Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Why Biden’s “Realignment” Foreign Policy Is Failing

Over the past month, the world’s attention has been focused on the humanitarian disaster developing in Ukraine. Ukraine is likely to survive the Russian invasion as an independent state, thereby denying Russian president Vladimir Putin his main objective, at least for now. But there is an ongoing debate between the US and its NATO allies over whether to give a beleaguered Ukraine and its courageous president, Volodymyr Zelensky, enough sanctions and military support to actually defeat the Russian invaders and drive them out, rather than lock them in a bloody stalemate that is inflicting terrible suffering upon Ukraine’s civilian population while slowly reducing its cities to rubble.

At the same time, there is another unseen struggle of equal diplomatic and strategic importance to the United States — the collapse of its long-term de facto alliance with its traditional allies in the Middle East. Its most visible aspect has been the refusal of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to heed public calls by President Biden, even before the Russian invasion, to use their spare capacity to ramp up their production of crude oil. Biden’s request had two objectives. The first was to relieve the growing domestic political pressure on Biden due to high gas prices at the pump. The second, which has become much more urgent since the invasion began, was to increase the pressure on Putin to call off the war in Ukraine by providing Western Europe with an alternative to Russia as its main source of fossil fuel energy.

The significance of the rejection of Biden’s plea by the leaders of the Arab states goes far beyond its impact on the current global oil shortage, or even the war in Ukraine. It is the outcome of a major shift in America’s foreign policy strategy and goals. That shift began a decade ago, when then-President Obama made the decision to redirect the country’s strategic focus to the growing economic and military threat from China in the Far East, while turning over control of the Middle East to Russia and Iran.

When Donald Trump became president, he carried out his campaign promise to reverse the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed harsh sanctions upon it, while restoring the close, mutually supportive relationship between the US and Israel as well as with America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies in the region, including the Saudis and the Emiratis.


But since taking office, President Biden and the former Obama officials now on Biden’s foreign policy team have done their best to revive Obama’s pro-Iranian Middle East policy approach, which some foreign policy experts now call the “Realignment.”

The centerpiece of that approach was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which eliminated the effective sanctions on Iran’s economy and oil exports while pretending to put an end to the threat that Iran would soon start producing nuclear weapons. In fact, the terms of deal were only meant to delay Iran’s entry into the global nuclear arms club for a few years, while assisting Iran’s efforts to achieve its long-term goal of replacing the US as the dominant power in the region.

Biden has now picked up where the Obama administration left off four years earlier. Upon entering the White House, he immediately offered Iran strong enticements to revive the 2015 deal and return to compliance with the restrictions on its nuclear program. At the same time, Biden has been publicly condemning Saudi Arabia’s government for human rights violations, and accusing its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of ordering the murder in 2018 of one of his most outspoken critics, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

With those accusations, Biden turned a foreign policy dispute into a personal feud with the leader of Saudi Arabia. Since taking office, Biden has refused to talk with the crown prince, instead insisting on speaking only with his 86-year-old father, King Salman, who is now just a figurehead ruler with no real power.

That is why it was not surprising that in February, when Biden wanted to ask Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production, the Saudi refused to accept the president’s phone call. Similarly, the UAE’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, has also refused to speak directly with President Biden. Meanwhile, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been stepping up their criticism of American policy in the Persian Gulf, and its outreach to Iran.

Adding insult to injury, both Prince Mohammed and Sheikh Mohammed took phone calls from Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, after declining to speak with Biden, and both later spoke with Ukraine’s President Zelensky.


The longtime US alliance with its traditional Middle East partners is now in shambles. In light of Biden’s turn towards Iran, the Saudis and their Gulf allies, as well as Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, are all expanding their ties to Russia and China at America’s expense.

As Middle East Institute senior fellow Firas Maksad wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, because of Biden’s reluctance to uphold US commitments to their defense, our former “Middle Eastern partners have rationally concluded that they need to diversify their foreign-policy options.”

“For Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular,” Maksad explained, “the lack of a meaningful American response to Iran-sponsored drone attacks on airports and oil facilities in 2019 and 2022 was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“After the last major attack this January, the UAE didn’t hear from US senior administration officials, and when General Frank McKenzie, America’s top commander in charge of the region, paid a visit over three weeks later, Mohamed bin Zayed, the country’s de facto leader, refused to meet with him. Concerns about America’s commitment had morphed into feelings of abandonment and anger. Then when Mr. Biden wanted to call to ask for help lowering oil prices weeks later, his UAE counterpart was unavailable to take the call.”

