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Signaling America’s New Middle East Foreign Policy

It is no secret that the Biden administration is hoping to recalibrate and “deprioritize” America’s focus on the Middle East. For domestic and foreign proponents of such a strategic shift, this is welcome news. However, America’s partners in the region are still unclear as to what this means in practice. A disconnect between American statements, perceived intentions, and actions in the Middle East have led to general sense of confusion among Washington’s regional partners. If the Biden administration believes that the safest way to focus on great power competition in Europe and Asia — while also securing American interests in the Middle East — is to rely more heavily on local allies or partners, then it is critical that they have a clearer sense of Washington’s priorities and intentions. Otherwise, these actors are even more likely to pursue policies that are incongruous with America’s interests. The first step to avoiding miscalculations by America’s allies (and adversaries) is getting the messaging right.

The Biden administration seems to understand the need for clarity and has promoted a public diplomacy campaign to remedy this. But the message needs to thread a fine needle: reassure partners and allies that Washington remains committed to the region’s security, while also indicating that its goals will be scaled back. For example, at the most recent Manama Dialogue, Brett McGurk of the National Security Council staff was careful to indicate that “The U.S. is not going anywhere. This region is too important, too volatile, too interwoven with American interests to contemplate otherwise.” Yet, McGurk also noted that the Biden administration also wants to be “ambitious in the power of our diplomacy but disciplined to ensure that such ambition is applied to clear aims, pursued through a sustainable and necessarily finite base of resources.”

However, despite these efforts, confusion about how the United States will approach the region remains. First, beyond countering Iran and making commitments to Israeli and Saudi security, the administration’s message does not go into sufficient detail on what U.S. policy in the region will be. The focus has been more on how Washington intends to go about policymaking, and less on a positive vision of what those policies are. Yet, what U.S. allies (and adversaries) need to know are what America will and will not fight for, what expectations it has of its allies (and adversaries) to stay in good standing, and what goals it hopes to achieve for the region in the next 10 to 15 years. Second, aside from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, American actions don’t seem to be matching intentions. As others have noted, there is a real disconnect between the “right-sizing” narrative and America’s military presence in the region, and there appears to be little change on the horizon for the U.S. force posture. The continuation of U.S. combat operations in Syria — including this week’s killing of ISIL leader Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi, and last week’s fighting surrounding the al-Sinaa prison break — serves as a poignant reminder that the United States may still be far from done with war in the Middle East.

Getting this messaging right matters for at least four reasons. First, if America’s state and non-state partners are uncertain of Washington’s level of commitment to their security, they will face increasing incentives to hedge support from Russia, China, and even Iran. In the security sphere, Russia has already made notable inroads with traditional American partners in the region. Although it is unlikely that Moscow or Beijing will ever surpass American influence among its existing partners, even limited hedging can chip away at the surplus of Washington’s leverage.

Second, without a clear understanding of the type of behavior the United States will prescribe and proscribe, as well as how America will use force in the region, local actors may (advertently or inadvertently) pursue actions that undermine American interests. Partners that overestimate America’s commitment to their security, and adversaries that underestimate America’s commitment to its allies, could engage in dangerous escalation. For example, Erbil’s miscalculation over U.S. security guarantees led to a destabilizing episode of violence in the aftermath the 2017 Iraqi Kurdistan referendum.

Third, a lack of strategic focus in the Middle East may send a signal to America’s adversaries that they have the initiative to push their influence deeper into the region with minimal opposition. The recent uptick in rocket attacks from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq is a clear case of such probing.

Fourth, by providing a clear and detailed understanding of U.S. expectations for allies and adversaries, it will become easier to identify when exactly actors are running afoul of American interests. One could argue, for example, that, even if regional partners had a clear understanding of American interests and intentions, it would not make a meaningful difference in how they behave. But, even if this were true, an environment where American preferences are publicly and clearly known would force wayward partners to openly own and acknowledge their policy discordance.

Skeptics might say that local actors are more attuned to America’s private messaging — which may be clearer — and actions in the region. However, while true, public diplomacy is still essential. First, there is no indication that the Biden administration’s private messaging is any different than its public messaging. But, even if it were, the dissonance between public and private messaging can itself generate confusion among local actors who hear conflicting guidance. Additionally, public messaging can carry stronger assurances to local partners because they cannot be reneged as easily as the latter. Second, while actions certainly speak louder than words, tangible shifts in U.S. behavior are bound to lag considerably. Getting the messaging right today can buy time for American actions to catch up with its promises.

So how can the United States improve its messaging? The answer comes from digging deeper into the administration’s message itself. The current narrative has three key points, each of which require further specification to better guide America’s partners abroad.

The first point is that America “is not going anywhere.” This point is valuable because, at least for now, it is true. Even if the United States drastically downgrades its force posture in the Middle East, that does not mean the United States will be uncommitted to its allies or unwilling to advance American interests in the region. In fact, an emphasis on America’s political and economic engagement in the region would be a healthy reimagining of what it means for America to be “present” beyond the singular military lens.

