WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden has taken office with the goal of reshaping U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, with an emphasis on promoting democracy and human rights. In fact, he has struggled on multiple fronts to meaningfully separate his approach from that of former President Donald Trump.
Biden’s visit to the region this week includes a meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the oil-rich kingdom who US intelligence officials say approved the killing in 2018 by American journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
Biden had pledged as a candidate to recalibrate the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he described as a “pariah” nation after Trump’s more dovish stance, overlooking the kingdom’s record on human rights and stepping up military sales to Riyadh.
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But Biden now appears to be calculating that there is more to be gained from wooing the country than isolating it.
Biden’s first stop on his visit to the Middle East will be Israel. There again, his tone has softened since the firm declarations he made during his presidential candidacy.
As a candidate, Biden condemned the Trump administration’s policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. As president, he was unable to pressure the Israelis to stop building Jewish settlements and offered no new initiatives to revive long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. .
Biden also abandoned Trump’s 2019 decision recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which reversed more than half a century of US policy.
The Biden administration “has had this rather confusing continuity policy on many Trump issues — the path of least resistance on many different issues, including Jerusalem, the Golan, Western Sahara, and most other matters,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Now Biden appears to be trying to find greater balance in his Middle East policy, emphasizing what is possible in a complicated part of the world at a time when Israel and some Arab countries are showing greater willingness to work together to isolate Iran – their common enemy – and to consider economic cooperation.
“Biden is coming in, basically making a choice,” Sachs said. “And the choice is to embrace emerging regional architecture.”
Biden used an op-ed in The Washington Post on Saturday — the same pages where Khashoggi wrote much of his criticism of Saudi rule before his death — to declare that the Middle East has become more “stable and secure” over the course of his nearly 18 months in office and he pushed back against the idea that his visit to Saudi Arabia amounted to a step back.
“In Saudi Arabia, we have reversed the blank check policy we inherited,” Biden wrote. He also acknowledged “a lot of people don’t agree” with his decision to visit the kingdom.
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He highlighted his administration’s efforts to push a Saudi-Houthi-led coalition to agree to a UN-brokered ceasefire – now in its fourth month – after seven years of a war that has kills 150,000 people in Yemen. Biden also cited as achievements his administration’s role in helping broker a truce in last year’s 11-day Israel-Gaza war, the Islamic State terror group’s reduced capacity in the region and the end of the combat mission. American in Iraq.
But Biden’s overall record in the Middle East is much more complicated. He has largely avoided confronting some of the region’s thorniest issues, including some he has blamed Trump for exacerbating.
Biden often talks about the importance of relationships in foreign policy. His decision to visit the Middle East on a trip that promises few tangible achievements suggests he is trying to invest in the region for the longer term.
In public, he talked about the knowledge gained from the long hours spent with the Chinese Xi Jinping and the assessment of the Russian Vladimir Putin. He loved connecting with a younger generation of world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japan’s Fumio Kishida.
Biden has met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, has a long-standing relationship with King Abdullah II of Jordan, and was deeply involved as vice president in helping President Barack Obama end the war in Iraq. . But Biden, who came of age on the foreign policy scene during the Cold War and views the rise of China as the most pressing crisis facing the West, has been less Middle East-oriented than the Europe and Asia.
“He has no personal relationships. It doesn’t have the duration of relationships,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It comes at an uncertain time for Israeli leaders. Last month, former prime minister Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid dissolved the Knesset as their politically diverse coalition crumbled. Lapid, the former foreign secretary, is now the acting prime minister.
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Biden will also face new questions about his commitment to human rights following the shooting death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Independent investigations have determined that she was likely shot by an Israeli soldier while reporting from the West Bank in May.
The Abu Akleh family, in a scathing letter to Biden, accused his administration of apologizing to Israelis for the journalist’s death. The State Department said last week that US security officials determined Israeli fire likely killed her, but “found no reason to believe it was intentional.”
Two of the most watched moments of Biden’s four-day visit to the Middle East will come when he meets with Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and when he sees the Saudi crown prince.
But none of these encounters are likely to radically alter the political dynamics of the United States and the Middle East.
Both leaders appear to have set their eyes on a post-Biden America as the Democratic president grapples with lagging polls at home due to soaring inflation and unease over the management of economy by Biden, analysts say.
“In my view, these two leaders are now looking beyond the Biden administration and eagerly awaiting the return of Donald Trump or his avatar,” said Aaron David Miller, who has served six secretaries of state as advisor on Arab-Israeli affairs. negotiations and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think it’s a complex journey, and I think we should be extremely realistic about those expectations.”
Biden’s prospects for progress on the United States’ return to the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by Obama in 2015 and withdrawn by Trump in 2018, remain elusive. The administration participated indirectly in the talks in Vienna aimed at bringing Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the agreement. But the talks have so far proved fruitless.
As a candidate, Biden promised the Saudis would “pay the price” for their human rights record. The sharp rhetoric helped Biden compare himself to Trump, whose first official foreign trip as president was to the kingdom and who hailed the Saudis as a “great ally” even after Khashoggi’s killing.
Biden’s stern warning to the Saudis came at a time when oil was trading at around $41 a barrel; now prices are closer to $105. High oil prices are hurting Americans at the gas pump and driving up the prices of essential goods, while helping Saudis’ bottom lines.
White House officials said the energy talks would be a component of the Saudi leg of the president’s visit, but downplayed the prospect of the Saudis agreeing to further increase oil production because the kingdom says it’s almost at production capacity.
But Bruce Riedel, who has served as a senior National Security Council adviser to four presidents, said the visit to Saudi Arabia was “completely unnecessary” under the circumstances.
“There’s nothing Joe Biden is going to do in Jeddah that the secretary of state or the secretary of defense, or frankly, a really good ambassador couldn’t do on his own,” Riedel said. “There’s no outcome that will come of it that really warrants a presidential visit.”
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.