Maksad adds that, “The Biden administration’s behavior toward the Gulf Arab states contradicts its National Security Strategy, which emphasizes revitalizing America’s alliances and partnerships. Team Biden has two mistaken assumptions: that the rise of China and return of Russia as great-power rivals necessitates a recalibration from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and now to Eastern Europe, and that achieving detente with Iran, beginning with a nuclear deal, would make the region more stable.”


Those mistakes originated with the Obama administration and have been carried forward by Robert Malley, whom Biden has selected as his special envoy for Iran. During the Obama years, Malley served as Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief negotiator for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In a revealing Foreign Affairs article he wrote in 2019, Malley expressed regret that before Obama left office, he failed to arrive at more such deals accommodating Iran. The direction of Obama’s policy was praiseworthy, Malley wrote, but his “moderation” got in the way of his “ultimate goal,” and as a result, the “experiment… got suspended halfway through.”

That “ultimate goal,” Malley wrote, was “to help the [Middle East] find a more stable balance of power that would make it less dependent on direct US interference or protection,” and more dependent on Iran and Russia to manage the region’s affairs.

Now, as Biden’s chief Iran policy advisor, Malley is urging Biden to go all the way to finish the transition that Obama started by doing everything possible to revive the JCPOA, including agreeing to all of Iran’s demands. Last April, just before the start of the Vienna talks with Iran, Malley told PBS that he was eager to see the US lift its sanctions on Iran in order to ensure “that Iran enjoys the benefits that it was supposed to enjoy under the [2015] deal.”

That comment did not escape the attention of an unnamed senior Israeli official who commented at the time, “If this is [the new] American policy, we are concerned.”

It also appears that Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, shares Malley’s desire to see that Biden completes the Realignment that Obama started. In an article that he wrote while he was a foreign policy advisor to the Biden campaign in May 2020, six months after Malley’s essay appeared, Sullivan said that Biden’s new Middle East strategy would be “less ambitious” militarily, “but more ambitious in using US leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.”

Sullivan’s language was deliberately obscure, and avoided the mention of Iran, which is the country that he was referring to as a “key regional actor,” to avoid upsetting Democrat supporters of Israel. But his support for a pro-Iranian Realignment of America’s Middle East alliances was clear when he wrote, in the same article, that the goal of Biden’s new strategy was “changing the United States’ role in a regional order it helped create.”


The JCPOA was carefully crafted by President Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, to camouflage the fact that it was intended to enable a fundamental shift of power in the region. The Obama administration attempted to sell the agreement to the American people as a disarmament deal that would eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama saw the deal as a way to reduce America’s long-term military presence in the Middle East, enabling him to withdraw American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan while strengthening the US military presence in the Far East and Western Pacific region.

However, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other traditionally pro-Western Sunni Arab regimes in the region were not fooled. They saw Obama’s nuclear deal as a major pro-Iranian shift in policy and a betrayal of their longtime trust in the United States to serve as their protector. In reaction, the Arab leaders reluctantly agreed to form a de facto alliance of convenience with Israel against their common enemy, the radical Islamic clerics using their control over Iran to foment and support a Shiite religious revolution throughout the region.

Donald Trump, during his four years as president, tried to reverse Obama’s policy shift by renouncing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposing harsh sanctions on Iran. During the Trump years, the Arab-Israeli alliance became steadily stronger, and became public with the announcement of the Abraham Accords, bypassing the moribund Oslo Peace process and becoming the new best hope for peacefully ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Biden administration has stopped that progress towards Middle East peace by de-emphasizing the Abraham Accords, restoring US relations with the Palestinian Authority, and trying to revive hope for an impossible two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The signatories of the JCPOA were the five members of the UN Security Council, plus Iran, which became known as the P5+1 group. After the US and Iran, Russia was the most important member of the group, because it was designated to become the caretaker of the excess of Iran’s enriched uranium under the terms of the JCPOA. Russia already had a close relationship with Iran’s nuclear program, having completed the construction of Iran’s civilian nuclear power plant at Bushehr and its main provider of nuclear fuel. Russia, along with China, had been giving Iran diplomatic cover in the Security Council for years, defending Iran whenever the US and its Middle East allies brought complaints against it for supporting Shiite militia and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and trying to destabilize the pro-Western regimes in the region.

