US-Mideast: In or Out?

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The last two US presidents have few things in common, but both Barack Obama and Donald Trump shared a surface-level belief that the US should extricate itself from conflicts in the Mideast region and maintain a smaller footprint there. Under Obama, that entailed a cool-headed approach that focused on negotiations -- most notably on the Iran nuclear deal -- as a means to ramp down the potential for conflict in the region. Trump, while professing a wish to avoid foreign entanglements, instead threw his weight behind traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, ramped up sanctions pressure on Iran and emphasized US military might as a deterrent -- even as he has shied away from direct conflict with Iran. For US allies in the region, it has created confusion about whether Washington really has their back, or not. There may have been debate during the Obama administration about the extent to which the US was willing to get into a hot war on the side of allies during a conflict with Iran. But the Trump administration has moved the needle further, declining to retaliate last year following a series of provocations in the Mideast Gulf that culminated in the attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais -- but later opting to strike back and assassinate Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, after a US contractor was killed in Iraq (EC Sep.20'19). Add to this Trump -- as part of an effort to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its oil price war with Russia in early April -- reportedly telling Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that he would be unable to block congressional legislation on ending US military support for the kingdom, and it's no wonder that the US is increasingly viewed as an inconsistent security partner in the region (EC Apr.17'20). The primacy of domestic politics in Trump's outlook is partly behind the greater uncertainty about the US' staying power -- and actions -- in the Mideast. Trump leveraging the US security umbrella to an Opec-plus agreement in April was aimed at protecting the US oil industry. The same domestic agenda overhangs the US' maximum pressure campaign on Iran, with Trump's aggressive tone on Iran throughout the 2016 presidential campaign having enmeshed a complicated foreign policy issue with his domestic political fate. Earlier this month, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said the steep drop off in Iran's oil exports after US sanctions on its energy sector was "an enormous accomplishment in terms of 'promises made, promises kept,'" referencing a Trump 2020 campaign slogan. Administration officials also consistently say they are trying to reduce their presence in the region, with the State Department's David Schenker earlier this month saying "we have been working for years to try and increase the capabilities of our partners so that they stand on their own two feet." That's only had limited success, however, with Hook saying recently that the US has sent a total of 14,500 additional troops to the region as a show of force in the last year. Expectations among the US' Mideast allies of a significant shift under Trump were likely high. Toward the end of the Obama administration, criticism from such quarters had grown increasingly bitter, fixated on a feeling of abandonment. Trump, who made his first overseas visit as president to Riyadh, was embraced warmly by those same partners. He spent much of his 2016 campaign railing against the Iran nuclear agreement, enthusiastically welcomed Saudi Arabia's pledges of billions of dollars of defense purchases and investment, and shied away from a public condemnation after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (EC May26'17). Early on, the Trump administration believed they could midwife Saudi support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, hopes that have since faded (EC Dec.15'17). What Would Biden Do? But as much as Trump is rhetorically aligned with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, his endorsement of the Gulf worldview and exit from the Iran nuclear deal haven't been enough to quell doubts about US support (EC Apr.10'20). That doubt creates a "diplomatic opportunity" for a potential Joe Biden administration to alter the dynamic in the region, Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to Biden when he was vice president, said at a virtual event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Because it's clear [following the events in Abqaiq] that the US won't back Saudi [Arabia]," Gulf states may be more willing to reach accommodations with Iran and see the value of reinstituting a nuclear-only deal with Iran as a first step toward broader regional talks. "The reflexive 'well, whatever you want, we'll be there for you' has not produced particularly positive outcomes the last three years," Sullivan said And he pushed back on the idea that a reduced troop presence in the Mideast necessarily equates to a US exit. "China doesn't have a base, a military presence. They're not suffering from the same false binary that we are," he said. A possible Biden administration is also likely to take the view that the US and Saudi Arabia have less to cooperate on when it comes to the energy sector, and would not likely intervene as Trump did to get an Opec-plus agreement in April. Democrats tend to favor policies aiding workers directly rather than businesses, and Biden has been under heavy pressure to focus the US on reducing carbon-intensive energy production (EC Jun.19'20). Emily Meredith, Washington Compass Points • SIGNIFICANCE: US leaders have spent years trying to extricate the country from the Middle East, but Washington's decision-making continues to loom large. • CONNECTION: Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill already take a much tougher line on human rights than Trump does when it comes to dealing with Riyadh, and a potential Biden administration is very likely to emphasize the issue. • NEXT: Watch how players in the region react as the Trump administration tries to cement key policies ahead of the election, such as forcing the reinstatement of UN sanctions on Iran to extend an arms embargo (related).

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