The least that can be said about Donald Trump’s U.S. foreign policy is that it was characterized by enormous upheavals. Since the first minutes of his inaugural address, President Trump pledged that “it is going to be only America First” and promised to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones.”
Donald Trump’s isolationist foreign policy translated into withdrawing from international agreements like the Paris Climate Change Accord, the World Health Organization or the Iran Nuclear Deal among others. As for the Middle East region, he unveiled through the Abraham Accords his vision for solving the conflict between Israel and Palestine. He built a closer alliance with Saudi Arabia while tightening the pressure on Iran.
Two years after the Biden administration took power, what are the main changes of the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
I discussed the latest developments in the Middle East with Paul Salem, President and CEO of the Middle East Institute (MEI).
This is part two of our conversation. To read Part One, go here.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1- How would you describe the U.S.-Saudi relations now?
The relations are deep and strong but cold. The strategic nature of the relationship, for example, in defense coordination, cooperation and sales is huge. There is no other major partner for Saudi Arabia than the U.S. on energy. They are tied together through the importance of the U.S. dollar that Saudi Arabia uses in its oil transactions, even with China.
2- Saudi Arabia has expressed its willingness to consider substituting the dollar by the Yuan for some oil trading with China…
Yes, there is a change that is occurring. None of America’s partners in the region agree that China and Russia are enemies. There is a profound disagreement strategically. The issue of the Yuan is very, very significant for them and is something that is still in its early days and hard to interpret exactly which way it is going. Saudi Arabia is signaling to the U.S. that if they do net get their way, they do not have to trade in dollar and they could trade in Yuan.
For Saudi Arabia in the immediate and foreseeable future, there is no other security partner. China cannot provide what America provides nor can Russia.
It owns a lot of U.S. treasury bills as does China. So playing with the dollar is also a risky business for Saudi Arabia.
3- What about the U.S.-Israeli relations, which have had some tension lately? President Biden said he was “very concerned” about the judicial proposal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu criticized the United States for inappropriately intervening in its internal affairs.
It is similar to Saudi Arabia in a way that the relationship basically is solid and is not going to really change for many, many reasons. Israel is a deep, deep ally. It is almost the 51st state of the United States. But similarly to Saudi Arabia, Israel got caught up in the politics.
Netanyahu made it very clear that he is Trump’s guy and he hates Obama and Biden.
Similarly, with Israel, (Biden) is openly critical because a big part of his party is critical, but the relationship itself is not at all in any jeopardy nor did Biden ever mention that there is any jeopardy in the relationship. He is just being critical.
Paul Salem, President and CEO of the Middle East Institute.
4- And the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians in this context? Israel has the most right wing government in its history. What about the involvement of the US administration in this major conflict?
There is no peace process. It has not existed for many years.
What the Biden administration is worried about now is not the peace process. It is the war process that Israel’s government is leading to. We are already seeing it. Days ago there were rockets from Lebanon, rockets from Gaza, retaliation from Israel… Things could get out of hand. The Biden administration is trying to keep things cool, but there is no peace process.
5- Speaking of Iran’s nuclear program, do you see, for instance, President Biden reviving the nuclear agreement with Iran that President Obama negotiated in 2015 and Trump abandoned?
Yes, Biden did revive it, but the Iranians would not have it. He wanted to go back to the nuclear deal. The Iranians wanted guarantees that whatever Biden does will endure for the next president, and in U.S. law, you cannot. It would have to be a treaty approved by the Senate which would require a two thirds majority of the Senate, which is impossible for a deal with Iran in the current politics.
The Iranians continue to enrich to higher and higher degrees. Biden has no real other plan than sanctions. He is not going to go to war with Iran on it.
6- Does the U.S. need to rethink its Middle East policy in general?
I would not say that the U.S. needs, like, a whole rethinking, but there is some acute problems that the U.S. has not found an effective policy for many issues, one of which is the Iran nuclear program.
The Obama administration found a way, which was the nuclear deal and then the Trump administration canceled it. The U.S. does not want to use any real military options. So here we are, a problem without a fix.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the U.S. has been enabling and supporting Israel for decades in its illegal annexation of the West Bank and its oppression of the Palestinians. That is not only a failing, it is a crime from the U.S. side. But you know, that is the politics of the U.S.