Friday, 27 October 2023 12:05

The Biden administration needs to update its old thinking on Israel-Palestine

President Joe Biden confers with national security adviser Jake Sullivan during a roundtable with Jewish community leaders in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building October 11, 2023, in Washington, DC.

On September 29, at a festival put on by the Atlantic, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan boasted of the Middle East’s unprecedented stability. Just a week later, Hamas attacked Israel, and far from being stable, the Middle East hasn’t been this volatile in years.

It’s not quite fair to hold someone to a turn of phrase on a conference panel, but it turns out that Sullivan wasn’t speaking off the cuff. That sentiment encapsulated how the Biden administration’s key thinker sees the state of the world — or, at least, how he saw it. The sentiment also appears in the print version of Sullivan’s November/December cover story for Foreign Affairs magazine.

Overtaken by events would be a generous way to put this.

“The Middle East is quieter than it has been for decades,” he wrote in an essay that went to print before Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel. Sullivan deleted that passage from the web edition of the article and updated the Middle East portions of the piece. “We are working closely with regional partners to facilitate the sustainable delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in the Gaza Strip,” Sullivan writes in the online version. “We are alert to the risk that the current crisis could spiral into a regional conflict.”

But the print edition of the magazine arrived on doorsteps this week and is now a striking artifact of Biden’s pre-October 7 priorities. And while it would be easy to dunk on some of the now out-of-date passages from Sullivan, which demonstrated how the Biden administration totally missed the possibility of a new Hamas-Israel war, what’s more interesting is how little these events have seemed to change things for the administration.

A read of the web version of his piece shows that the Hamas-Israel war has not fundamentally altered the national security adviser’s assumptions about the world. He remains focused on using unconventional economic tools, like investing in the US industrial base and using export controls to advance US statecraft, and stitching together new alliances to benefit American interests, all while being disciplined about how the US uses its military power. “Americans should be optimistic about the future,” he writes in both versions. “Old assumptions and structures must be adapted to meet the challenges the United States will face between now and 2050.” But what’s noteworthy is that the United States’ approach to the Middle East and Israel, according to Sullivan, is still not one of those areas that needs an update.

Yet the Hamas-Israel war reveals both the limits of Biden’s current foreign policy and the need for new thinking. Even as the administration has prioritized countering China and Russia, the Middle East has pulled the White House back in. For Sullivan, the Biden administration’s approach “frees up resources for other global priorities, reduces the risk of new Middle Eastern conflicts, and ensures that U.S. interests are protected on a far more sustainable basis.” But the US has sent two aircraft carrier groups to the Middle East, militants are attacking US military bases in Iraq and Syria, and a severe humanitarian crisis is spiraling in Gaza, all as the potential for a larger regional war looms. The unconventional diplomatic tools Sullivan touts in other contexts don’t always apply well to Israel: The country’s economic partnerships with Arab states, for example, are not coming in handy.

Biden paid a political price for the Afghanistan withdrawal, and Sullivan stands by the decision to “avoid protracted forever wars ... that do little to actually reduce the threats to the U.S.” But that instinct doesn’t seem sufficiently present here. The administration backs Israel in a war that — for all the US’s pushing for Israel to define its goals — has no clear outcome and that will wear away US credibility in the world. The administration has shown an old instinct to call for a two-state solution without an investment in policies that would lead there.

The last three weeks have shown that the assumption that the Middle East is stable is simply wrong — no one could deny that. But what policymakers should realize is that the old Middle East toolkit of managing conflicts without addressing their root causes does not apply. And on that measure, at least, the Biden administration is not ready to offer a correction.

What Jake Sullivan’s essay says

Sullivan in the essay focuses on the Biden administration’s big themes: countering China (and to a lesser extent Russia), prioritizing industrial policy, reinvigorating alliances and multilateral partnerships, and tackling global development issues like health and the environment, with signposts on how the US will prioritize these and other competing challenges.

“By investing in the sources of domestic strength, deepening alliances and partnerships, delivering results on global challenges, and staying disciplined in the exercise of power, the United States will be prepared to advance its vision of a free, open, prosperous, and secure world no matter what surprises are in store,” Sullivan writes. “We have created, in Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s words, ‘situations of strength.’”

