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Given America’s history in the Middle East, should Biden stay the course?

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Given America’s history in the Middle East, should Biden stay the course?

‘I can resist everything except temptation,” said once Oscar Wilde in a quip that American presidents rewrote thus: “I can resist everything except the Middle East.”

Now, as he prepares his game plan, President-elect Joe Biden had better recall his predecessors’ experiences and bury our sorry region at the bottom of his agenda.

A slew of American presidents surrendered to the Middle Eastern temptation only to emerge humbled, haunted and sometimes also humiliated.

Jimmy Carter made the Middle East a central part of his presidency by brokering the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal, only to be driven from office by a Middle Eastern revolution that exposed all his weakness, ineptitude and naiveté.   

Ronald Reagan sustained the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, in which 220 Marines were killed, the worst blow to American prestige during his presidency.

George H. Bush defeated Iraq and redeemed Kuwait, but his Middle Eastern hyperactivity came at the expense of his attention to the domestic issues that ultimately cost him his job.

Bill Clinton hosted Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak for peace talks in his presidency’s twilight, hoping to depart as a great peacemaker whose diplomatic legacy would outweigh its scandals. Instead, he emerged from that initiative as the leader of a mighty empire who was snubbed by a guy with no army, treasure or state.

George W. Bush was set to learn from Clinton’s misadventure and avoid the Middle East when the September 11 attacks created his own Middle Eastern temptation, the war in Iraq, which became his presidency’s bane.

Barack Obama learned nothing from his predecessors’ traumas, and dived head on into the Middle East’s fray with his much-heralded Cairo Speech. The sermon, which assumed the Middle East was ready for his gospel of tolerance, freedom and peace, was soon followed by multiple civil wars, a massive refugee crisis, empty American threats toward a genocidal Syria, and a grand Russian comeback as Middle Eastern conqueror, power broker and supplier of arms.

Finally, Donald Trump’s Middle Eastern experience has actually been a catastrophic presidency’s one ray of light, but the outgoing president’s successes here, like the elder Bush’s in his time, proved irrelevant when it came to America’s electoral verdict.

American presidents, in short, can’t win in the Middle East, and this alone should be reason for Joe Biden to avoid initiative here. Yet there are even better reasons, both Middle Eastern and American, for him to push this region to the bottom of his agenda.

Nothing in the Middle East demands urgent American action.



, the economy is battered, society is disillusioned and the ayatollahs’ popularity is in the doldrums. If Biden offers them concessions, the way Obama did, they will see in him a weakling, and if he further corners them, he might make them do stupid things. Best let them continue sinking in the swamp where they are trapped.

In Damascus, the regime is up to its neck with the devastation of its civil war, and Russia is at a loss to foot its reconstruction’s bills. Best for America is to let these trends persist until crisis erupts between Moscow and Damascus, as it ultimately will.

In Baghdad, sentiment has tilted against the Iranian hegemony. Helping its rivals would of course be wise, but that can be done from afar, through Jordan and Kurdistan. Sending American troops back to that hornets’ nest would be reckless.

In Cairo, Riyadh, and the rest of the Sunni capitals the regimes are pro-American, but they also recall Obama’s betrayal of Hosni Mubarak, and the backwind Obama gave Egypt’s short-lived Islamist rule. Winning back these regimes’ trust will therefore be imperative for the man they recall as Obama’s deputy, and the way to do that is not by lecturing to them foreign ideas, but by letting them be.

Lastly, Biden would also do well to initiate nothing vis-à-vis

the Palestinians

. Yes, it would be great if they finally struck a deal with Israel and finished off the Arab-Israel conflict once and for all. However, American presidents have already tried to make that happen, and their repeated failures were monumental. Why would Biden fare any better?

There are, in short, good Middle Eastern reasons for Biden to put the Middle East on his back burner. Yet American reasons to do that are even better.

The America that Biden inherits is socially traumatized, economically limping, and politically ill. Healing his own country is therefore Biden’s most urgent task, and that alone adds up to a four-year term’s full-time job.

Yes, some attention will have to be dedicated to select foreign issues, especially China and North Korea, but otherwise it should all be about the American people’s rehabilitation.

Judging by Biden’s initial appointments this is indeed his intention. Antony (Tony) Blinken, the designated secretary of state, is a veteran, balanced, and cautious diplomat. He will cultivate stability and won’t try to reinvent the wheel. Janet Yellen, his choice for treasury secretary, is a first-rate economist whose experience as chair of the Federal Reserve means Biden intends to seriously focus on the economy. The reported intention to include a Republican in his cabinet means Biden understands the need in nursing America’s wounds.

For the past four years American society has been abused. This abuse resulted from the American elites’ disproportionate presence – physically, economically, culturally and mentally – in the big coastal cities. The consequent neglect of what sprawls between the coasts created the vacuum into which Donald Trump marched unopposed.

That neglected hinterland is not in the Mideast; it’s in the Midwest.

Embracing the 74 million Americans who voted Trump because they feel economically insecure and politically alienated should be Biden’s main daily activity, and restoring their confidence in America’s ideals, norms and political system should be his presidency’s overarching aim. The Middle East can wait

<a href=”” rel=”nofollow”></a>The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity

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