Since World War II, the Middle East has held a prominent position in US foreign policy by virtue of its strategic importance to the nation’s economic and political interests. The undivided interest of the United States in the region was motivated by three primary factors: firstly, the desire to secure oil access; secondly, supporting its partners in the region, which included maintaining military bases and opposing Islamic movements and terrorist organisations that threatened American interests in the area; and thirdly, the support for Israel’s sovereignty and the classic Palestine question. A question that American policymakers have remained constant over the past six decades is how to maintain alliances with Arab nations while protecting Israel.
In the last few years, US engagement in the region has been financially draining, with failed nation building attempts and fighting terrorists across the region. The disastrous withdrawal of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by former President Donald Trump enabled Iran to resume its nuclear programmes, contrary to American intentions. Iran ultimately attacked oil shipments and facilities in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf in an effort to demonstrate to the United States that its attempt to coerce or depose them was not devoid of any costs, in response to the maximum pressure campaign pursued by the United States against Iran.
In the wake of inheriting a muddled Middle East policy, President Joe Biden emphasised the importance of strengthening ties with regional allies and partners. The Biden Administration has focused on promoting equal rights for Israel and Palestine, maintaining its support for a two-state solution, and denouncing the expansion of West Bank settlements and violence in the region. The historic initiative to restore diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia sought to mend the rift between the United States and its two most vital regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. In addition to positioning them against their common adversary, Iran, the US promised economic and defence benefits in exchange for normalising relations between the two countries. Biden also aimed to formulate an exit strategy for the Middle East by fostering regional partnerships and hoping that China would not fill the power vacuum that the United States might leave. Biden had pledged a phased confidence-building process of sanctions relief in return for Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. As a result, Iran hoped to re-enter the agreement. However, the Middle East offered more challenges to the Biden administration, and he failed to achieve what he intended to do.
The most recent Israel-Hamas conflict, which broke out on October 7, introduced a novel array of difficulties for the United States in the Middle East. The United States formally declared its support for Israel’s “right to defend themselves” in accordance with international law following the outbreak. At the same time, Washington also called for humanitarian pauses to ensure the secure transportation of aid to Gaza. Since the onset of the conflict, senior members of the administration, including President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, and numerous others, have paid official visits to Israel and other nations in the region. Antony Blinken met with leaders from throughout the Middle East from October 11th to the 17th, during which time he outlined the primary objectives of the United States in the ongoing conflict: to demonstrate its support for Israel, to contain the conflict, to work towards the release of hostages held by Hamas, and to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in the region offers a fresh set of challenges to US Middle East policy. While supporting Israel and managing regional stability and alliances, the United States faces its greatest challenge in this conflict in attempting to strike a balance. Despite the parties’ geo-economic interests, the Israel-Saudi reconciliation deal will be shelved in alignment with strong Arab public opinion. The “New Middle East”, in which nations placed geo-economic considerations above all else, could be derailed as the region falls back to the previous shackles of wars and conflicts. The future of economic prosperity in the Middle East demands a resolution to the Palestinian issue, and the US has to play a greater role in the Middle East in the coming days.
Diverse public polls indicate that as the conflict in Gaza expands, a greater number of Americans are expressing criticism of Israeli action as opposed to their initial support for Israel. The American public will judge Biden in the upcoming election based on the proactive measures he takes in response to this challenge. The extent of destruction and casualties among civilians during the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza is expected to maintain its prominence in the foreign policy discourse of the United States for an extended period of time. It is probable that public sentiment in the United States will remain influenced, which will present policymakers with additional obstacles in implementing their foreign policies prior to US elections when there are already murmurs of disappointment about US engagement in the Ukraine conflict. Revitalising Palestinian authority is an area in which Washington will continue to play a vital role in the Middle East even after the conflict concludes. The extent of the United States’ involvement in promoting peace in the region remains uncertain at this time; however, it is certain that the international community will anticipate Washington’s role in peacebuilding in the region.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.
Anisree Suresh is a Senior Associate, at Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR). She completed her M.A in International Studies from the School of International and Area Studies, Goa University. She has done a couple of research internships at reputed research institutions of IR. Her master’s dissertation was on BIMSTEC and Indo-Pacific and published a research paper on the same. Her research interests pertain to security studies, South Asia, Indo-Pacific, IR theory and gender.