One of the first stabs at writing the history of the Joe Biden Presidency, a new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, pulls zero punches: It’s even titled Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won The Presidency. That’s not entirely off the mark: Biden was an unlikely candidate. He wasn’t just very old, but had failed in two previous Presidential runs. He was widely considered too milquetoast to stand out against a charismatic, incumbent Trump. Biden also faced a huge field of Democratic opponents, many of them much younger, more diverse, and entering the nominating contest with far more momentum.
Seen from that perspective, the first few months of Biden’s Presidency have been surprising. This past month he signed into law one of the most consequential pieces of domestic legislation in American history, which has the potential to make huge progress in America’s persistent struggle with the widespread poverty that often disproportionately hits minority groups. With help from his administration, the United States is also on track to be able to inoculate everyone--who wants a shot, at least--in just a few months’ time. The approval of the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is additional good news to a campaign that is fortunately ahead of schedule.
But in contrast to his domestic successes, Biden’s foreign policy approach has been rather less accomplished, which is itself unexpected, too: One of Biden’s strengths, even at the lowest points of his Presidential candidacy, was his foreign policy chops, his deep awareness of and experience in geopolitics, not to mention a reservoir of international relationships he could be expected to call on given eight years as President Obama’s vice president and many more years before as a Senator. Yet, Biden’s first few months were characterized by a clear uncertainty about America’s interactions with the world.
For example, Biden’s policy on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will give Putin control of energy infrastructure in Germany--and give him leverage at the heart of NATO—was worryingly unclear at first. Indeed, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas held up approval of several Biden administration nominees to force the President to take a stand on this critical issue.
There is no more egregious example than the Biden administration’s policy toward Iran where one can hope a similar policy shift is taking place.
When it comes to the mullah’s regime, President Biden is finally waking up to an uncomfortable truth: A problem like Iran cannot be dealt with alone. Biden should have known this on day one, however. Under President Obama, the U.S. ostracized its traditional regional allies in favor of an “Iran Deal” that, when finally completed, was on worse terms than a similar deal Iran had negotiated with Turkey and Brazil – and four years earlier.
A problem like Iran requires a genuinely multinational coalition. No matter how much Biden might want to distinguish himself from Donald Trump, who was uniquely cozy with the Kingdom, the larger trend lines are undeniable: Washington and Riyadh are fated to be friends. This might come as a shock to anyone who paid the least bit of attention during the Presidential campaign, when Saudi Arabia was frequently problematized, not least by candidate Biden himself.
In fact, in a striking interview given to Arab News, former U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, not only argued that America and Saudi Arabia have to work together, but that we might expect a remarkable strengthening of U.S.-Saudi ties in coming months and years. In this same Arab News interview, Pompeo argued that this unexpected outcome is in fact an assured one.
It seems Biden has increasingly come to suspect such an eventuality.
While many Democrats hoped that Biden would talk tough to the Saudis, Pompeo, in the same interview, admitted that he had had many frank conversations with the Arab world’s largest monarchy. Except Pompeo delivered the tough talk behind closed doors, respecting the political culture of the region--that is to say, he pushed for reform in private conversations, which is where and how that kind of political change most often does happen.
If Biden wants to change U.S. policy in the Middle East, he should work with, and not against, Saudi Arabia to confront the region’s many problems.
He should not condescend to, but endeavor to talk to, this historic American ally.
Pompeo, after all, noted that “deep security relationship with the Kingdom is central to American security and also to security throughout the Middle East,” a fact that is as true today as it was when President Trump took office. Joe Biden gambled correctly that he could beat Trump and a field of Democrats to win the presidency. It turned out the American people wanted a President who was respectful, civil, and interested in talking to them. Not tweeting at them.
That is the very same spirit Biden would do well to carry into his Middle East policy, crafting a signature approach that will be associated with him for many more years to come.
Patrick Anyama Godi is a South Sudanese writer based in the capital Juba. He is a member of the Common Futures Conversation – a new initiative developed by Chatham House to deliver innovative ways for young people in Africa and Europe with a ‘seat at the table’ in major policy discussions. He is also an iDove fellow with the African Union.