However, for regional actors, it is hard to square statements like Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s that “America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure,” with what they see and hear out of Washington on a daily basis: a sharp bipartisan focus on China and Russia. The result is that such statements, even if true, seem disingenuous. For the message to be convincing, the administration should be open about how it perceives its relative balance of interests between the Middle East, Europe, and East Asia. Instead of seeking to assuage regional allies by reaffirming America’s commitment to their security in isolation from other interests, it would be more assuring if, whenever officials speak on the region, they openly acknowledge that America’s attention will be divided — that, while the United States still has priorities in the region, the Middle East itself is no longer a priority.

Second, the Biden administration is trying to assure allies that America is going “back to the basics,” defined by McGurk as: “the basics of building, strengthening and maintaining alliances; the basics of sound strategy, setting goals and objectives only after careful study of facts on the ground and consultations with our friends and partners.” Strengthening alliances and setting goals through due diligence is undoubtedly wise. But the questions that remain are precisely how to go about doing this, on what terms, and to what political end?

Depending on which era of U.S. foreign policy one has in mind, “the basics” of alliance management and sound strategy multilaterally can mean substantially different things. So which basics will America be falling back on? Will the United States be willing to lead broad military coalitions as it did in the early 1990s? Will it strike grand political bargains in Henry Kissinger-like fashion, or will the United States play a more muted role as a weapons supplier and balancer? Will the United States rely primarily on states to balance against threats, or are non-state actors (e.g., Iraqi and Syrian Kurds) equal partners? Do “the basics” include continuing the relative leeway on human rights abuses by America’s partners in the region?

In short, the administration’s messaging can provide a clearer framework for the rules and means by which the United States intends to coordinate its allies. For example, fleshing out how approaches like “by, with, through” or “over-the-horizon” will work in practice could help advance this goal.

Third, and more to the point of what America intends to do with its partners, the administration is signaling an end to “maximalist” goals in the region, such as nation-building and regime change. Paired with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, this message is clear. However, while such statements are useful for indicating what Washington will not do, it says little about what it will do. It is the bare minimum that a new Middle East policy take nation-building and regime change off the table. But the range of possible goals beneath “maximalism” is vast, making it difficult for partners to pinpoint what exactly is America’s vision of regional stability and prosperity.

The same logic applies to the range of possible behaviors the United States will and will not tolerate among its regional partners. For example, a key area where the United States can be more explicit is in when and how it will punish those who engage in systematic human rights violations. The recent decision by the Biden administration to withhold $130 million in annual security assistance from Egypt over such concerns signals that the United States is willing to impose at least some costs on regional partners over human rights. But, if Egypt’s penalty is not tied to a realistic and systematic policy that applies equally to other U.S. partners in the region, the atmosphere of ambiguity over America’s commitment to reigning in abuses will continue.

Overall, by emphasizing what America won’t do, without emphasizing what America will do, Joe Biden’s foreign policy may come to resemble Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” approach.

To be fair, Washington has indicated a number of explicit policy goals, including countering Iran’s proliferation aspirations and influence in the region, supporting allies in Israel and in the Gulf, and countering terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But these goals, while sensible, do not amount to a comprehensive vision of U.S. policy in the region because they remain purely within the realm of defense. Furthermore, some non-maximalist goals may be indirect pathways to maximalist outcomes. For example, McGurk has cited “stability in the region without vacuums opening up in which threats can emerge against us, our allies, and partners all around the world” as a vital U.S. objective in the region. But one can see how easily such a simple goal can creep its way into something that resembles the maximalism of the George W. Bush years.

What is required is a more wholistic approach to influence and interests in the region — one that includes more diplomatic and economic benchmarks — because that is precisely how Russia and China intend to compete. To maintain continued influence in the region, the United States should diversify its goals, and this means forwarding a more comprehensive diplomatic and economic strategy. For example, the administration has hinted something along these lines with the introduction of “Build Back Better World,” but the further details have not yet been disclosed.

Overall, it is important to acknowledge that the lack of a clear message is likely itself a symptom of the inherent tensions in the Biden administration’s goals in the region and beyond. Getting a nuanced policy right, particularly in the Middle East, is undoubtedly a difficult task that the administration deserves credit for trying to tackle. As such, a final component to getting the message right is to better acknowledge these tensions more openly and directly.

There is no doubt that the United States can and should recalibrate its approach to the Middle East, both to advance American interests in the region and to ensure that American’s focus on great-power crises in Asia and Europe are not disrupted. But, without a clear understanding of what America hopes to achieve in the region and how it intends to go about doing so, both America’s allies and adversaries are likely to challenge and probe the limits of American support in potentially dangerous ways.

Morgan L. Kaplan is a fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was previously the executive editor of International Security, based at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @MorganLKaplan.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jerreht Harris)

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