Biden and the Middle East | Navigating Between Idealpolitik and Realpolitik
Western foreign policy is often a delicate balancing act between realpolitik policy — one that is based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations; and idealpolitik policy — believing that ideals can and should be achieved through policy.
The tension between pragmatism and idealism presents the new US Administration and other Western policymakers with a dilemma. Prioritizing a value-driven policy that emphasizes Western moral, cultural, intellectual core values such as community, equality, identity, inclusiveness, human rights, multilateralism, political correctness, and responsibility over real-politics could endanger Western core interests. And prioritizing real-politics over a value-driven policy could result in an intellectual, political, and social crisis. Trying to circle the square often results in a Middle East policy with competing, often incompatible goals — and questionable, if not counterproductive, results.
Though it has not yet marked its 100 days in office, the Joe Biden Presidency already provides interesting examples of the tension between the practical and the ideological when it comes to United States policy in the Middle East.
This is the first of a series of two pieces examining President Biden’s Middle East policy through the lens of idealpolitik vs. realpolitik.
I will begin with Yemen: one of the most strategically located countries on the globe. Whoever controls Yemen and its surrounding waterways wields enormous power.
In September 2014, Iranian-backed Yemenite Shi’ite Houthi tribes conducted a military coup ousting Yemen’s legitimate government and taking over Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Saudi Arabia’s attempts to broker a peaceful solution failed. In March 2015, an Arab military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a military operation. The coalition’s goal was twofold. One goal was to restore the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the other to prevent Iran from establishing a military stronghold in Yemen.
The Biden administration wants to end the war and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. To that end, Biden has carried out two parallel policies. First, he reversed the Trump administration’s decision to label the Houthi tribes as a foreign terror group and opened a communication channel for dialogue with the Houthis. Second, he stopped selling Saudi Arabia offensive military equipment and hardware that Riyadh was using in the war in Yemen.
To a large extent, idealpolitik influenced Biden’s policy decisions regarding Yemen. This has arguably been influenced by the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose 2018 murder by Saudi agents in Turkey has led some Western media, intellectual, and political circles to cast Saudi Arabia as the villain in the war in Yemen. Oddly, they ignore the Houthis’ role in initiating the war in Yemen, and that they bear no less responsibility for the crisis.
As of now, Biden’s Yemen policy has been counterproductive on two levels.
First, in Yemen itself. Following Biden’s decisions, the Houthis launched a widespread offensive military attack on the Yemenite city of Ma’rib (southeast of Sana’a). Ma’rib is one of Yemen’s largest cities, and many of its 1.5 million residents are those who have been dislocated because of the war and sought refuge in the city. Thus, as of now, the war and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen are escalating.
Second, in response to Biden’s policy decisions, Iran and the Houthis have escalated their aggression in the region. Throughout February and March, the Houthis have increased their attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia — including domestic and international airports. Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militias have attacked US facilities in Iraq, and Iran was reportedly behind an attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman.
Iran’s goal is to become the regional superpower. A cornerstone of their strategy is to control two of the world’s most sensitive and strategic maritime passages: the Hormuz Strait and the Bab al Mandeb Strait. Iranian control over Yemen and the maritime routes that are a lynchpin of the world’s economy are unbearable threats — meaning that preventing Iran from taking over Yemen is in the interest of the US, the region and the world.
Prioritizing a value-driven policy over real political calculations, Biden’s policy in Yemen thus far has exacerbated the war and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and compromised the safety and security of US allies and assets in the region.
The Biden administration finds a Middle East that has entered a new era. The region’s changing geopolitical landscape will inevitably further increase the tensions between idealpolitik and realpolitik — and at the same time, Western policymakers’ dilemmas regarding Middle East policy. This tension will inevitably result in an inconsistent policy in some of the region’s most sensitive and strategic arenas. My next installment will explore the Eastern Mediterranean.
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