Andreas Kluth: Biden's Middle East policy is better than it looks

Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

It’s harrowing to watch a human being set himself on fire, stand up as long as possible, and then collapse into a heap. That’s what Aaron Bushnell, a young member of the US Air Force, did this weekend, when he torched himself in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., and later died. He was protesting what he had earlier called Israel’s “genocide” in the Gaza Strip. “Free Palestine,” he tried to yell out from the fireball, until it silenced him.

That conflict in the Middle East may also consume the re-election campaign of President Joe Biden. As this week’s primary in the swing state of Michigan showed, voters whom he needs for victory in November increasingly blame him for the Israeli bombing of Gaza that Bushnell was protesting, a campaign that Biden himself has called “indiscriminate.” These voters include Arab-Americans, but also African-Americans — more than 1,000 Black pastors are pressing Biden to force Israel into a ceasefire — as well as left-leaning and youngish people in general.

The risk for Biden is that these Americans stay home on election day, not that they defect to his likely opponent, Donald Trump. Meanwhile, though, Trump’s MAGA base is pounding Biden from the other side, as not supporting Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, resolutely enough. In their telling, the cause for every problem in the Middle East, and indeed the whole world, is Biden’s alleged “weakness.”

Both sides are being unfair. Viewed dispassionately, Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East since Hamas’s terrorist attack on Oct. 7, and even before, has been far from ideal but also far from weak. Overall, he has on balance been wise.

Biden didn’t create the conflicts in the region. The enmity between the US and Iran dates back 45 years, that between Israelis and Palestinians 75 years or even longer, and others (like that between Sunnis and Shias) centuries. As senator and vice president Biden was admittedly part of the Washington “blob” that allowed these problems to fester. But as commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful country, he has done his best to get America’s grand strategy right.

Before Oct. 7, Biden was trying to arrange an accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia, meant to pacify the region gradually and to hold Iran at bay. That was supposed to allow the US to reduce its presence in the Middle East and redeploy its might to Asia and the Pacific, where America’s geopolitical interests are clearer.

Since Oct. 7, however, Biden’s main objective has of necessity been to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from spreading to the region and possibly even the world. That risk is real, since many of Israel’s enemies (including Hamas) are backed by Iran, which is itself increasingly aligned with Russia and China. To forestall that kind of conflagration, Biden has to prevent a direct and major war between Washington and Tehran.

Another strategic goal is to ensure that Israel’s response will not wreck all future prospects of reconciliation — that is, the vision of a sovereign Palestine one day coexisting with Israel in peace. Even more immediate goals include limiting civilian suffering in Gaza (and the West Bank), and to rescue the hostages from Hamas’ tunnels.

As for the topmost of these aims, Biden is, so far, doing well. For several months, Iranian proxies from Iraq and Syria to Yemen were harassing US targets in the region, with about 170 low-intensity attacks. Biden hit back, but with restraint. When one enemy drone strike killed three American service members in Jordan, however, he retaliated decisively, and yet still proportionately. He wanted to give the mullahs in Tehran a glimpse of the consequences of further escalation.

They seem to have got the message. Iran has apparently decided that it had better avoid a full-bore war with the US, and has told its proxies in the region to stand down for now. The militias in Iraq and Syria haven’t attacked US forces since Biden’s retaliatory strikes on Feb. 2. The Houthis in Yemen are still firing at ships in the Red Sea, but these assaults remain manageable — in any case, the extent of Tehran’s sway over the Houthis remains unclear.


Even more tellingly, Iran has signaled that for now it will not, as Washington feared, “break out” and build nuclear warheads. At the time of the Oct. 7 attacks, it was still adding to its bank of highly-enriched uranium; but since November it has reduced that stock. An escalatory gesture would look different.

In terms of the next strategic objective — restraining Netanyahu and his far-right governing partners — Biden has been less convincing. He and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have leaned on the Israelis to limit harm to Gaza’s civilians, and to recommit to a two-state solution in the long term. But Netanyahu has brazenly ignored the American pleas. About 30,000 Gazans are now dead, another 70,000 injured, and almost all 2 million displaced, hungry and traumatized.

Yet Biden does appear to be changing course. He has sanctioned several Israeli settler-colonizers in the Palestinian West Bank. Blinken has overturned a Trump-era policy and reverted to America’s long-held view that Israeli settlements violate international law and destroy any chance of an enduring peace. The White House is also striving (alongside Egypt and Qatar as intermediaries for Hamas) to negotiate a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner swap.

Biden must get even tougher with Netanyahu (while hoping that Israelis will in due course choose a more sagacious leader). He should use the United Nations Security Council to create facts in international law, forcing Israel to scale back its campaign in Gaza and its settlement of the West Bank, as well as to accept the idea of eventual Palestinian statehood.

Simultaneously, he must keep talking to the Saudis about the triangular deal they had planned before Oct. 7 — it’s still a good idea. And he must continue to deter the mullahs without triggering a direct conflict. While doing all that, moreover, he must also keep an eye on what Russia’s up to in Ukraine and eastern Europe, China in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and North Korea on its peninsula.

Such is the burden of any occupant of the Oval Office, after all: to keep tabs on overall world order as one aspect of America’s own national interest. That’s why Biden’s ultimate objective in the Middle East must be to stabilize the region, and then to get out, because America is needed elsewhere. That may or may not happen on his watch. But it will count as a positive denouement to a story that has too many tragic footnotes, only one of which is the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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