So far, Biden seems to be trying to find a balance between these two approaches—one that upholds America’s cherished principles while acknowledging cold realities, and that wields both diplomacy and military action. In a region where America’s commitment to its values is regularly put to its harshest test, he is trying to forge an excruciatingly nuanced middle path. And while he has managed this balance so far, it will prove extraordinarily difficult to maintain as new challenges emerge in the region.
The tactical differences between Biden and his predecessors are on display in the new administration’s handling of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
A key Biden goal is returning to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that the Obama administration reached in 2015. In order to push the deal forward, Obama refrained from responding to Iran’s provocations, to the frustration of critics who accused him of “appeasement.” Obama made other controversial overtures to Iran on the path to a deal. For example, although he claimed the negotiations didn’t hold him back from taking more aggressive action in Syria, an Iranian ally, there is reason for skepticism.
Even as Trump rejected the Iran deal and imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions on the Iranian regime, he too ignored multiple Iranian attacks. He didn’t respond in 2019, when Iranian allies in Yemen nearly crippled Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, or the next year, when Iranian-backed forces fired a barrage of missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq. He did carry out one crucial operation, killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, but there was no coherent deterrence strategy. Many Iranian attacks were ignored.
That’s probably why Iran was caught by surprise last week when Biden responded to a series of attacks by Iranian proxy militias against American targets in Iraq. The U.S. response—striking Iranian targets in Syria—was not unleashed recklessly; it was carefully calibrated to prevent problems for the Iraqi government. (Pro-Iran forces in Iraq often exploit U.S. action to agitate against America and the Baghdad government.) The Biden administration also made sure to discuss the strikes with its allies ahead of the operation. At the same time, the fact that Biden was willing to take military action dispelled fears that, in his eagerness to return to the Obama-era nuclear deal, Biden would turn a blind eye to Iran as its allied fighters wreak havoc.
“The Iranians did not realize that Biden is not Obama,” an Israeli official told Axios approvingly.
Saudi Arabia also is probably relieved that Biden is not Obama—even if Riyadh is still not exactly sure who Biden is. The Saudis couldn’t wait for Obama to leave. They felt he had turned toward Iran at their expense; he had publicly called them a “so-called” ally and said they should “share the neighborhood” with Iran. Then came Trump, who embraced the kingdom, discarded any concern for human rights and refused to release a U.S. intelligence report (as was required by law) that concluded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was responsible for the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It is here that Biden’s needle-threading is most visible. Whereas the Trump administration preferred to communicate with MBS, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Biden last week called King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the president’s formal counterpart. Communications with MBS, who is also defense minister, have been downgraded; he now speaks with the U.S. defense secretary. With that, the Biden administration has essentially withdrawn the recognition of MBS as Saudi Arabia’s leader, while maintaining contact with him.
In the call with the king, Biden reaffirmed Washington’s longstanding commitment to Saudi defense, but he also highlighted the need for improvements on human rights in Saudi Arabia and a solution to the humanitarian disaster in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The next day, Biden released the intelligence report on Khashoggi, which officially blamed MBS for the killing. On the one hand, the report seared a painful brand on the prince for the world to see. At the same time, Biden declined to sanction MBS, as he did other Saudi officials involved in the killing. He was rightly criticized for not punishing MBS more harshly, but Biden knows MBS is likely to become king and chose not to sacrifice the relationship.
On Israel, Biden again is neither Obama nor Trump. Obama left the Israelis traumatized. In one of his first foreign trips as president, he went to the Middle East but did not stop in Israel. Instead, he gave a speech in Cairo, where, among other things, he publicly criticized Israeli settlements. Relations went downhill from there. Trump, meanwhile, gave free rein to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sided fully with him, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, supporting Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights and looking away when Israel expanded West Bank settlements.
Biden will leave the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. But Israelis are concerned about his plans to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal, and other differences abound: In a call with Netanyahu last month, Biden brought up the need to advance peace with Palestinians. He also opposes settlement expansion. Nonetheless, in his call with Netanyahu, he reaffirmed his personal commitment to Israel’s security. And during the campaign, Biden made clear that he would address disagreements with the Israeli prime minister in private.
Biden is a firm believer in personal relationships as a foundation of foreign policy. All signs suggest he will lean on those relationships and continue trying to forge a middle course. With decades of experience in foreign policy—far more than almost any of his predecessors—he comes to the job with a unique depth of understanding.
Still, threading that needle will not be easy. Biden has signaled that he wants to make the Middle East a lower priority than it has been in the past. Yet the region is a tangle of interconnected, often explosive conflicts with a habit of suddenly requiring urgent attention. Events in the region also tend to draw intense interest from domestic constituencies in the United States. That means Biden’s actions will be closely scrutinized—and criticized—at home.
Sooner or later, Biden will make a decision that will produce a sharp reaction. A moment will come when that careful blend of realism and values will not hold. Then we will see the real test of what the Biden Doctrine is, and whether it can withstand the realities of the Middle East.