What makes the essay noteworthy is not just the content, but the author. The national security adviser has gotten more powerful in each subsequent presidency, and Sullivan is the zenith of that trend. He’s considered the architect of the administration’s foreign policy, as profile after profile has portrayed him.

It’s also rare for a sitting national security adviser to write at such length for readers. And it’s different from a speech, which Sullivan has delivered at many a think tank and which often serves as an announcement of a new policy; it’s also less technical or in-depth than an academic publication or a policy memo. You might call it a vibes piece, not with actionable foreign policy advice but rather an ideological blueprint for the Biden administration’s worldview.

The main focus is on economic statecraft and alliance-building aimed at pushing back against China, with the Middle East component coming much later on in the article.

What’s interesting is that a war between Israel and Hamas doesn’t alter Jake Sullivan’s fundamental reasoning: The Middle East still falls under the heading of “Pick Your Battles.” That doesn’t seem feasible, nor does it seem to reflect what the administration has done since October 7. The last three weeks have drawn the US in, given Washington’s longtime role as Israel’s security guarantor.

The administration’s Middle East approach “emphasizes deterring aggression, de-escalating conflicts, and integrating the region through joint infrastructure projects and new partnerships, including between Israel and its Arab neighbors,” Sullivan wrote in the original version of the essay. “And it is bearing fruit,” bringing up the example of a “new economic corridor” announced in September that would ultimately connect India to Europe, through the Middle East. The web update changed “bearing fruit” to, “There was material progress,” and cited the relative calm in Yemen’s war. The rest of the text stayed the same.

Military trucks being unloaded from the tail ramp of a cargo jet.
Israel received a new batch of US military aid last week as part of the package allocated by Washington to Tel Aviv.

A lot of lines were cut, like “we have de-escalated crises in Gaza,” referencing the May 2021 conflict there, and “restored direct diplomacy between the parties after years of its absence.” (Israel and the PLO held talks in March, which didn’t go anywhere, and this month the two parties are not talking.)

Biden’s team has only put limited attention to Israel-Palestine in the past two and a half years. When Israel and Hamas fought in May 2021, Sullivan worked with regional partners to negotiate a ceasefire in 10 days. That event does not majorly figure into how the administration sees the Middle East. It seems to have confirmed priors, reinforcing the now-shattered idea that the conflict is manageable.

Palestine has not been a central component of Middle East policy. President Donald Trump shunted aside Palestinians in favor of Israel-Arab normalization deals, and the Biden administration has continued that policy. In July 2022, the White House released a fact sheet on the “United States-Palestinian Relationship” that focused on economic initiatives without a larger strategy for addressing the root causes of the conflict. As a senior administration official told journalists that month, “[W]e are not going to come in with a top-down peace plan, because we don’t believe that that would be the best approach and it would set expectations that would probably fall flat.” Ever since, the administration sought a deal that would normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sullivan does not mention the path toward a Palestinian state in the original essay, but instead emphasizes “integrating the region” through normalization. It’s why the obscure I2U2 partnership (between India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the US) merits a mention, an example that shows how the administration was continuing the Trump policy of pursuing a stability in the region that overlooked Palestinians. That approach has now proved to be unsustainable and even incendiary. And those policies will be increasingly difficult as the Israeli military campaign continues.

The essay has now been updated to say, “We are committed to a two-state solution. In fact, our discussions with Saudi Arabia and Israel toward normalization have always included significant proposals for the Palestinians. If agreed, this component would ensure that a path to two states remains viable, with significant and concrete steps taken in that direction by all relevant parties.”

But there are not strong indications that US leadership can secure an independent, sovereign Palestinian state. It hasn’t been a priority in the past two and a half years, nor is it now a priority for the near or even medium term.

Above all else, and beyond the behind-the-scenes efforts Biden has undertaken to slow a ground invasion of Gaza, the administration stands with Israel. Biden is asking Congress for $14 billion of military aid to the country. US officials have reportedly helped delay a ground incursion into Gaza and marshaled a small supply of humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza. But the Biden administration has not called for a Mideast ceasefire and vetoed a United Nations resolution with softened language on this.

But the situation is so dire — the Israeli military campaign continues — that it’s surprising that the Biden administration sees its policies as durable and its framework as working.

