The demise of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign this month followed by his and former President Barack Obama’s endorsements of former Vice President (VP) Joseph Biden essentially confirmed what everyone knew was coming. Now Biden is his party’s de facto nominee who will challenge President Donald Trump in November. Thus, it is fair to ask how a Biden administration would address international issues.
Leaders of countries in the Persian Gulf are considering the implications of a Biden presidency. Biden has a long foreign policy record to examine when asking about what type of leader he would be on the international stage. Before serving as VP from 2009 to 2017, he won seven US Senate races—first as a 29-year-old almost half a century ago, and served as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It is a safe bet that Biden, if elected, would return the “Obama crowd” to the White House.
It is a safe bet that Biden, if elected, would return the “Obama crowd” to the White House. He would probably have an administration filled with many who share the 44th president’s “internationalist” visions. In practice, this means Biden’s advisors would probably push for a US foreign policy in the post-Trump era that relies more heavily on Washington’s traditional allies, namely America’s European partners in NATO. Biden would serve as president in a post-coronavirus period and would likely invest in international institutions and initiatives aimed at dealing with pandemics, global warming, and transformations driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution to name a few of the most pressing global issues that his White House would need to address.
Regarding the Middle East, Biden and those in his inner circle can be counted on to try and establish renewed American leadership in the tumultuous region. How or when Biden would decide to use military force to confront adversaries in the grander Islamic world, and what type of red lines his administration would try to establish with the Iranian, Syrian, and Russian governments is difficult to predict.
Biden is no dove, yet he has not consistently favored military campaigns. He supported the Iraq War in 2003, despite opposing the Gulf War of 1991. Biden was VP amid the foreign intervention in Libya in 2011, although in 2016 he told Charlie Rose that he opposed the regime change agenda in Tripoli, which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly advocated. He was also in the White House during Obama’s secretive drone wars throughout the Sahel, plus Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.
Biden has gone to great depths to show his ideological commitment to the US-Israel relationship.
When it comes to Israel/Palestine, the former VP has defended the siege of Gaza. Furthermore, Biden has gone to great depths to show his ideological commitment to the US-Israel relationship. In his own words, “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” Amid the Hezbollah-Israel War of 2006, Biden told Larry King that the Lebanese Shi’a organization was “absolutely, positively, unequivocally” the “prime villain” and that the conflict provided the US and its allies an opportunity to “close down Syria and put inordinate pressure on Hezbollah.” Twenty years earlier, the lawmaker representing Delaware called on Americans to stop “apologizing” for supporting Israel. “There’s no apology to be made. None. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel.”
Biden has also accused Trump of failing to use diplomatic cards to advance US interests in the Middle East. He has criticized this administration for unilaterally pulling Washington out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), frequently referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, and imposing stringent sanctions on Tehran. Although Biden shares many of Trump’s views about the Islamic Republic’s regional conduct and the conviction that Iran should never be permitted to become a nuclear armed state, the presidential hopeful from Delaware believes that JCPOA was serving its purpose in terms of blocking Tehran’s potential paths to a nuclear bomb and that the US is worse off having pulled out of the accord.
Biden has argued that Trump’s “reckless actions” vis-à-vis the nuclear deal have fueled a “deep crisis in transatlantic relations and pushed China and Russia closer to Iran” which has left Washington, not Tehran, isolated. The former VP has vowed to bring Washington back into the JCPOA if Tehran returns to full compliance with the deal in order to establish a “starting point to work alongside [America’s] allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints” with the aim of regaining lost US credibility.
“Biden . . . would have to factor in the leverage Mr. Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions against Iran have produced.”
Yet some experts question whether a Biden presidency would lead to Washington re-entering the JCPOA. As the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington’s Hussein Ibish recently wrote: “A Biden administration would have to factor in the leverage Mr. Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions against Iran have produced. Tehran is undoubtedly yearning for a Trump defeat. But, if he wins, Mr Biden is unlikely to be gullible enough to allow Iran to benefit immediately or unconditionally.”