Israel and the other US allies in the Middle East were strongly opposed to the talks in Vienna leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. They became increasingly alarmed when it became apparent that the terms of the agreement were highly beneficial to Iran, and that its temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would not prevent it from continuing to pursue its efforts to threaten their rule and dominate the region.


Then-Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu saw the agreement as an existential threat to Israel, and launched a major effort to influence American public opinion and Israel’s friends in Congress to block its approval, arguing that the deal would not prevent Iran from eventually obtaining nuclear weapons with which to blackmail its Arab neighbors and carry out its threats to destroy Israel.

The Obama administration had anticipated strong domestic political opposition to any nuclear deal with Iran, and therefore avoided crafting the agreement as an international treaty which would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate for ratification. Obama did agree to demands that Congress be given the right to review the agreement, but set up the ground rules for that review so that it would be virtually impossible for friends of Israel and other opponents of the treaty to get Congress to formally reject it. The subsequent national debate quickly became ugly, with supporters of the Obama administration openly accusing American Jews and other friends of Israel of dual loyalties for objecting to the deal.

Some Obama administration advocates naively argued that the many benefits of the deal for Iran might persuade its leaders to moderate their aggressive policies, but that, of course, did not happen. Instead, the 2015 nuclear deal gave Iran more economic resources which it used to increase their support for international terrorism and encouraged them to continue their efforts to destabilize the region.

Nevertheless, Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate, promised to do everything he could as president to revive and renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran, and lift the new sanctions that Trump had imposed.


Biden’s outreach was rejected by the rulers of Iran with a blatant provocation. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced that it had recently launched a guided missile attack against an American military base in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, adjacent to the new US consulate in the town of Erbil.

But when National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was asked about whether the Iranian missile attack would prevent the new Iran deal from being finalized, he said, “the only thing more dangerous than Iran armed with ballistic missiles and advanced military capabilities is an Iran that has all of those things and a nuclear weapon, and President Biden is still determined to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon [by finalizing the new deal].”

Like the original agreement, the new deal would do nothing to restrict Iran’s support for regional terror groups such as Hezbollah, and includes no restrictions on Iran’s advanced ballistic missile program. It also does not extend the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programs, due to start expiring in only three years. Iran again expects to gain tens of billions of dollars with the relaxation of US sanctions, and, most insultingly of all, it expects the US to remove the IRGC from its official list of sanctioned terrorist groups.


The Russians have also played a crucial role in the Realignment. They have been richly rewarded for their cooperation with Iran and the US with the establishment of a permanent Russian naval base in Syria, giving the Russian navy its only direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the relatively weak US response by President Obama to their invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. In addition, the ruthless Russian military campaign in support of Syrian President Assad against rebel-held civilian areas during the civil war served as a useful testing ground for the war crimes that the Russian military is now committing on a daily basis in Ukraine.

Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last month, President Biden’s immediate response was harsh rhetoric, but a relatively mild set of economic sanctions against Russia which included a major exception for Russia’s lucrative energy sales to Western Europe and did not initially include a suspension of American oil imports from Russia.

The European Union nations were the ones which insisted on excluding Russia from the SWIFT international financial transaction system. In addition, the Biden administration has consistently rejected President Zelensky’s pleas for the US to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and resisted offers by Poland and other Eastern European members of NATO to give their old Soviet-era warplanes to the Ukrainian air force in exchange for updated replacement US aircraft.

The only reason that Biden belatedly agreed to toughen America’s anti-Russia policies and step up its military support for Ukraine was the outrage of the American people against Putin, as well as bipartisan pressure from Congress.

Despite that, President Biden remains reluctant to give Ukraine the support it needs to continue holding off the Russian invasion. The administration insists it has been acting cautiously in providing support for Ukraine to avoid provoking Putin into a further escalation of the conflict, possibly including the use of chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons against the civilian population centers of Ukraine.

But Biden’s critics suspect that the real reason he has been holding back is his desire for continued Russian cooperation in his effort to complete Obama’s Realignment of foreign policy in the Middle East, which means the abandonment of America’s former allies in the region, including Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE.


As Saudi Arabia has deliberately distanced itself from the US, and specifically the Biden administration, is has been drawing closer to China. China has provided the Saudis with technical assistance in its efforts to build its own ballistic missiles, and invested in one of Crown Prince Mohammed’s pet projects, the building of a new city called Neom. Saudi Arabia has also extended an invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to for a state visit later this year.

