start, he put politics ahead of policy in his zeal to restart the failed Iran nuclear deal, simply to make good on a campaign promise. In courting Tehran, the administration removed the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s war against the group. The administration delayed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and withdrew air defense systems, caving to progressive demands to end the war while our allies faced Houthi attacks against civilian infrastructure. Buoyed by the administration’s actions, the Houthis launched renewed offensives in Yemen and increasingly threatened our partners. When Iran-supported militia groups targeted Americans in Iraq and Syria with rockets and drones last summer, the administration barely reacted. In a dogged effort to keep the nuclear deal alive, the Biden administration has not conducted a strike against Iranian proxies since October 2021, and regional deterrence is sorely lacking. The Israelis, to whom Iran poses an existential threat, have deeply and publicly disagreed with the administration’s approach.

President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last August confirmed fears that he was willing to abandon our allies to accomplish his own political goal of ending the war in Afghanistan. Despite warnings that Afghanistan would fall without allied support, the president decided to withdraw from the country. The move sent shivers through our Middle Eastern allies, signaling the Biden administration was unfazed by the damage it could do to counterterrorism efforts in the region. 

As a result, countries in the area have shown they are willing to not side with the United States in a conflict. The UAE and Saudi Arabia abstained from an April vote to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council over its invasion of Ukraine. Israel, Libya, and Turkey supported the resolution, while our other allies in the region like Jordan and Egypt also chose to abstain. China voted against the resolution. The UAE and Saudi Arabia reportedly ignored President Biden’s attempts to coax them into producing more oil in the spring. Then the Saudis hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in June, giving Vladimir Putin’s regime international legitimacy after the West had sought to isolate it through sanctions.

China is ready to step in with military and political support if America’s traditional allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE lose faith in U.S. leadership. The Chinese have been selling armed drones in the region for years, partly because of a reluctance by the U.S. to sell drones to our Gulf allies during the Obama administration. Earlier this year, the UAE said it planned to purchase 12 trainer jets from China with an option for dozens more.

China is also said to be working with the Saudis to develop ballistic missile technology. According to Defense News, a Chinese firm signed a deal in March to build a military drone factory in Saudi Arabia through a joint venture with a Saudi company. These developments are an expansion of Chinese military support in Saudi Arabia. For their part, the Russians recently signed a defense cooperative agreement with the Saudis, vowing to build their military relationship with a traditional U.S. ally.  

The administration should walk away from the current Iran deal negotiations and pursue a new plan that enforces sanctions on Iranian oil sales, seeks stronger censures at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and triggers snapback sanctions at the U.N. The U.S. should work to deter Iran by reestablishing a military option to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. This could include accelerating regional exercises and cooperation with Israel. The administration should also strengthen Israel’s ability to degrade Iran’s nuclear program by speeding up assistance such as aerial refueling and additional precision strike capability that could be used against hardened targets. This show of strength would give credibility to diplomacy that seeks to end Iran’s aggressive behavior beyond the “nuclear file.” 

Across the Middle East, the administration should reestablish the United States as a reliable supplier for all our Arab partners’ legitimate defense needs without any political distinctions between offensive and defensive systems. President Biden could also fully embrace the peace and cooperation that the Abraham Accords brought to the region. Finally, the administration should be fully committed to a new regional security plan centered on Israel and our Arab partners that provides them with the means to defend themselves against the Iranian threat.

Whether President Biden’s missteps in the region are reversible is an open question. Some of our longstanding partners in the region have apparently begun to look past this administration, and possibly beyond the U.S. as an ally. It is essential that President Biden change his approach in the Middle East, or we could see American interests suffer as our adversaries gain more ground.

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