In the absence of any crisis, Middle East politics carry a lot of weight in US presidential elections, and there is a deeper divide between Republicans and Democrats over the policies to follow in the region. Will this be the case with this year’s race for the White House?
MEMO caught up with Professor Emeritus Stephen Bronner for a conversation about the 2020 election and its impact on the Middle East and began by asking him about Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s Middle East policy.
The Middle East is likely to feature in the campaign because ending US involvement in regional wars has become a vote-getter; Americans are tired of war. Former President Barack Obama was the first to recognise this, which is one of the reasons why he was so reluctant to get dragged into the Syrian civil war.
According to Bronner, unless the US is involved anywhere directly and paying a heavy cost, foreign policy is unlikely to be a major issue in the coming election compared with previous polls, not least because Covid-19 has seen people focus on economic concerns. That being said, however, “Biden does not have a great record on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.”
During his campaign Biden has already said that if he is elected he will maintain a small troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq to help the fight against terrorism in the war-ravaged countries. “We will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” he insists, “which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” The Pentagon revealed last week that the number of US troops in Iraq will be reduced from just over 5,000 to about 3,000 this month. Biden, it must be remembered, supported the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the presence of US troops in Afghanistan.
Bronner believes in the power of “the squad” — Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — for shaping US Middle East policy. “Whether he brings [troops] home will depend very much on the type of pressure that is exerted on him.” These congresswomen from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party will, he feels, be able to exert great pressure upon a Biden administration about this.
When I asked about the fate of the fragile 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Bronner said that it hinges on the result of the election in November, rather than a planned US bid to trigger a return of all UN sanctions on Tehran. Withdrawal from the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was one aspect of what Bronner calls Donald Trump’s disastrous Iran policy. The withdrawal decision undermined America’s credibility on the international stage.
“The reality is clear. The JCPOA is working; that is a view shared by our European allies, independent experts and the current US Secretary of Defence. If the constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme under the JCPOA are lost, we could be hastening the day when we are faced with the choice between living with that threat and going to war to prevent it.”
Bronner added that despite Tehran’s declaration five years ago, Iran’s leadership is determined to remain committed to the nuclear deal. It is hoped that a Biden victory will salvage the pact.
In terms of US oil policy in the Middle East, the US presidential election will determine the next four years and shape the dynamics of supply and demand domestically and abroad. This will have implications for shale operations, sanctions, trade and relations with OPEC. Bronner says that US sanctions on Iran have shaped the oil market and if they are eased, the oil market would have to absorb millions of barrels of over-production.
Trump’s signature Middle East decisions, including moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognising Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, were deeply controversial and regarded as untouchable by previous administrations in Washington. Tellingly, Bronner believes that the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was inspired by Trump’s domestic and electoral concerns.
“Can he bring the Jewish community behind him for the next election?” asked Bronner. “My belief is that I don’t think that will work. There are too many other issues for the Jewish community ranging from health insurance for elderly Jews in Florida to the concerns of younger people with politics between Israel and Palestine. As such, 80 per cent of American Jews will vote for Biden. The new deal between Israel and the UAE will not help Trump in November, because the American people have other priorities, such as health insurance or economic concerns.”
He noted, however, that the Israel-UAE deal is a nightmare for Iran in its efforts against Israel in the region, and will not help relations between Iran and the US.
“The US, if it is going to rebuild its standing which has been completely shattered by Trump’s foreign policy, has to refinance organisations like the UN and seek a set of incremental improvements for Palestinians and Israelis by putting some pressure on Israel’s government.”