A Politico report published Monday revealed that Joe Biden’s administration wants to rid itself of the troublesome Middle East. In terms of global priorities, one Biden adviser confessed that the region “is not in the top three.” The new administration would prefer to focus on instability in the Western Hemisphere, containing threats and pursuing diplomatic initiatives in Europe, and, of course, finally pivoting to Asia. “They are just being extremely purposeful to not get dragged into the Middle East,” another adviser said. But the Middle East has a habit of dragging the United States back in, and a heedless effort to withdraw from the region is one of the easiest ways to stumble back into open-ended commitments.
The Biden administration encountered one of the first tests of its resolve to disengage from Middle Eastern affairs earlier this month following a deadly rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in which one civilian contractor was killed and nine others were wounded, including a U.S. service member. The Shia militia Saraya Awliya al-Dam, which maintains close links with Tehran, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Biden administration responded in a “measured” way, according to the New York Times. It does not want to see a nascent attempt to restart negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program derailed by this Iran-linked provocation. But that indefatigable commitment to the pursuit of “rapprochement” with Iran and its proxies has only invited more rocket attacks.
On Monday, locals observed as rockets were fired at the U.S. diplomatic presence in Baghdad within the so-called “Green Zone.” It’s the third attack on Western diplomatic stations in Iraq in a week. Iraq has responded by requesting a larger NATO military presence in the country, and NATO will oblige. In the coming weeks, the Atlantic Alliance will increase its deployments in Iraq from 500 to approximately 4,000, and the Pentagon is not ruling out additional deployments to supplement the Western presence there.
Iranian strategy may seem counterintuitive on its face; why would a rogue state desperate for the rewards associated with the resumption of diplomatic talks risk it all by testing the new administration so brazenly? But Iranians can read American news media, too. If Tehran believes that the Biden administration wants out of the region so badly that it will not absorb the costs associated with sticking around, why not test that proposition? Iran’s long-term objective isn’t just relief from economic sanctions, after all—its regional dominance, with the U.S. all but out of the picture.
Hopefully, the Biden administration won’t let its strategic goals for the region be overshadowed by its more political objectives. After all, we need only look to the administration Biden served as vice president to see how American disengagement creates more headaches than it’s worth.
Barack Obama’s hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in early 2011 set the stage for America’s indefinite return. The ill-trained Iraqi Security Forces proved insufficient to preserve the country’s regional integrity, as the world learned when it watched their thorough routing by ISIS-aligned militias in 2014.
Obama knew the ISF could not hold the line. That was one of the reasons he tried to buttress the shaky Iraqi army by strengthening the hand of Shiite militias in Iraq, despite their ties to Iran. After all, as a London-based intelligence analyst told the Times in 2015, “the only force with the ability to bring Kurdish troops, the Iraqi Army, and the Shiite militias together to fight the Islamic State is Iran.” But giving Iran a free hand in the region coupled with American withdrawal had unforeseen consequences—among them, a new spirit of activism among the region’s Sunni powers.
The situation in Yemen that persists today is indicative of the Obama administration’s folly. “The U.S. has formed ties with Houthi rebels who seized control of Yemen’s capital,” the Wall Street Journal reported in early 2015. The administration’s goal was to maintain the intergovernmental ties that facilitated a covert American campaign targeting al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. But the Obama White House’s overtures were rebuffed by the “anti-American” Iran-aligned militia, and the U.S. eventually consented to Saudi military action against the rebel regime. “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations,” Obama’s National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said of the Saudi-led attack on Houthi targets.
At least Riyadh gave the White House the courtesy of a heads-up. The same cannot be said of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Cairo and Abu Dhabi did not even bother to inform Washington in 2014, when the two states launched a campaign of airstrikes on Islamist militias in Libya, “leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines.” Meanwhile, those and other Sunni states were laying the diplomatic groundwork for a thaw in relations with Israel to create a regional bulwark against Iranian expansionism; a felicitous development, but one that came at the expense of America’s regional authority.
To its credit, the Trump administration re-engaged with the region, both militarily and diplomatically. It set aside “leading from behind” in favor of plain, old leading, and it guided a diplomatic breakthrough already underway to its culmination in the form of the Abraham Accords. Despite Donald Trump’s desire to extricate the U.S. from this complicated region, his administration’s willingness to engage with it set the stage for some of its greatest achievements.
The lesson of the last decade of U.S. policy in the Middle East seems rather clear: American interests are more likely to be achieved by engaging with the region on its own terms. Hopefully, the Biden White House can see through the miasma of its ideological hostility toward the Middle East’s key players to know that their goals are advanced by dealing with the world as it is.