The Biden administration’s Middle East mantra, as both versions of the essay conclude, is, “We have to advance regional integration in the Middle East while continuing to check Iran.” That is, Biden is doubling down on Israel normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia without acknowledging how much has changed in the world. The Hamas-Israel war led the Saudi crown prince and the Iranian president to talk on the phone for the first time since they began a China-led rapprochement. We haven’t yet seen such a course correction from Biden.

The Biden administration is still focused on countering China

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Jake Sullivan was leading White House efforts to write the National Security Strategy. That document guides US policy broadly, and officials delayed publication and rewrote it to stress the threat of Russia alongside the marquee issue of China.

The Biden administration remains focused on that superpower conflict. “The crisis in the Middle East does not change the fact that the United States needs to prepare for a new era of strategic competition—in particular by deterring and responding to great-power aggression,” writes Sullivan in the article. He also discusses China with measured language that reflects the administration’s attempts to break with the Trump administration’s heated China rhetoric while still maintaining some of its hawkish approaches.

Ali Wyne, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, agrees that the Middle East war does not fundamentally affect what the US should focus on today. “Instability in the Middle East and Europe does not invalidate the judgment that the Indo-Pacific’s economic and military centrality in world affairs is poised to grow apace,” he wrote in an email.

The trickier part from a policy perspective is the role of the US military in the world. Sullivan acknowledges that “Washington could no longer afford an undisciplined approach to the use of military force.” Sullivan says the administration seeks to dodge the trap of “protracted forever wars that can tie down US forces and that do little to actually reduce the threats to the United States,” and cites the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But explaining this, Sullivan doesn’t engage with the relatively small but seemingly permanent US troop presence in places like Iraq and Syria, among others. Those US servicemembers are coming under more and more militant attacks and could draw the US even further into Middle East war.

Sullivan argues in the essay that the US has entered a whole new era and that means that the United States has to make significant adjustments. “And yet, much of his prescription looks a lot like inertia,” Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me. “None of this is really argued in a way that would give a reader confidence that the US government has a plan to keep costs and risks under control.”

While Sullivan acknowledges in his writing that America’s resources are limited and difficult choices will need to be made, he does not address the trade-offs or how to think about them. A US aircraft carrier — like the two Biden deployed to the waters near Israel in the weeks after Hamas’s attack, out of 11 — can only be in one place at once.

The potential of a long-term entanglement in a new Middle East war imperils Biden’s priorities. It could take not just manpower, but resources and attention away from countering China — which is “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge,” according to the National Security Strategy. Yet the Biden administration acknowledges, “As we implement this strategy, we will continually assess and reassess our approach to ensure we are best serving the American people.” Now is one of those moments to assess whether this is all working.

A wholesale reassessment of the US relationship with Israel, its closest Middle East ally and a stalwart defense partner, would be unlikely. Hamas is holding Americans and dual citizens hostage, and a wider war would hurt the US’s Middle East partners. The US sees the partnership with Israel based on shared values and cultural connections. American support of Israel is an unquestioned tenet of bipartisan foreign policy.

But that partnership carries risks, too — and not just ones related to this outbreak of violence. “Much of the world sees the United States actively assisting the government of Israel in dispossessing and occupying Palestinian land,” Wertheim told me. Sullivan doesn’t grapple with what that means for US prestige and power in the world that many observers see the US as complicit if not a participant in Israel’s Gaza war, even as the Israeli goals remain undefined.

The essay from Sullivan contrasts that of his former Obama administration colleague Ben Rhodes. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Rhodes cautions that if Israel further escalates its military campaign in Gaza, it risks “igniting a war of undetermined length, cost, and consequences.” Rhodes says there is a need for “genuinely pursuing an Israeli–Palestinian peace as the end of this war.”

That would require intensive US leadership.

The cover of the issue is a frayed and fragmented American flag above Sullivan’s name and the headline “The Sources of American Power.” Previously, that image may have signaled the coming together of the US after the cleavages of the Trump years and the toll it took on American influence in the world. Now, the flag suggests the US is coming apart, unable to calm a Middle East at war and facing internal cracks as it grapples with the threats of Russia and China.