Reading the tealeaves of a new American administration is something of a pastime for Middle East watchers. For the leaders in Middle East capitals, it is more like a full-time job. Who the American president chooses to call or meet first can often reveal something of his intentions for the next four years.
Sometimes, the call sheet is revealing of future foreign policy. Donald Trump’s first call to a Middle East leader was to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and the two had a close relationship over the next four years. At other times, it is less telling: Barack Obama called Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak on his first day in office. Two years later, with protests convulsing Cairo, he called on him to step down.
So Arab capitals have watched as six months of the new Biden administration passed without a single face-to-face meeting with a leader from the region. In the past two weeks, that has changed: Joe Biden first welcomed Jordan’s King Abdullah to the White House, followed by Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
Those choices, and what was discussed, are revealing but hardly comforting. Joe Biden is signaling that he is uninterested in solving the – often dramatic – problems of the region. Instead, his focus is on the dull, boring political work of finishing the vaccine rollout and rebuilding the physical and human infrastructure of America. This determination leaves little time for Arab allies abroad.
The choice of King Abdullah and Al-Kadhimi is revealing. Both are weak US allies, buffeted by outside forces. Both were looking for strong support from Biden. Both were disappointed.
Abdullah, the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites, found himself sidelined during the Trump administration in favor of relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. By meeting him first, Biden was signaling he intends to return to the steady – but, frankly, deeply unsatisfactory – status quo ante.
Al-Kadhimi’s situation is more precarious. Weeks away from an election, not only can Iraq’s prime minister not rein in Iran-backed militias, but he can’t even publicly endorse US airstrikes on them.
For both, Biden offered little beyond the bare minimum, telling Abdullah “you live in a tough neighborhood,” and declining to endorse Al-Kadhimi, saying only he was “looking forward” to seeing an election in October. Those statements were studiously boring, designed to offer little more than a shrug.
It was reminiscent of his meeting in June with Afghanistan’s president when, against a backdrop of warnings of a Taliban takeover, Biden merely said that “Afghans will have to decide their own future.”
In part, this is a recognition by Biden that the weaknesses of Jordan or Iraq, or the reasons why the Afghan war went badly, are not confined to one year or one administration, but are the result of much longer political trends, trends the US is reluctant – and may be powerless – to resolve.
But it is also an extension of Obama’s view that foreign entanglements are distractions best avoided in pursuing a domestic agenda. Biden studiously avoided the Israel-Palestine question until the Gaza war exploded. He has yet to say anything about a deadly attack on an Israeli-linked tanker off the coast of Oman, blamed on Iran, or the attempted hijacking of an asphalt tanker this week.
More than one American commentator has referred to Biden’s first few months in office as “building back boring,” a play on an erstwhile slogan of “building back better” and Biden’s low-key reputation.
But building back boring is time-consuming and, given the tricky mathematics of the house of representatives and senate, requires focus and dedication. Biden is trying to push through a vast infrastructure plan. Foreign entanglements are costly, not only in money but especially in political attention, and the new president is determined to avoid them. Even when he ordered airstrikes against militia groups in Iraq in June, there was no thundering speech in front of the cameras; it was left to the Pentagon press office to issue a statement confirming the strikes.
With little fanfare, Biden is drawing a close on the War on Terror years. He has withdrawn from Afghanistan and will end combat missions in Iraq – that was the main announcement of his meeting with Al-Kadhimi, although there was no press conference in the Rose Garden to declare it, and no “Mission Accomplished” banner.
On the same day Jordan’s Abdullah arrived in Washington, the Pentagon announced a detainee from Guantanamo Bay had been transferred home for the first time, suggesting the controversial facility may finally be closed. This is the dull genius of Biden’s presidency, quietly extricating himself from the wars of his predecessors, while planning to spend vast sums on rebuilding at home.
The message to the Middle East may have taken six months to be delivered, but it was unmistakably harsh, especially to traditional allies like Jordan who are hoping for more US involvement, not less. And the message was this: America may support you, but its days of leading from the front in the Middle East are over.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.