Trump or Biden?

Summary: Two MENA experts and their thoughts on what a continuation of the Trump presidency or a victory by Joe Biden will mean for the Middle East.

In recent weeks we have explored US foreign policy in MENA in the run-up to the 3 November presidential election. In podcasts with Jon B Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a  Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, we asked how a Trump return to the White House or, alternatively, a Biden victory will affect American policy in the region. Below are transcripts, edited for length, taken from the podcasts.  Members can find the full podcasts here and here.

JBA: On President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA.

I don’t think you’ve seen Iranian behaviour get better. You’ve seen the Iranians do what the Iranians do. They won’t negotiate, (and) they behave badly. I think it’s isolated the US from allies and partners in a way that’s undermined pressure that the US might want to bring on Iran for a whole range of things. And there’s not a Plan B. I think, ultimately, the President has an ego thing about the JCPOA. He wants to negotiate his own deal. If he wins re-election, there’s little question in my mind he’s going to try to negotiate his own deal. But what we’ve seen from the President’s personal negotiations is they’re not often very successful. And I think what it leaves you is with a less manageable Iran challenge. The Iran challenge doesn’t go away. It’s just harder to manage.

KCU: On the future of the JCPOA in a Biden presidency

I suspect there will be a desire on the part of the Biden administration to re-engage, to either try to re-enter or to restart negotiations for a JCPOA 2.0. And the question then, is what happens to the other parties? Do they simply accept that? And what kind of safeguards can a Biden administration give that a future Republican administration simply wouldn’t repeat what Trump has done, and withdraw all over again and then we’re back to square one. So I think part of the issue a Biden administration would face is how do you regain some of the credibility that the US has lost over the past four years in terms of signing up to international accords, and then just withdrawing on political grounds?

JBA: Does President Trump have a coherent policy in pulling US troops out of the Middle East?

The President not only doesn’t really have a coherent policy, the president doesn’t really have a coherent policy process. He likes to believe that he’s the sole decider, but he doesn’t have a process that feeds up considered options to him, that he decides between. It’s easy, after less than four years to forget the President’s use of Twitter to say whatever is on his mind without clearing it through legions of experts. That is a huge departure from the way the US presidencies  have worked for three quarters of a century. And the President likes it that way. He likes having a direct connection to the public. He likes having a direct connection to world leaders. He likes feeling he’s completely his own man. But when you deal with complicated things, that makes it harder to do complicated things, because it’s hard to get all the gears turning in synchrony. And I think what that does, is it diminishes American power. Because one of the things that the US has the unique ability to do is to have 80 or 100 powerful stakeholders from inside the US government, outside the US government, all working in one direction. And the President doesn’t believe that, in terms of the military. He doesn’t believe that in terms of the broader government, a lot of parts of which he doesn’t trust. He doesn’t believe it in terms of the international community. He believes it in terms of: he says things and people should listen.

KCU: On how a Biden White House would deal with Saudi Arabia

I think that a White House under Joe Biden would be less willing to protect the Saudi leadership, and to do so from congressional criticism and from congressional pressure. And I think especially if Congress has more Democrats in the Senate, even potentially a Democratic majority, that pressure would probably grow. And there would be more calls for high level accountability in ways that we have seen rebuffed by the (Trump) White House. And of course one thing a Biden administration would have to consider is that over the next four years this may well be a period where King Salman passes away and Mohammed bin Salman becomes King. So a Biden administration may then have to think about how do they respond to a King Mohammed and to the sort of Saudi US relationship when a head of state is currently in such political difficulties in Washington and other key capitals around the world?

JBA: Legacy for Donald Trump, is it the ’deal of the century’ and the UAE and Bahrain (joined by Sudan) normalizing with Israel?

I haven’t seen the Palestinians mentioned much at all in the deal with the UAE or Bahrain, I don’t think that the Palestinians accept the current framework and there is not really a framework on offer to the Palestinians. My sense is what the deal will do in the near term, and even intermediate term, is it will make the Middle East more volatile.

KCU: On human rights in MENA under a Biden presidency

We may well see a rhetorical restatement of commitment to safeguarding and putting human rights higher up the policy agenda. I mean, I think we shouldn’t fool ourselves (into thinking) that human rights has always been at the forefront of the US or any of the interested parties in the Middle East. Having said that, I think they will be restated. I think it will be made clear to human rights abusers in Egypt, or such as with the Khashoggi case in Saudi Arabia, that there will be pushes for greater accountability, potentially maybe tying assistance, military assistance, and other forms of aid, at least to certain changes in behaviour. And I think also there wouldn’t be the same open disdain for human rights that the Trump administration has shown.

JBA: Will a Biden presidency make a difference to US policy in the region?

You know, what I think we’ll mostly see is the return of the US government as an institution. One of the really striking things about the Trump presidency has been the distrust of the intelligence services, the distrust of the State Department, the weakening of the State Department, the Defense Department becoming increasingly wrapped up within itself. I think in a Biden administration, partly because it’ll be staffed by so many veterans from the Obama administration, it will resurrect the interagency process; you will see the US having, I think, a policy that is articulated with a lot of the narrower ambitions that you see coming from the Trump administration, but to execute them in a much more deliberate and effective way. It’s of course, an open question how much that will lead to very different outcomes. But it seems to me that the biggest change you’re going to have is you’re going to have the entire US government’s singing from the same sheet of music.

KCU: If Trump wins a second term

I think that US policy will remain transactional, remain based on interests and the interest not necessarily of a conception of the national interest, but of a small coterie based around the president. And I think we will continue to see parties across the Middle East interpreting that interest for themselves and seeing how they best can engage with and benefit from those interests. And as we’ve seen in Libya especially, in Egypt and in other parts of the Middle East, when regional leaders feel that they can take advantage of an administration that is so transactional, then the outcome is generally worse for all concerned. And so were there to be a second Trump term in office, I think that would certainly make any resolution of the conflicts in the region more difficult. I think it would make any lasting resolution of the Israeli Palestinian issue almost impossible, just because facts on the ground likely would change so much in the next four years that whatever came next in 2025 would be almost impossible to reshape. And also with Iran, although given Trump’s transactional tendencies and his mercurial policymaking, he may also like to think that he alone could pull off a deal with Iran. So again, I think he will keep everyone guessing like he’s done over the past four years.

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