Nonetheless, even if some questions about how Biden would approach the JCPOA and US-Iran relations more broadly remain open, it is a safe bet that he would—at least to some extent—cool the tension in Washington-Tehran relations. The US would probably move toward approaches to dealing with Tehran that are more in sync with the Obama administration’s strategies and views. Perhaps Biden could bring the US and the Islamic Republic to some sort of renewed understanding that may prove impossible with Trump in the Oval Office.
Earlier this month, Biden called for sanctions relief on Tehran as Iran copes with coronavirus. “It makes no sense, in a global health crisis, to compound that failure with cruelty by inhibiting [Iran’s] access to needed humanitarian assistance. Whatever our profound differences with the Iranian government, we should support the Iranian people. “Expectations that Biden would restore certain elements of Obama’s worldview and thinking to Washington’s Middle East foreign policy make some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states nervous about a possible Biden victory.
Indeed, certain problems in US-GCC relations, which came out of Obama’s responses to the Syrian crisis, Egypt, and Bahrain’s so-called “Arab Spring” revolts in 2011, as well as his administration’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, have not been forgotten in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and other Gulf capitals.
Furthermore, since Trump’s presidency began, some issues have also fueled more tension between Democrats in Washington and the Al Saud rulers. Trump’s handling of Saudi-Emirati-led military operations in Yemen (which began during Obama’s presidency), the Jamal Khashoggi affair, and other sensitive files have led to Biden and many Democrats accusing Trump of being “soft” on Riyadh and failing to establish red lines with the millennial Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. As Biden put it, “President Trump has issued Saudi Arabia a dangerous blank check.”
“There is very little social redeeming value in the present government of Saudi Arabia.” – Joe Biden
In fact, when discussing Washington’s relationship with Riyadh on the campaign trail, Biden has used strong language which the Al Saud rulers cannot easily ignore. During a Democratic debate on November 20, 2019, Biden expressed his belief that Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) directed Khashoggi’s murder and vowed to stop selling arms to the Kingdom. “We were going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” Biden said. “There is very little social redeeming value in the present government of Saudi Arabia.” The former VP has also voiced his opposition to US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Ultimately, Biden is not talking about making Iran a US ally again, nor he is talking about ending the US-Saudi partnership in its entirety. Yet he is advocating a foreign policy that is more open to engaging Tehran and focused on establishing clear boundaries with the Saudis which Trump has refused to put in place. There is no doubt that if Biden becomes president, officials in Riyadh will need to address the fact that Saudi Arabia’s reputation among one of America’s two major political parties has suffered from a growing perception in the Beltway that MbS has been more committed to Saudi relations with the Trump administration than with the US as a country.
With Washington-Riyadh relations becoming more of a partisan issue in Washington, there is work for the Saudis to do in order to ensure that the decades-old ties between America and the Saudi kingdom, which were initially established during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, can sustain into the post-Trump era, especially if Democrats start to run the US, which could become a new reality in as soon as eight months.
What is important for Americans to understand is that the legacy of Trump’s foreign policy will long outlive his presidency. Lost credibility on the international stage will take a long time, not just one election, to regain. Would Iran’s regime (or any other government that’s a historical adversary of America) ever trust the US enough to sign a future accord? Perhaps not.
What is important to understand is that the legacy of Trump’s foreign policy will long outlive his presidency.
Trump’s Iran policies have served to vindicate the most hardline elements of the government in Tehran, boosting their narratives about America being hypocritical, aggressive, deceptive, and untrustworthy. A Biden administration would not be able to quickly reverse those results of Trump’s hawkish campaign of “maximum pressure” that have changed Iran’s political landscape in ways that will make diplomacy more difficult down the road.
If Biden wins, he will have to deal with many new realities that did not exist when he and Obama exited the White House in early 2017. Such realities will inevitably shape how he would deal with both the Al Saud royals in Riyadh and the Islamic Republic’s rulers in Tehran.