The ‘Biden Doctrine’ for Mideast Peace

The Middle East is in a state of turmoil today. Amidst the competing visions of how the involved parties should be positioning themselves to find a lasting solution to the many problems they are collectively confronting, there is a single point of agreement: The Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel has forever changed the geopolitical landscape of the region. And while the various actors in Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere all have a view on how this crisis will play out, one other reality has emerged. Despite the emergence of a multipolar world where Russia, China and the so-called “Global South” have come together to challenge the supremacy of US unilateralism, in the Middle East, the US remains the “indispensable nation” when it comes to charting a path toward peace in the region. Whether or not the US is up to this task is another question. One noted observer of the Middle East, Thomas Friedman, has opined that the administration of President Joe Biden is in the process of unveiling what he calls a “Biden Doctrine” that meets “the seriousness and complexity of this dangerous moment.” A careful examination of this emerging “doctrine,” however, shows that it offers nothing new or bold but rather is a rehash of the same failed policies that led to the present situation.

According to Friedman, a “Biden Doctrine” (what he calls “the convergence of strategic thinking and planning” that his reporting has “picked up”) would consist of three tracks — confronting Iran, promoting the creation of a Palestinian state and expanding the existing US security alliance with Saudi Arabia, inclusive of normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. These three tracks, Freidman notes, are interrelated — they must be tied together for this “Biden Doctrine” to succeed. Success, Friedman believes, would result in “the biggest strategic realignment in the region since the 1979 Camp David Treaty.”

Key to this “Biden Doctrine” is the notion of the US calling out what Friedman labels the “double bluffs” of Iran and Israel, namely Iran’s use of proxies (the “Axis of Resistance”) to pressure the US into exiting the region, and Israel’s unfulfilled promises of accepting a Palestinian state. By neutering Iran, Friedman believes, Israel’s reticence toward a Palestinian state will collapse. Problem solved.

Not so fast.

Track One: Confronting Iran

Friedman asserts that by undertaking “a robust military retaliation against Iran’s proxies and agents in the region,” the US would be undertaking a redirection of policy toward Iran of such a scope and scale as to trigger behavioral changes on the part of the Iranian government. But the fact is that the US has been bombing Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria for years now, and the Houthi militia in Yemen previously, with no discernable change in the actions of either the proxies or Iran. If military force is meant to serve as a deterrence, then the threat of military force must generate sufficient concern on the part of those entities that the consequences of their actions significantly outweigh any benefit they hope to accrue. The fact that the US has been compelled by circumstances to launch airstrikes against Iranian proxies in both Iraq and Syria, as well as the Houthis in Yemen, suggests that the previous strikes generated no deterrence value. The fact that both Iraqi and Syrian proxies of Iran continue to launch attacks on US targets in the region, and the Houthis continue to carry out attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, only underscores this point. The key takeaway here is that neither Iran nor its regional proxies are “bluffing” when it comes to their aggressive posture in support of Hamas’ ongoing struggle against Israel. Any attempt by the US to “call” a non-existent bluff only makes the US look weak.

Track Two: A Palestinian State

The Biden administration has been advocating in favor of a Palestinian state since shortly after the president took office in 2021. As such, one cannot claim — as Friedman has — that the current policy position of the Biden administration in favor of a Palestinian state represents any significantly new policy direction. Moreover, the articulation of a precondition — a “demilitarized” Palestine — suggests the US will, like Israel, insist on the defeat and destruction of Hamas as a military organization. That’s something the current situation in Gaza suggests is unrealistic. Indeed, the US plan envisions the political demise of Hamas as well, an outcome that’s highly unlikely given the degree to which support for Hamas has taken hold among the Palestinian people and the international community. Given that the Biden administration’s posture on a Palestinian state is unrealistic, there is no real light between its position and that of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which is steadfastly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. The notion of “calling” Israel’s “bluff” on its opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state is farcical — the Israelis are not bluffing, and the US position is effectively a mirror image of the Israeli position.

Track Three: A US-Saudi Strategic Relationship

Prior to the Oct. 7 attack, the US was in advanced talks on the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This diplomatic coup would have paved the way for the implementation of a regional economic partnership — partly defined by the India-Middle East Economic Corridor (Imec), announced by Biden at the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September 2023. While Imec continues to be touted as viable by some parties (as the recent signing of a memorandum in this regard between India and the United Arab Emirates testifies), a critical component — the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia — faces severe challenges.

Saudi Arabia has declared that “there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” Moreover, Saudi Arabia was last year invited to join the Bric(s) economic forum as of Jan. 1 this year, along with Iran. The kingdom has reportedly yet to formally join — but these optics arguably undercut US efforts to isolate Iran via an expanded US-Saudi strategic relationship.

Doomed to Fail

The “Biden Doctrine” for Middle East peace is doomed to fail. The “big, bold doctrine” postulated by Friedman is little more than the repackaging of past failed policy initiatives by the part of the Biden administration. The US’ failure to come up with a solution to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East makes moot its self-proclaimed status as the world’s indispensable nation. Indeed, the US’ policy failure has transformed it into the “expendable nation” when it comes to creating the conditions of peace in the Middle East. Friedman stated that failure by the Biden administration to implement this new “doctrine” would result in the current crisis metastasizing “in ways that will strengthen Iran, isolate Israel and leave America’s ability to influence events there for the better in tatters.” On this, at least, he is correct.

The ‘Biden Doctrine’ for Mideast Peace

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