What will a Biden Presidency mean for the Middle East and Lebanon?
The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) held a webinar titled “What will a Biden Presidency mean for the Middle East and Lebanon?” on Thursday November 19, 2020. This Webinar is the second part of “The 2020 U.S. Elections: What is at Stake?” two-part webinar series that consists of pre and post elections virtual panel discussions that focus. on the electoral dynamics and the impact of the United States election results on Lebanon and the Middle East.
The discussion hosted Michele Dunne, Middle East program director and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aaron David Miller, senior fellow (focusing on U.S. foreign policy) at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jomana Qaddour, head of Syria portfolio and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Charles Thépaut, French diplomat and visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near-East Policy. Joseph Bahout, IFI’s director, moderated the panel.
Michele Dunne, started the discussion by foreseeing that “some of the long-standing legacies of the U.S. foreign policy (towards the Middle East), that were only made more extreme and further crude by (the U.S. president Donald) Trump, such as the U.S. tendency to support Israel often at the expense of the Palestinians and the U.S. tension with Iran, will still be there under (the president elect Joseph) Biden”. “Biden will bring back familiar aspects of American foreign policy, inter-agency decision making, consultation with congress, and allying with democracies.”
On the question of whether Biden is willing to continue the Trump tradition in “shielding” authoritarian rulers of the region, Dunne explained that “Biden will not be feeling that he owes something to the region’s autocratic leaders“, but at the same time he will not pick a fight with them including [Egyptian President] Sisi.”
Dunne, who showed concerns about the fact that the U.S. has been providing $1.3 billion in security assistance for Egypt for more than 40 years, while the country is in huge economic difficulty, emphasized the fact that “there will be different criteria applied to the decisions about Egypt going forward”. “I do not expect Biden to cancel this program, but I think questions are going to be asked about this relationship, and about whether or not the mix of aid is appropriate”.
“I hope that the Biden administration will not pay a heavy price to mollify others in the region, or Iran.” Speaking of Iran, Dunne hoped that the Biden administration will be tougher than the Obama administration, regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“U.S. administrations always come in with plans, but then the unexpected happens in this region and in the world,” she said. “The U.S. will have to figure out how to react to turmoil in this region.”
Aaron David Miller highlighted the Trump administration’s dominant theme, that is to “tether America’s national interest to his own interest.” Miller moved to discuss the diminishing importance of the Middle East, saying that Trump continued a trend set in the Obama administration, which is not giving the region as much importance as other U.S. presidents used to do, especially that priorities are currently shifting, facing a rising China.
“I suspect that Biden, so preoccupied with crises, will try to identify one or two vital issues in the region, and focus. on them,” he noted. “We might notice some efforts to engage with Iran, in the first few months of the Biden administration.”
Zooming in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Miller foresaw that the U.S. will restore the dialogue with the Palestinian authority, refunding via the UNRWA, create a separate entity to deal directly with Palestinians, as a frame of reference that will sound credible for the Middle East, in order to begin to repair some of the damage done by Trump.
“From my experience in negotiations, the Middle East has two speeds,” he said. “Slow, or Slower; So time in negotiations could be an ally or an adversary.”
Moving back to American domestic crises, Miller pointed out the reality that Joe Biden will have to face one of the greatest challenges of national recovery in American history, and that “the metrics by which this administration will be judged are COVID-19 and the economic recovery.” “Joe Biden will be a transitional figure to the return of another Republican figure,” he concluded.
For her part, Jomana Qaddour reminded that the Middle East region isn’t what it was eight years ago, and that the U.S. funding in this area of the world isn’t made unless it is proven to be beneficial to the U.S. on the short or long term, or else it will turn to domestic needs first, which can currently be surpassed by halting the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the Syrian conflict, Qaddour said: “The issue will come down to whether or not the U.S. will come to the Syria conflict with any renewed diplomatic energy. Whether or not we’re going to exert any serious diplomatic pressure to find a short to medium term solution for the Syrian conflict,” clarified Qaddour. “The new administration will have to see if the 2254 UNSCR and the Geneva framework are still viable, at a time where the Astana process has functioned without any U.S. or Arab input”. As a new security framework in the region takes shape, “there are new Arab actors that are rising to the forefront, and these Arab actors are not included in the Astana process”, she warned.
Moreover, Qaddour explained that “the Turkey-U.S. relationship under the Biden presidency will be complicated, the state relations have witnessed setbacks for a variety of legitimate concerns. These relations will be revisited under a Biden administration”. “On Russia, the ‘cooperation’ will be revisited. Russia is physically present in many of the areas where the U.S. is concerned, (therefore), we will have to deal with the Russians pragmatically”. “There will be a re-examination of the Saudi policy,” she continued.
Qaddour ended by foreseeing that some components of the Syria policy will probably remain the same, namely humanitarian aid, the return to stabilization aid, especially as it pertains to counter-terrorism efforts and local governance. She added “sanctions will probably remain an important tool that’s very relevant to Syria and Lebanon, it may not be used to the extent of the trump administration, but I don’t expect this to go away”.
Regarding the U.S. policy toward Lebanon, Qaddour said that the support to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will not be cut off, but the Biden administration may reevaluate its aid and support policy based on where is U.S. money going in Lebanon, adding that there might be more return to the Obama approach to Lebanon.
On a regional scale, Qaddour thinks that the new administrations’ influence over Iran’s militia activity is still not clear, whereas the Abraham Accords are new Arab actors that aren’t present in the Astana process, noting that the Turkey-U.S relationship will be complicated under Biden.
Furthermore, Charles Thépaut emphasized the potential renewal of diplomatic construction under the Biden administration, the limitation of the U.S. bandwidth to deal with the Middle Eastern crises, and the retrieval of conceptual frameworks being offered by the U.S to the region.
Commenting on the prospects of the restauration of the trans-Atlantic cooperation, most particularly, in terms of the re-negotiation of the nuclear deal with Iran, he said: “You cannot jU.S.t reproduce the 2015 (moment), with secret negotiations and a framework that is only concentrated on the non-proliferation. The regional dimension has to be addressed”, he warned. “Obstacles are related to the timeline; Iran has elections next year, (which leaves a) very narrow window of opportunity for everybody to work”. “Under the Trump administration, the proliferation and the risk of Iran getting the bomb has grown”, Thépaut added. However, Thépaut showed concerns about the conceptual difficulty of connecting the absent regional track to the present counter-proliferation track”. He emphasized the need for a discussion on ballistic missiles, for instance. He stressed the contradictions in the different intents expressed by the Biden team” on this matter. “A key element for resetting of the U.S. approach to the region would be to transit from a mostly bilateral method to a truly multilateral method in dealing with big issues such as nuclear proliferation and regional conflicts”. He stressed the importance of forging a “renewed way of doing multilateralism”. “Would a Biden administration bring back some conceptual proposals for security architecture in the gulf for instance, or would it add a regional layer to the nuclear agreement?”, he asked.
He finally clarified that there are many obstacles in addressing regional dimensions, including ones related to the timeline and the sense of global urgency. “But eventually, neither the U.S. nor the Europeans want to see Iran with a bomb,” he concluded.
Watch the full session, here.