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On foreign policy matters, unlike on domestic policies, party differences in the US or those between liberals and the hard right are minor and tactical, never strategic. The language and rhetoric differs but all sections of the US foreign policy establishment (FPE) have, since the end of the Second World War, and reinforced by victory in the Cold War, sought to secure, sustain and deepen US global primacy or its ‘preponderance of power’ over all others. This has meant striving to maximise control and influence over the Eurasian landmass including the North African coastal states along the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America have their value, but it is in the Eurasian landmass that most of the world’s population, key resources and, above all, the major and emerging powers are.
Hence the US is determined to control the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian waters surrounding this landmass, to sustain and expand its alliance structures inland as much as possible and to identify who are its potential or actual rivals. So NATO has absorbed Eastern Europe and expanded to Russia’s “near abroad”, aiming also to drive a wedge between Russia and the second most powerful country, Ukraine, that emerged from the Soviet break-up. For some time now, its rivals have been identified as China, Russia and Iran, countries that for some in the US establishment are not just rivals but strategic opponents or enemies.
For this overall project of domination, West Asia/North Africa or the WANA region is key. It is so because of:
- its oil and gas wealth, which the US itself is no longer itself dependent upon but control of which continues to gives it great leverage over Europe, China and India, which will remain dependent on resources there for some time to come.
- the status of the dollar as the international currency, which requires the constant input of petro-dollars.
- WANA’s own territorial positioning and its direct access to Central Asia (also oil-and-gas rich as well as flanking Russia), which put it at the geo-political heart of Eurasia.
WANA, however, has long been the most politically turbulent region in the world. So much so that US power has also not been properly stabilised there despite the regional strategic stool of alliances on which the US has long sat. The four legs of that stool are Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. There are four main reasons for this constant turbulence. First, the Palestine question and second, the Kurdish struggle for greater and unified autonomy. Third is the fact of long-standing dictatorships whose populations want greater democratisation and are generally more hostile to the US than their governments. Fourth, even among these autocracies there are those which for various reasons remain independent of, and opposed to, the expansion of US influence and power.
US military interventions to change the political situation in its own favour have created a greater mess than before in all these countries, but insofar as none of the US’s main rivals have stabilised their influence in the region this is a situation Washington and Biden can live with.
Post-Trump, what will Biden do or not do?
On Israel-Palestine, the answer is nothing significant. Jerusalem will be accepted as the capital. Joe Biden will use the aid lever to keep Fatah under control as sub-contractor of the occupation while preventing any moves towards possible Hamas-Fatah unity. There will continue to be lip service to the farce of a ‘negotiated two-state solution’ with perhaps the occasional mild rebuke of Israeli actions.
Three of the legs of the strategic stool – Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have come closer as shown by the Abraham Accords, though Saudi Arabian recognition of Israel may well have to await the passing away of the current monarch and father of Mohammed bin Salman. Turkey’s growing regional ambitions and behaviour has caused a degree of irritation and worry in Washington. However, it remains a staunch NATO ally; its defence deals with Russia are not a serious problem anymore than India’s with Russia. Turkey’s brutal assaults on former Kurdish allies in Syria will be accepted since Turkey is much more important to US interests given its links to Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Erdogan’s current quest to ban the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey itself has aroused US criticism but nothing more. Despite Turkey and Iran wanting closer economic ties, to the basic satisfaction of Biden and the US Establishment they are on opposite sides in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Despite points of tension, relations between Israel and Turkey are manageable.
Russian and Iranian involvement with Assad is a US concern and precisely why the US will continue to support the resistance to Assad – Biden’s first foreign policy military action was bombing Syria and he will not completely remove US military presence in eastern Syria which also guards that part of the border with Iraq.
On Yemen, Biden has lifted some sanctions, added others and seems willing to push for compromises with the Iranian-backed Houthis in the search for a stable regime, but one which should remain significantly more beholden to the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey than to Iran.
On Iraq, Biden may reduce the number of US troops but will maintain a military presence, continue substantial external military support and play on the Sunni-Shia divide so as to counter as much as possible Iran’s continuing influence.
Given that the Abraham Accords consolidated Israel’s ties with Gulf autocracies as well as the rising antagonism between Iran and a more aggressive and expansionist Saudi Arabia, Biden will want more military-political concessions from Teheran before going back to the old Obama deal especially since Russia and China are both seeking closer ties with Iran.
What can we hope for in West Asia?
It is not inter-state policy changes or manoeuvres by Biden or between any other country’s governments that will bring about a significant leap forward in the pursuit of greater justice, let alone peace. Instead, we have to look in the medium or longer term for major intra-state changes. Here, one actually emerging development and one future possibility come to mind.
For the first time ever, Palestinians within Israel have joined their compatriots in West Bank and Gaza and in the diaspora in sustained and united actions. A younger layer of Palestinians, increasing critical of both Fatah and Hamas, is growing. Furthermore, in contrast to their governments, public sympathy and support for Palestinians against Israel is growing in Western Europe, Canada and above all in the US as never before, and will over time exert a newer and stronger pressure on their respective governments behaviour vis-a-vis apartheid Israel.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 and after, though repressed, are a warning of things to come. All it takes is for one authoritarian regime sometime, somewhere to be overthrown and a popular and stable democratic order to be established and endure (unlike the uprisings of 2011). This will not only have the most powerful knock-on effect but in doing so can so dramatically alter the wider regional and global relationship of forces against the US, Israel and its autocratic allies that all kinds of progressive advances can then be realistically envisioned.
If both these developments are something to hope for, do not expect any government inside or outside WANA (including India) to seriously think or work along these lines – they are too busy pursuing their realpolitik ‘national interests’.
Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is the author of The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India and The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism.