Global News/Middle East-WestInternational Politics

Michael Mandelbaum on Biden’s Middle East Policy Challenges


August 29-

by Marilyn Stern
Middle East Forum Webinar

Michael Mandelbaum, professor emeritus of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth, spoke to a July 26 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the Biden administration’s foreign policy challenges, specifically regarding the Middle East.

According to Mandelbaum, the Biden administration is handicapped by the fact that its foreign policy team is dominated by Obama administration personnel who formulated their worldviews during the “post-Cold War” era in which the U.S. “faced no serious threats.” We now live in what Mandelbaum calls the “post-post-Cold War world,” in which the U.S. faces three “major challengers”: China, Russia, and Iran. The Biden administration “has no experience dealing with what is the central issue in foreign policy when there are challengers, namely whether, when, and how to use and threaten force.”

Biden is being “dragged pretty far … to the left of where good American foreign policy should be.”

The administration is also handicapped by the fact that the Democratic Party has “moved sharply to the left.” As a result, the Biden administration is being “dragged pretty far … to the left of where the country is, and I would say to the left of where good American foreign policy should be,” said Mandelbaum. Although “every administration has to navigate when it comes to foreign policy between politics and policy, that task seems to me to be perhaps unusually complicated and difficult for this administration.”

While Mandelbaum observed that the Biden administration has “adapted to the new circumstances” with respect to China and Russia, at least rhetorically, “the necessary, or at least desirable, adjustments are not in evidence … [regarding] four relevant issues in American policy toward the Middle East, namely Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran.” He discussed each of these in turn.


There “isn’t much evidence” that the Biden administration considered the impact of withdrawing from Afghanistan on U.S. credibility in the Middle East.


The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is “relevant to the Middle East because it raises the issue of American credibility … the question of whether the countries that the United States has promised to protect and defend will believe those promises, and more importantly whether their adversaries will believe those promises,” said Mandelbaum. In particular, “the Afghan withdrawal may give the Iranians the impression that Biden is weak.” Although “potential damage to American credibility is not necessarily a clinching argument against withdrawing,” it “surely need[ed] to be taken into account” and there “isn’t much evidence” that the Biden administration did so.

MBS “is the closest thing to a reformer” Saudi Arabia has ever had.

On relations with Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration – and the Democratic Party in general – is hostile to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) because of his role in the December 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But two issues must be “borne in mind” with respect to Saudi Arabia, Mandelbaum explained. The first is that MBS is a prime example of what Daniel Pipes and Adam Garfinkle call “friendly tyrants” – rulers who disregard democratic norms but are “supportive of the United States and its foreign policy.” The fall of friendly tyrants, such as the Shah of Iran, is usually detrimental to American interests. The second issue is that MBS “is the closest thing to a reformer” his country has ever had – opposing him would do little to make the Saudi regime less tyrannical.

Regarding the third issue, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the administration has expressed its commitment to restarting the so-called “peace process.” It is interested in this partly because “the Democratic foreign policy establishment believes in the peace process, can hardly imagine a world without it, and has spent a good deal of its career devoted to it,” and partly as a way to appease “the left wing of the Democratic party, which has become increasingly anti-Israel” by demonstrating that the White House is “concerned about the Palestinians and trying to do something for them.”

Biden likely will “not devote substantial political capital” to the peace process.

But there are three important arguments against investing U.S. efforts in restarting the peace process. The first is that “it’s not going to work” and “therefore is a political loser for any president who undertakes it.” The second is that “a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians … is not crucial for American interests.” The third is that “there is an alternative way of dealing with Israel’s relations with the Arab world … demonstrated by the Abraham Accords.” Although Biden “doesn’t seem persuaded” by the second and third arguments, he is “likely to be persuaded by the first argument,” and thus Mandelbaum believes he will “not devote substantial political capital” to the peace process.

The Middle East-related issue that Mandelbaum considers the most important challenge for the Biden administration is Iran. Biden’s eagerness to re-enter the Obama administration’s nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with the Iranian government, has “hit a snag.” Bucking the JCPOA’s unpopularity among the American public, Biden needs “some kind of fig leaf, that is some token concessions” from Iran so that he can argue that he has strengthened the agreement. The Iranians not only aren’t agreeing to concessions, but they are also demanding further concessions from Washington. This makes the prospect of re-entering the JCPOA “uncertain.”

The Afghan withdrawal may “enhance the [Iranian] view that they have nothing to fear” from Biden.

The Biden team fears that without an agreement, Iran will accelerate its march towards developing a nuclear bomb. Having reiterated the longstanding official position that the U.S. will never permit the Iranians to build a nuclear weapon, Biden must persuade them that any attempt to make a “dash for the bomb” do so will “will bring forth a serious American military response.” But “whether this is, or will become, the understanding of the Biden administration” is unclear, especially to the Iranians. “My concern is that the total withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan will enhance the view that they have nothing to fear from the Biden administration.”

Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.

Courtesy: Middle East Forum :


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