The latest manifestation of the growing chill in US-Saudi relations is the growing willingness of the Saudis to accept the Chinese yuan instead of American dollars as payment for Saudi oil shipments to China. The move, which is another cost of the Biden administration’s deliberate downgrading of Saudi Arabia as a strategically important ally, is also the latest Chinese challenge to the current status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

China currently buys more than 25% of the roughly 6.2 million barrels of oil Saudi Arabia exports, all of it paid for with American dollars. If those sales were priced in yuan, it would significantly boost the standing of China’s currency as a potential rival for the US dollar.

China and Saudi Arabia have been talking about pricing some of its oil sales in yuan, and it still may not happen, because of the technical and financial obstacles still in the way. Some 80% of global oil sales are priced in US dollars, and the yuan is still not freely convertible on the international money markets, as a reserve currency must be. Also, Saudi Arabia’s currency, the riyal, is still pegged to the US dollar.


Any serious challenge to the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency would be more than just a blow to our national prestige. The reserve status of the dollar is a key reason why the US Treasury can continue printing money to cover the government’s massive budget deficits, spending money it doesn’t have, because it knows that it can always print more and the rest of the world will continue to accept it at face value.

As economist Gal Luft put it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “The oil market and by extension, the entire global commodities market, is the insurance policy of the status of the dollar as the reserve currency. If that block is taken out of the wall [of the US economy], the wall will begin to collapse.”

In addition, the US has now joined Saudi Arabia among the top oil producers in the world, and is now a potential competitor for a share of the global oil export market. In the early 1990s, the US imported two million barrels of Saudi crude a day, but by December 2021, that numbers had fallen to less than 500,000 barrels a day. By contrast, China’s oil imports from Saudi Arabia have swelled over the same period, proportionately with China’s expanding economy.


Saudi Arabia committed in 1974 to conduct its oil trade only in dollars, in exchange for security guarantees from Washington. Those security guarantees were put to the test in the First Persian War, when a US-led Arab coalition chased Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi army out of Kuwait. But because of Biden’s recklessness, the once-trusting Saudi relationship with the US now stands in serious jeopardy.

One of the Biden administration’s first foreign-policy actions was to end US support for the Saudi-led war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. Biden also reversed the move by President Donald Trump that put the Houthis on America’s official list of global terrorist groups, a move that Saudi leaders said had emboldened the Houthi militia and thwarted all efforts to broker a ceasefire in Yemen. The White House also postponed a scheduled arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which clearly violated the spirit of America’s security guarantees.

The Houthis brazenly responded to the lifting of their terrorist designation by sending more waves of drones and missiles to attack the oil fields and cities of Saudi Arabia and its ally, the UAE. Meanwhile, the Saudis have watched, aghast, as Biden precipitously withdrew US troops from Afghanistan last summer, and continues to chase a new nuclear deal that will give Iran the resources to finance more proxy wars against Saudi Arabia and its allies.


The personal rift between Biden and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stretches back to the 2020 presidential campaign, when then-candidate Biden said of the Saudis, “We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price [for the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi crown prince, in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul], and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

As recently as last week, Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the president still stood by his dim view of Saudi Arabia and its crown prince. In an interview with the Atlantic, Prince Mohammed responded by warning that alienating Saudi Arabia’s leaders would hurt Biden. “It’s up to him to think about the interests of America,” he said. “Go for it.”

Shortly after Biden took office, he stepped up his attack on the Saudis by releasing a classified CIA report that accused the crown prince of personally approving the murder of Khashoggi. He also made it known that he did not want to deal with the crown prince, even though he was the de facto ruler of the country, and instead insisted on dealing exclusively with his aged father, King Salman.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE had forged deep ties with President Trump, who sided with them in a regional dispute with Qatar, pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal that they had opposed, made his first trip abroad to Riyadh in 2017, and stood by Prince Mohammed after the killing of Khashoggi. However, Trump’s decision not to respond militarily to an Iranian drone and missile attack on major Saudi oil sites in 2019 was also disturbing to the Saudis and their Gulf allies, who have relied for decades on the promise of US security protection.


After a year of Biden administration neglect and insults, the Saudis are fed up. They want more US support for their intervention in Yemen’s civil war, help with their own civilian nuclear program as Iran’s moves ahead, and legal immunity for Prince Mohammed in the US from lawsuits related to the death of Khashoggi.

The leaders of the UAE share Saudi concerns about the muted US response to recent missile strikes by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen against the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both governments are also concerned about the proposed revival of the Iran nuclear deal, without measures to address the other security concerns about Iran, which Biden had initially promised would be included in any new agreement.

Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE has also urged the US to put the Houthis back on its list of terrorist groups and to send more military aid to help defend the country from more attacks. But the Biden administration has yet to respond to the urgent UAE request. Instead, last month, it sent General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, to Abu Dhabi for a series of meetings with Emirati leaders to discuss ways to beef up security. He was not well received.

In light of the likely reduction in the flow of Russian natural gas and oil to Western Europe, Biden still needs Saudi Arabia and the UAE, because they are the only two OPEC producers that can pump millions more barrels of oil needed to calm the market at a time when US gasoline prices are already at record high levels.

Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, and Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s energy envoy, both traveled to the Saudi capital of Riyadh last month in a belated effort to mend fences with Saudi officials. McGurk also met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Nayef in Abu Dhabi to address Emirati frustrations over the inadequate US response to the Houthi attacks. During those contacts, America did promise to do more in the coming months to help the two Gulf nations protect themselves from attack, but those reassurances did not satisfy the leaders of the two countries.

The Saudis and Emiratis still refuse to pump more oil, saying they are sticking to a production plan approved between OPEC and a group of non-OPEC producers, including the Russians.


Their refusal further highlights the failure of President Joe Biden’s self-righteous brand of liberal internationalism. He and his foreign-policy advisers seem to think that grandstanding about human rights and the climate is more important than policies that actually advance critical US national interests. America’s most successful presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, have blended idealism with realism about the world’s bad actors and its need to support its loyal friends. Biden has ignored that lesson of history, and the US is now paying a price, in the form of an energy shortage during the Ukraine crisis, for having squandered the confidence and friendship of the Saudis.

Meanwhile, the administration has also betrayed its own liberal foreign policy goals in support of disarmament and human rights. The effects of the war in Ukraine have thrown the Biden administration’s climate change policies into complete chaos. As it frantically hunts for new sources of oil and gas worldwide to put a lid on the rising price of energy, it is throwing its previous human-rights scruples overboard by reaching out to the regimes in Iran and Venezuela, run by the most notorious autocrats in the world.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged reports that the administration had sent emissaries to Caracas to discuss “energy security,” in the hope that Venezuela would agree to replace some of America’s lost Russian oil supplies. In return, Biden has offered to ease the sanctions that Trump imposed on Venezuela’s state oil company.

Easing US sanctions on Venezuela would be a strategic blunder that would provide a financial lifeline to the brutal regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro while doing little to ease the oil price spike. Maduro has impoverished his country, persecuted his political opponents, starved the citizenry, and turned millions of Venezuelans into refugees seeking sanctuary across the region, aside from being an outspoken critic of the United States.

Furthermore, because Venezuela has failed to properly maintain its oil fields, it no longer has the capacity to be of much help. The country currently produces a total of about 800,000 barrels a day, down from more than two million barrels a day in 2016. US shale oil producers say that they can increase domestic production twice as fast as Venezuelan could, and the profits would then go to US workers and shareholders rather than a brutal anti-American dictatorship.


The outreach to Venezuela is another example of Biden’s bad foreign policy ideas which have clearly failed to work, most spectacularly with the fiasco in Afghanistan last summer, which probably led Russian President Vladimir Putin to badly underestimate the Western response to his invasion of Ukraine.

Biden’s grand strategy for great-power diplomacy has also failed. After a year of futile efforts to pry Russia away from China, the Biden administration is now trying the same strategy in reverse, hoping to keep China from giving Russia as much support as it now wants due to the failure of the Russian army to achieve a quick victory in Ukraine.

While we can all see that the spirit of democracy is still alive and well in the struggle by Ukraine to preserve its independence from a heartless tyrant, America is now in full retreat as a global defender of freedom. From Venezuela to Iran to the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration’s oil and domestic political interests are now in open competition with its declared liberal values — and those values are clearly losing.

While Putin’s invasion succeeded in rallying other democracies in Europe and around the world to come to Ukraine’s aid, it was greeted by President Biden with embarrassing foot-dragging and equivocation. The Biden administration had to be forced by public opinion to heed President Zelensky’s compelling pleas for the means to defend his country against the Russian attack.

Biden’s continued reluctance to do what is needed to help Ukraine defeat Putin threatens to become a national embarrassment. Biden’s highly touted progressive liberal principles now stand revealed as a facade camouflaging the fact that the pragmatic pursuit of his political self interest and the highly dubious Realignment strategy left over from President Obama are the real guiding principles behind his failed foreign policy.



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