July 12, 2022

CNAS Responds: Previewing President Biden's Middle East Trip

By Richard Fontaine, Jonathan Lord, Lisa Curtis, and Rachel Ziemba

On the eve of President Biden's departure for his first trip to the Middle East since taking office, CNAS experts outline expectations, opportunities, and the strategic significance of this visit.

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Cameron Edinburgh, cedinburgh@cnas.org.


Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:

The president’s Middle East trip shows that, in matters of foreign policy, Washington can’t get everything it wants. The administration wishes to render Saudi Arabia a pariah, build on the Abraham Accords, solidify the counter-Iran coalition, increase oil production, and stress human rights. Most of those items will remain objectives of the president’s trip, but not equally so. The greatest risk is that he returns home with little to show on any of them.

Making Saudi Arabia a pariah could last only until Riyadh had something the United States wanted, and that time has come. Willie Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money is; Presidents go to Riyadh because that’s where the oil is. The post-Ukraine invasion spike in energy prices helps explain the administration’s inevitable pivot on Saudi policy.

Pragmatism prevails, but vision should as well. Questions abound in the Middle East about the region's relative importance to Washington, given the stakes in Asia and Europe; over how the administration will respond if Iran does not reenter the nuclear deal; if the United States is willing to better defend Gulf Arab countries against Tehran and its proxies; and whether the White House would work effectively with a possible Netanyahu government in Israel.

During the hunt for oil supplies and other concrete deliverables, the president would do well to lay out a vision of sustained U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Without one, the region will supply a narrative of its own—making the pursuit of Washington’s agenda all the more difficult.

Jonathan Lord, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program:

President Biden’s trip to the Middle East represents his last real opportunity to articulate an affirmative vision for his administration’s strategy in the region. So far, the president’s team has not succeeded in overcoming the narrative that the United States is pulling back from the Middle East to focus on the Indo-Pacific and Europe. This is in part because the president’s team has yet to release a strategy for the Middle East that supplants the overarching belief that Washington has turned its attention elsewhere, abandoning our regional partners to fend for themselves. The president must convince our partners in the Gulf and beyond that U.S. military presence alone is not the litmus test by which they should judge U.S. commitment to the Middle East. However, for that to be a credible message, Biden must be prepared to bring to bear a range of other tools and resources at his disposal to buy-down risk to the region and to redefine America’s role beyond that of hall monitor—a role currently played by thousands of U.S. military personnel.

The president’s trip follows the latest attempt to revive the Iran nuclear deal, hosted by Qatar, which failed to produce any breakthroughs. If the president believes that a negotiated return to the deal is possible, this trip is his last, best opportunity to convince America’s partners in the Gulf and Israel. To boost his credibility, he should be prepared to tell the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel what the United States is prepared to do should Iran’s march toward nuclear capability continue. Irrespective of Iran’s nuclear program, Iran continues to destabilize the region through other means as well. The president should be prepared to unveil Washington’s role in buttressing the military capabilities of the partners individually through well-vetted, sustainable, requirements-driven security assistance, and through convening all willing partners and allies in a regional security architecture that links defensive capabilities across air, land, sea, space, and cyber, while collaborating to harness emerging technologies to the benefit of all.

While it may take years to fully implement a regional security architecture, at this stage, the president should risk overpromising by announcing a major policy initiative, as it is critical for the United States’ regional partners to have something toward which they can collectively work. The region responds well to grand gestures—this architecture (it should have a name) can be short on details as long as its announcement is long on pomp and circumstance—it worked out pretty well for the Abraham Accords, after all.

Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:

President Biden has a full plate of issues—including energy prices, Israel-Palestine relations, U.S.-Saudi ties, war in Yemen, and Iran’s nuclear program—to discuss when he travels to the Middle East this week. Still, it would be a grave mistake for him to avoid raising the issue of Afghanistan, particularly the Taliban’s trampling of the rights of women and girls. Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada this week said the Taliban would not allow terrorist attacks to be launched from Afghanistan but also implored the international community to stay out of Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Given the Taliban’s unacceptable treatment of women and girls—including preventing them from attending secondary school and traveling without a male companion and instituting harsh dress codes—it is incumbent on the United States to speak up on their behalf and condition its future engagement with the Taliban on improvement to its policies toward women and girls.

The administration is reportedly worried that the upcoming anniversary of the collapse of the Afghan government and chaotic U.S. evacuation will remind Americans about the administration’s biggest foreign policy debacle just months before the mid-terms. If Biden wants to get ahead of the issue, he must demonstrate he cares about the fate of Afghan women and girls and is seeking to preserve the civil society gains made during 20 years of Afghans fighting side-by-side their American counterparts.

Rachel Ziemba, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, & Security Program:

Big deliverables on energy are unlikely, with the focus instead on fostering a better working relationship. Despite the recent easing of oil prices, the energy aspects of the trip are no less important than they were a few weeks ago.

President Biden would be wise to provide more clarity on G7 plans for Russian price caps and on U.S. plans to restock the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as well as take the opportunity for co-investment in energy transition projects. GCC producers are among the few in OPEC+ which have any spare capacity and scope to add fuel supplies in the short and long term, and it is important to encourage them to be realistic about this capacity and how they will address the inability of other countries to meet their commitments. Avoiding critiques of refineries and other political theater would also help forge a better working relationship.

Rather than any big deliverables, discussions are likely to focus on longer-term issues including the aligning of energy security and energy transition. The Saudis feel vindicated that the recent surge in energy prices exposed the challenges of a too swift energy transition and anti–fossil fuel investment push and are likely to remain cautious, protective of their revenues, market share, and avoiding regional risks to their own fuel supply.

Reminding GCC countries of the costs of doing business with Russia, including new investments, the need to comply with existing export controls and associate due diligence, and building on increasing financial crime coordination on areas of regional interest, will also be priorities. With GCC government coffers full again, the president may want to encourage GCC funds to co-invest with the new G7 Infrastructure Initiative and to attract some of those funds to critical U.S. reshoring/friendshoring efforts.





Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Jonathan Lord

    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Jonathan Lord is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security program at CNAS. Prior to joining CNAS, Lord served as a professional staff member for the House Arme...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Rachel Ziemba

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, & Security Program

    Rachel Ziemba is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her research focuses on the interlinkages between economics, finance and security i...