Iraq, Najaf — January 29, 2020. Iraqis protest against their government (Sajjad Harsh /
Turning Away from the Middle East

The Biden administration will not have a lot of time for the Middle East. Its foreign policy agenda will more likely be shaped by the looming question of how to come to grips with Xi Jinping’s China. The Middle East, with the significant exception of Iran, poses no plausible serious challenge to US interests. There is also a lack of resources and opportunities to advance them. This is in part a legacy of the decades-long war in Iraq, which cost trillions of dollars and exhausted US ground forces, while compromising America’s international reputation; regime change in Libya, which prompted the return of thousands of jihadists and a civil war that immiserated the country; and the Syrian civil war, which Washington prolonged and intensified by inadvertently supplying jihadists with potent weaponry. And in part this turning away from the Middle East reflects changes in the oil market: the US is the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels, the cost of renewable energy is dropping sharply, electric vehicles dominate new production in the automotive sector, and the effects of global warming are lending urgency to a shift away from oil.

By the end of Obama’s second term, the lingering illusions that led to those consequences in Iraq, Syria, and Libya had dissipated. In 2016, Obama, apparently referring to what he had called a “shit show” in Libya, told one senator, “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa. That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”

One suspects that he already held this view by the middle of his first term, as the Arab Spring was imploding, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu collaborated with the Republicans to humiliate him before two joint sessions of Congress, and the Arab Gulf states made it known that they considered him unreliable, even feckless. Obama had earned this battering by saying things out loud that everyone knows but are not supposed to be said: that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians; that the border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be based on the June 1967 armistice line and adjusted through land swaps; that the Saudis must “find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace”; and that US interests were shifting toward the Pacific, requiring it to “rebalance” its diplomatic and military commitments accordingly.

In the 2012 presidential election Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, claimed that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus” and “disrespected” it, even as the White House produced a stream of fact sheets showing that military assistance to Israel had reached record levels during his first term. (Those levels would be exceeded in his second term.) As it turned out, the Middle East—even the image of Israel flattened by the Democratic bus—was not a major factor for Jewish voters, who voted for the two parties in more or less the same ratio as they had in previous elections. The lesson for those who noticed was that most Jewish voters were not going to be swayed by policy toward Israel. The sensible approach for the White House was to go along with Israeli requests for aid that Congress would grant anyway, as long as Israel did not undermine US strategic interests by, for instance, bombing Iran while the US, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and the EU were negotiating limits on its nuclear program. On strategic matters, the White House gets to decide.

Read the full article in The New York Review of Books.

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