Two words describe Donald Trump’s legacy regarding America’s role in the world: discontinuity and disarray. If the Trump presidency had a signature, it was this: No one quite knew what he was going to do next.
Upon assuming office as Trump’s successor, Joe Biden therefore had two choices: to restore, or to innovate. He could seek to revive the status quo ante Trump. Or he could seize the opportunity presented by Trump’s rejection of precedent to craft a genuinely new approach to American statecraft.
The president’s recent trip to the Middle East makes his decision unmistakably clear: While Biden frequently describes the present moment in global history as an “inflection point” requiring comprehensive change, his administration’s actual aim when it comes to diplomacy is to hit the rewind button.
For PR purposes, US policy-makers—Trump excepted—have habitually insisted that promoting democracy and human rights plays a central role in the formulation of US policy. Such claims are to be taken with a grain of salt—and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East. For decades now, US policy in that region has centered on enforcing order among the disorderly, a task that not infrequently entails coercion, with the United States providing the necessary means.
If the political party you favor happens to be calling the shots in Washington, this is called realism. If the other party is in power, it’s known as hypocrisy. In either case, arming American “friends” in the region—regardless of whether they support prevailing US notions of democracy and human rights—is deemed essential to keeping at bay the forces of chaos and anarchy. This describes the essence of US policy in the Middle East for the past several decades.
Following 9/11, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama experimented with an alternative approach: Perhaps American arms in the hands of our own troops could once and for all pacify the Greater Middle East. The ensuing conflict, known for a time as the Global War on Terrorism, lasted 20 years, exacted vast costs, and ended in failure.
However, that failure left intact the conviction that arms hold the key to advancing US interests (if not values) in the region. Biden’s trip affirmed that conviction. Strip away the theater and this describes its purpose. The flow of made-in-the-USA weaponry into the region will therefore continue unabated.
Biden visited Israel long enough to declare the US-Israel strategic relationship “extraordinary,” “unparalleled,” “indispensable,” “unshakeable,” and rooted in “an unwavering commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the calling of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairing the world.” Yet as a practical matter, what makes the US-Israel relationship extraordinary is not a shared commitment to repairing the world but the $3.8 billion of weaponry that American taxpayers annually provide to Israel with virtually no strings attached.
Unlike the arms and munitions that the United States sends to besieged Ukraine on an emergency basis, US “security assistance” to Israel is essentially perpetual—despite the fact that Israel is militarily the strongest power in the Middle East, with a per capita GDP on a par with Germany’s.
Biden’s Middle East trip also included a one-on-one conversation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Egypt is not a democracy and the rule of law there is enforced sporadically if at all. As to repairing the world, it seems fair to say that this does not figure among Gen. Al Sisi’s priorities.
Even so, for decades now, the United States has faithfully supplied Egypt’s military with billions of dollars worth of fighter jets, helicopters, armored vehicles, and warships. Occasionally, members of Congress will make a fuss about the Egyptian government’s abysmal record on human rights. Deaf to such complaints, Biden used his meeting with Al Sisi to affirm that “the US-Egypt defense partnership remains a key pillar of regional stability.” Egypt will continue to receive its annual complement of American arms.
Of course, the centerpiece of Biden’s trip was his stop in Saudi Arabia and his encounter with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler of the kingdom. For members of US media, the encounter began with the fist bump heard round the world. As a candidate for president, Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah, in no small part because of the vicious murder of a Washington Post columnist by Saudi assassins. Now here was Biden making nice with the individual reputed to have given the order to kill Jamal Khashoggi.
The professions of shock from across the media had more than a little in common with the discovery of gambling at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been far and away the number one purchaser of US arms. No nation on earth has played a bigger role in sustaining the health of the American military-industrial-congressional complex. Biden’s de facto reconciliation with MBS provides assurances that the flow of American high-tech weaponry to Saudi Arabia will continue—and that Saudi petrodollars will continue to enrich America’s arms manufacturers and their congressional retainers.
According to analysis in The Washington Post, the overarching purpose of Biden’s Middle Eastern trip was to “subtly reassert U.S. leadership in the Middle East.” Such a claim is simply fanciful. The not-so-subtle purpose was actually to signal that Biden has no intention of tampering with the fundamentals actually defining US policy in the region. First among those fundamentals is to serve as a supplier of weapons.
The times may be a-changin’. But the underlying essentials of US policy in the Middle East are not. The priority assigned to arms deals tells us that.