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The Biden Administration’s Middle East Mess

May 24, 2021

By Lieutenant General (Ret.) Keith Kellogg and Jacob Olidort, Ph.D.

In Brief

  • What happened in Gaza over the last two weeks was entirely avoidable, and was the result of President Biden’s weakness, not strength.
  • Hamas’s attacks against Israel are the direct result of the Biden Administration strengthening Iran, and not taking a holistic approach towards rebuilding good governance in Gaza.
  • The Biden Administration is returning to the discredited Obama-Biden Middle East Playbook, which resulted in a stronger Iranian regime and a more violent Middle East.
  • The Trump Administration offered a new approach of strong actions on behalf of allies and strong messages to adversaries.
  • President Biden finally got it right by supporting Israel last week, after earlier displays of weakness in issuing false equivalency between Israel and Hamas.
  • The Abraham Accords cemented that new approach and offers the right path towards lasting peace. There are more victories to be had in the region if the Biden Administration builds on the foundation the Abraham Accords established.

“We are not following the tactics of the prior administration,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last Tuesday. “Aside from putting together a peace proposal that was dead on arrival, we don’t think they did anything constructive to really bring an end to the longstanding conflict in the Middle East,” she explained.

Contrary to Psaki’s assertion, the Middle East in 2021 is far more stable and peaceful than the one the Trump Administration inherited in 2017. Notwithstanding last week’s announcement of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, if the Biden Administration continues to ignore the tactics of the prior administration, they will likely beget a region that will be far more dangerous and violent than the one the same team created through the same inaction and non-decisions the last time they were in the White House.

The Biden Administration appears to be recreating the Middle East of pre-2017, and is following the discredited Obama Middle East playbook of emboldening adversaries and alienating allies. The Biden team is currently trying to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and sweetening it by offering to lift sanctions imposed on Iran by the previous administration. That will send the wrong message to Iran and its proxies, including Hamas and other terrorist groups bent on destroying Israel.

The Biden foreign policy team’s approach towards Iran and the Middle East did not turn out well the last time the same team under the Obama Administration tried this, so it is doubtful things should turn out differently this time around. In 2013, shortly after Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran, the Obama-Biden administration began unfreezing sanctions and its Treasury department slowed down its designations, all in a bid to win over the new Iranian leadership towards a nuclear deal. The same year, after Iran’s Syrian proxy Bashar Al-Assad was reported to have used sarin nerve gas on children, former President Obama refused to follow through on his threat of a “red line” response. Just a year later, in 2014, Hamas, another proxy of Iran’s, launched a weeks-long attack against Israel, firing hundreds of rockets from its hospitals and schools. Two years later, in 2016, another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, started a war with Israel. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Iran-backed Shiite militias saw an opportunity with Obama’s warming of relations with Iran and his announcement of an Iraq troop withdrawal in 2011. The country became increasingly volatile, with civilian deaths doubling in both 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, according to data compiled by the Iraq Body Count Project. It was amidst these circumstances of sectarian violence and the disenfranchisement of the region’s Sunni communities that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced its caliphate in June 2014.

The Obama administration got its deal with Iran in July 2015, but it came at a heavy price to Americans, Israelis, the people of the region as it resulted in over $100 billion of unfrozen Iranian regime assets going to its terrorist proxy network.

The Biden Administration is repeating these missteps by signaling to adversaries that it will tolerate their accommodation of terrorism and violence. What took place over the last two weeks in Gaza was entirely avoidable, and came about because of weakness and not strength. Rebuilding Gaza is more than just rebuilding businesses and buildings, but is rather about rebuilding responsible and effective governance. It requires a holistic approach that clearly ties assistance to the Palestinians with steps towards results that bring about peace, prosperity, and good governance. President Biden finally seemed to understand this point when he vocally came out in support of Israel, but his earlier statements of equivalency between Israel’s actions and those of Hamas, coupled by his policy reversals over the last five months accommodating Iran’s proxies and the Palestinian Authority, demonstrated weakness.

Last month the Biden Administration announced it was unlocking $235 million in aid to Palestinians, including $150 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—an organization that has been all but coopted by Hamas. In 2014, UNRWA admitted that Hamas hid rockets in its buildings, and has funded Palestinian textbooks that do not recognize Israel.

These moves by the Biden Administration were a stark departure from the previous administration’s approach in holding Palestinians accountable.

In 2018, President Trump cut all funding to UNRWA. He also signed into law the Taylor Force Act. The Act is named after a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran from Lubbock, Texas, who was killed at the age of 28 in Israel by a Palestinian terrorist on March 8, 2016. The family of Taylor’s murderer are paid a monthly stipend through the Palestinian Authority’s Martyr’s Fund. The Fund, also known as its “pay to slay” program, disperses some $300 million per year to families of terrorists. The Act called for halting all U.S. assistance to the Palestinians until the Martyr’s Fund is eliminated.

The Trump Administration’s actions were part of its overall new approach to solving the Middle East dilemma. Over the last four years, the United States demonstrated—not only through words, but also through actions—a bold and unapologetic embrace of its friends, and bold action against its enemies.

The Trump Administration moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem three years ago, which followed the unprecedented decision by former President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. Less than a week before the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the previous administration withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and initiated in its place a “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime. After months of provocation against American navy ships, attacks on Saudi oil facilities, and the killing of an American citizen by an Iranian proxy, former President Trump directed the attack on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (QF) Commander Qasem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s terror network and the regime’s most influential voice on foreign policies. In the same attack, the United States killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of one of the most influential Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq.

These and other clear actions against the Iranian regime decidedly put them on their heels and ensured they and their proxies would think twice before pursuing malign activities against the United States and its allies, as former senior U.S. officials observed. The Iranian foreign minister recently acknowledged that Soleimani’s influence had loomed large over Iran’s foreign policy and impacted his diplomatic efforts. And although Iraq continues to see violence, its civilian death toll is the lowest it has been since 2003, with 902 civilian deaths. The years 2019 and 2018 saw the next lowest civilian death counts, according to the Iraq Body Count Project. In September 2020, Israel experienced the first normalization of relations with an Arab country in over a quarter of a century as it signed the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain. This historic event was soon followed by similar acts by Sudan and Morocco reinforcing the effectiveness of the former administration’s approach. All of this is proof that America’s policies are not only capable of guiding the Middle East towards peace and stability, but that they have already done so.

The Abraham Accords put us on the right path to peace, finally, in the Middle East. There are more victories to be had in the region if the current administration builds on the foundation that the Abraham Accords established. It is still not too late to adopt the tactics of the previous administration, and to build on policies that protect America’s allies and put its adversaries on notice. Iran is decidedly weaker in 2021 than it was in 2016, but that is not a reason to take its threat less seriously. Even though the same individuals who led the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy are driving the current administration’s approach, there is no reason they should repeat the mistakes they made the first time.

Lt. General (Ret.) Keith Kellogg serves as AFPI’s Chairman of the Center for American Security. Kellogg is a highly decorated, retired three star General and has extensive experience in the military and international businesses. Most recently, he was the National Security Advisor to former Vice President Mike Pence.

Jacob Olidort, Ph.D. serves as AFPI’s Director of the Center for American Security. Olidort recently served in the Office of the Vice President, where he contributed to the federal response to COVID-19. Previously, Jacob advised members of Congress on foreign policy and has served in national security positions across federal government.