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Biden walks in Trump’s footsteps in the Middle East

President Biden descends from Air Force One at Ben Gurion International Airport during his visit to Israel on July 13. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Before he took office, President Biden pointed to the Middle East as the site of much that was wrong with his predecessor’s agenda. Former president Donald Trump had needlessly wrecked the Iran nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions that goaded Tehran to rev up uranium enrichment and inch closer toward the unthinkable: the capacity to produce an atomic weapon. He smashed decades-old bipartisan norms around Israel, further tying U.S. policy to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the interests of the hard-right Jewish settler movement. And he shielded Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of the brutal assassination of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, letting his notoriously transactional worldview overrule basic values and the ire of Congress.

Two years into his presidency, Biden has struggled to reverse course. Indeed, as he carries out his first presidential visit to the Middle East, Biden is in many ways still walking in Trump’s footsteps.

Rounds of negotiations to revive the nuclear deal have borne little fruit; both sides now seem increasingly convinced that the 2015 agreement — which gave Iran sanctions relief in return for strict curbs on its nuclear program — may no longer be fit for purpose. In speeches this week, Biden will emphasize U.S. opposition to a nuclear Iran and preside over discussions aimed at enhancing coordination within what is quietly emerging as a de facto anti-Iran regional coalition of Gulf Arab monarchies and Israel (though no Arab officials would want to publicly frame this tightening cooperation in such adversarial terms). By doing so, he will also hope to further the reach of the Abraham Accords, the diplomatic normalization agreements between Israel and a clutch of Arab autocracies first brokered by the Trump administration.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Biden, of course, has hardly fulfilled his campaign trail promise to turn Riyadh into a “pariah” for its hand in the Khashoggi killing. Instead, U.S. officials will keep building the groundwork for the kingdom’s first steps toward normalization of ties with Israel. The Biden administration is also weighing resuming sales of offensive weaponry to the Saudis, especially in light of Riyadh’s efforts to maintain a fragile truce in war-torn Yemen, Reuters reported. And, in a moment of global economic and political volatility, U.S. officials are approaching the Saudis not as human rights villains but vital players in worldwide contests with Russia and China.

Two killings haunt Biden’s Middle East trip

Biden’s visit will underscore how unscathed the Saudi crown prince, known by his initials MbS, has ultimately emerged after Khashoggi’s killing. U.S. intelligence officials believe MbS approved the plot to abduct Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. But Biden, in an op-ed this past weekend in The Washington Post, appeared to cast the matter as settled, touting the sanctions and visa bans his administration placed on a number of Saudi officials — but not, tellingly, the crown prince himself, who is poised to hold sway in Riyadh for decades to come.

“The whole attempt by the West post-Khashoggi to try to limit interaction with MbS was incrementally eroded, and Biden’s visit will really put a bullet into that idea,” said Eurasia Group’s Ayham Kamel to Reuters.

Critics and anti-monarchical activists warn of the grim precedent Biden risks setting in meeting with MbS, whose government continues to target dissidents abroad while repressing civil society at home. The U.S. president’s “visit to Saudi Arabia and his engagement with several of the region’s autocrats send an ominous and all too familiar message to their victims: Your lives don’t matter when we can achieve security gains at your expense,” wrote Noha Aboueldahab, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar.

For a president who staked his international vision on the strength of his own nation’s democratic values, Biden will end up looking a lot more like his amoral predecessor, who prioritized arms sales, oil prices and the pro-Israel fervor of the evangelical Christian right in the United States when reckoning with the Middle East.

Analysts argue that’s more a product of policy confusion than pragmatism. “Since replacing Trump, Biden has failed to articulate a compelling or clear vision of U.S. interests in the Middle East, in contrast to his approach in Ukraine, where he has galvanized a stronger-than-expected response to the biggest security threats Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War,” wrote Thanassis Cambanis, senior fellow and director of the international policy program at the Century Foundation.

Biden, old-school backer of Israel, arrives at a tricky moment for both nations

And so, as was already on show in Israel, Biden muddles along. His administration has reversed a small number of punitive Trump administration moves against the Palestinians, but done little to show much interest in engaging with a long-moribund two-state solution or in advocating for civil rights for millions of Palestinians living as de facto second-class citizens under Israeli military occupation and chafing against the miserably unpopular rule of the Palestinian Authority.

In remarks delivered after arriving in Israel, Biden qualified his support for notional Palestinian statehood with the caveat “even though I know it’s not in the near-term.” To keen observers, those words were a damning indictment of the status quo.

“Under Biden, it appears that the United States just wants to rid itself of the Israeli-Palestinian burden,” wrote Haaretz journalist Noa Landau on Thursday. “The U.S. commitment to a two-state solution never sounded more threadbare and disparaged than in Biden’s remarks on the airport red carpet.”

“For many Palestinians — especially those who have never known a peace process, never participated in Palestinian elections, and seen the Palestinian issue sidelined — the visit is a blunt reminder that the United States is no longer interested in supporting their cause,” wrote my colleague Shira Rubin. “While Biden’s visit will celebrate Israel’s increasing integration in the region, the Palestinians find their own situation steadily worsening as they are ruled by what they see as an authoritarian government more attuned to Israel’s needs than their own.”

As a result, the shadow of Trump’s Middle East legacy only lengthens. “Biden isn’t going to Israel to oppose authoritarianism,” argued American commentator Peter Beinart. “He’s going to showcase America’s support for it, not only in Israel but across the region.”