The second major international issue facing the incoming Joe Biden administration is that never-ending joy, the problem that just keeps on giving: the Middle East.
If there is one thing most Americans agree on in this age of social media screaming, it is that they want the United States to get out of the Persian Gulf. The challenge is finding a way to do so that also avoids sucking America back in in a few years.
There are two general approaches to consider:
The first strategy is the one Biden’s immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, attempted: appoint a strategic successor to manage the region. Trump decided the successor should be Israel. That…that was a poor choice.
Is Israel very militarily competent and blam-heavy for its size? Undeniably. But it is neck deep in managing its own micro-neighborhood of the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. It cannot execute an American-style policy in the Persian Gulf that keeps the oil flowing while preventing Iraq from collapsing while keeping Iran down.
It is clear that at least to a degree TeamTrump grasped that Israel was not up to the task, so the administration worked to rig the game. Trump greatly intensified sanctions on Iran, largely preventing the Iranians from selling…anything internationally. An economic crash resulted. Trump also worked to build a coalition of Arab states to buttress the Israelis. That required Trump convincing the Arabs that they should recognize Israel as something other than the “Zionist entity” and treat it as an actual country that had an actual right to exist.
Trump met with some success and deserves some serious diplomatic kudos, but let’s not get crazy. Consider the countries Trump flipped:
- Morocco – a state that is literally over a continent away from the drama of the Persian Gulf.
- Bahrain – an island statelet that has run out of oil and has but 1.6 million people.
- The United Arab Emirates – a confederation of city states who collectively are Iran’s largest (non-oil) trading partner.
A coalition, yes, but not a strategically effective one. Strategically, Trump’s achievements changed little.
The second option for American extraction from the region is the one selected by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama: establish a regional balance of power so the region’s countries contain one another. Israel aside, consider the other major players:
- Saudi Arabia, as the world’s largest oil exporter and the keeper of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, asserts that it should lead the entire region. That’s an assertion which aggravates everyone, but in particular aggrieves…
- Iran, the country with the largest population on the Persian Gulf, and whose dominant religion – Shia Islam – clashes with that of the Wahhabi Sunni Islam of the Saudis. Problematic for the Saudis, Shia Islam is practiced by the majority of people who live within 100 miles of the Persian Gulf’s shores. Even Saudi Arabia itself has a large Shia minority.
- But neither of these countries are the region’s most powerful. That title goes to Turkey, a country which doesn’t even border the Gulf itself. Turkey has the broader region’s largest and most sophisticated economy, largest and most capable military, and a population slightly larger than even Iran.
The whole point of Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal between the United States and Iran was to bring Iran in from the cold, enable it to economically develop, and re-establish Iran as a formal player in the Middle East space. Then, as the logic goes, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran would all counter one another, leaving the Americans to play an eclectic variety of Middle East-news-driven drinking games.
There was nothing wrong with the idea, but there was plenty wrong with the execution. The nuclear deal was (in)famously light on details of anything beyond the nuclear program itself. It didn’t address Iran’s paramilitary and assassination activities throughout the region, the status of Israel, or the religious splits among the region’s populations the Iranians exploited as a matter of course.
Obama (in)famously found speaking with people – any people – tedious, and so tended to toss out grand ideas and then walk away forever. Establishing a regional balance of power in which you do not plan to actively participate requires a lot of upfront work and a lot of lengthy conversations. Under Obama that just didn’t happen. Far from generating a balance of power, the Obama plan was little more than an unstable deal which made an unstable region even more unstable.
My goal here isn’t to condemn the strategies of both Trump and Obama (that’s more of a side bonus), but instead to highlight that the Middle East is difficult. My point is that for the approaches the pair of American presidents chose, they simply did things wrong.
For the successor strategy to work, Trump should have picked a different country. Israel lacks the military capacity to control its own neighborhood, much less the distant Persian Gulf where the populations are four times as large. Saudi Arabia might look good on paper, but it is broadly militarily incompetent. The only regional power that could even theoretically fill the role would have been Turkey, and America’s relationship with the Turks under Trump (and under Obama) descended into such a deep freeze to the point that the two are no longer even functional allies.
For a balance of power strategy to work in the Persian Gulf, it must be like all the other successful balances of power throughout human history. It cannot be purely military. There must be excessive entanglement on multiple fronts. There must be an economic angle. A political angle. A diplomatic angle. For Obama’s strategy to work, any Iran “deal” was really only the first baby step. He would then have had to build relationships among the regional players. That’d require some seriously uncomfortable diplomacy not simply with Iran and Turkey, but also Saudi Arabia and Israel. That would require a lot of political capital and even more face time. Considering how much Obama loathed speaking to people, especially about uncomfortable issues, it’s a minor miracle he made it as far as he did in the region.
So now we get to try this again with a new president: Joe Biden.
Believe it or not, there may be some room for progress – in part because of the efforts of Biden’s predecessors.
As part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to crush Iran, the Iranian economy has been absolutely devastated. The Iranians cannot even sell pistachios any longer, to say nothing of large-scale oil sales. With Iran proving to be an unreliable oil supplier, traditional customers like Italy, Greece, India, China, Korea, and Japan have all turned elsewhere for crude. Then COVID reduced global oil demand, crushing Iranian finances. No oil income means the Europeans have zero interest in participating in a revised nuclear deal because there is literally nothing in it for them. No oil income also means Iran has proven unable to sustain many of its paramilitary efforts in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Iran hasn’t been this weak since the rise of the ayatollahs in 1979.
America has changed as well. Politically, there is no longer an American faction pushing for deep regional involvement. While the shale revolution was little more than a glimmer in some oilmen’s eyes when Obama stepped into the White House the first time, twelve years later the United States is functionally energy independent. The energy cord has been cut. The Forever Wars are…over. Both America and Americans can tolerate a far higher degree of chaos in the Persian Gulf than they previously could.
Which means TeamBiden might actually have a third option that hasn’t existed since the early days of American involvement in the region in the 1950s. To simply leave.
America will still play at the margins. Just because the United States doesn’t need a stable global oil market doesn’t mean having a knife to the region’s pulse isn’t useful. So, Biden has already announced it is maintaining every speck of the sanctions Trump enacted. If there is to be a new deal, TeamBiden has made it clear they won’t be following the Obama script because Biden’s negotiating power is already far superior to that of any of his predecessors. Nor is Biden playing favorites like Trump did; the new president has already cancelled advanced weapons sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (two states that were supposed to be at the core of Trump’s Israel-coalition).
Consider what this means: The Israelis are appalled Biden is even talking about talking to the Iranians. The Iranians are appalled that Trump’s exit hasn’t ushered them back into the world. The Saudis are appalled they can’t purchase weapons. Just a couple weeks on the job Biden has done something none of his predecessors would have dared: pissed off everyone in the entire region. It’s unclear if this general pissing-off effort is part of a broader plan, or nothing more than a series of tactical decisions TeamBiden believes are unrelated. It is also unclear whether it matters. And if it does matter, it’s unclear if the administration even cares.
Will that have consequences down the road? Certainly. But not for the United States, or at least not for the United States on anything less than a decade time scale. The global superpower has barely been able to keep the region’s many fires on smolder. No one else has within an order of magnitude the necessary power or reach to step in, suggesting flare ups will be the new norm. Fires in the part of the world responsible for the majority of globally traded crude oil will absolutely reverberate.
And for the world’s most vulnerable country, it just adds one more mortal threat to the cavalcade of crises that were already barreling down.
It’s time to talk about China.
Life After Trump, Part VIII: The Crisis List – China
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