Biden’s Trip Is About Exiting the Middle East — but U.S. Might Get Pulled Back In

Joe Biden lacks the will to truly disentangle the U.S. from its unsavory regional allies and the chaos they have sown together.

President Joe Biden sits in a virtual meeting with leaders of the so-called I2U2 group at a hotel in Jerusalem on July 14, 2022.

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past few decades, trips by U.S. presidents to the Middle East have been accompanied by statements of strong strategic and moral purpose. George W. Bush went to the region with soaring promises to deliver “hope for millions across the Middle East.” Barack Obama’s first major trip was an attempt to rebuild trust with the millions who by that time were aghast at the outcome of Bush’s disastrous wars. Even Donald Trump went to the Middle East to rally support from Muslim leaders for fighting the Islamic State, as well as to sign flashy economic and strategic agreements with Arab leaders expected to boost the U.S. economy. They even let him touch an orb.

President Joe Biden’s current trip to the Middle East, though, raises more questions than it answers. Rather than announcing any major initiatives, Biden, who is on a four-day trip to Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Saudi Arabia, seems more like he is headed into the region in search of an exit from it.

The goal of a grand Pax Americana is finished. Biden is merely writing its obituary.

Having abandoned a generation-long effort to reshape the Middle East using American power, the United States under his presidency is now scaling back its ambitions to three very minimal goals: protecting Israel, protecting energy supplies in the Persian Gulf, and minimizing the threat of international terrorism.

The goal of a grand Pax Americana is finished. Biden is merely writing its obituary.

Biden has governed as a politician of reduced expectations, and his humble Middle East policy reflects that. But there are signs that it might still give him dangerously more than he bargained for.

Prior to his departure, Biden published an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining the economic and political reasons for his visit. He was also placed in the awkward position of explaining to Post readers why he was backing down from his previous pledge to isolate Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, after the crown prince murdered a columnist from that same publication.

Biden’s article painted an unconvincing picture of a region that was becoming more stable and prosperous thanks to U.S. efforts. It was also notable, however, for how little he promised about the future. Biden reminded Americans that the Middle East had lots of oil and gas and that it would need to be protected, particularly during a period of global energy inflation.

Other than that, the only significant promise the president made was that his visit would help improve normalization efforts between Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Previous statements by U.S. presidents that they would be helping spread democracy or mediating an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict were nowhere to be seen.

He might experience success with these minimalist goals. There are strong signs that Saudi Arabia is beginning to take steps toward establishing formal ties with Israel, and Biden himself will be taking a symbolic flight between Tel Aviv, Israel, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on this trip. Staying in character, even this potentially historic move by Biden is about managing the decline of U.S. ambitions. The process of Arab-Israeli normalization, started under the Trump administration, will be less the basis of a new U.S.-led order fostering democracy and American values than a way of helping ease the United States out of the region entirely. Effective security cooperation between Israel and the Gulf Arab states would accomplish two U.S. objectives by improving Israeli security as well as the security of Persian Gulf energy resources.

Saudi Arabia and Israel seem likely to join forces under the broader Abraham Accords — the new round of Gulf-Israeli diplomatic deals — at some point, but it would be hard to sell an alliance between an absolute monarchy led by a murderer of journalists and a state practicing permanent apartheid as an inspiring achievement for democracy. Biden seems to lack the energy to even pretend.

The U.S. has compelling reasons to pivot away from the Middle East. The crisis in Ukraine is taking up much of its strategic attention, and a possible confrontation with China in East Asia already looms on the horizon. Yet ironically, even Biden’s plan to humble America’s role in the Middle East runs the risk of dragging him back in.

A key component of the U.S. plan to draw down from the Middle East was the Iran nuclear deal. That deal is now showing very clear signs of morbidity. The deal was violated by Trump, but Biden has shown little indication that he is willing or able to take the political steps necessary to revive it.


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In an interview with Israeli press, Biden doubled down on designating a wing of the Iranian military as a terrorist organization — the issue that is said to be the major sticking point in bringing the deal back to life. Biden also said that he is willing to use armed force against Iran as a “last resort” if the Islamic Republic proceeds with developing its nuclear program outside the agreement. Events may wind up calling his bluff, however reluctantly his proclamations were issued.

The nuclear agreement was a last-ditch effort to avoid a major conflict with Iran that had been brewing for years. Obama spent significant political capital to get it signed, but Biden appears unwilling to do the same. The U.S. is now clearly on a trajectory for war.

Israel, for its part, has been carrying out a campaign of sabotage and assassination to stall the Iranian nuclear program. But setting it back in a significant way will only be possible with direct U.S. military assistance to target and destroy fortified nuclear facilities. The war that would ensue after such strikes threatens to dwarf anything since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, drawing in the entire region from Iran up to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Biden has been a weak president whose popularity among Americans has diminished across his tenure. His trip to the Middle East likely reflects a strategically diminished United States. After two decades of soaring dreams and promises, paid for in the blood of many, the U.S. president seems to just want a way out. Lacking the will to do what it takes to make a graceful exit, though, Biden may not even find that.

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