A Biden Doctrine for the Middle East Is Forming. And It’s Big.
MAP CEO Nader Mousavizadeh and Thomas L. Friedman on the complexity and volatility in the Middle East.
There are two things I believe about the widening crisis in the Middle East.
We are about to see a new Biden administration strategy unfold to address this multifront war involving Gaza, Iran, Israel and the region — what I hope will be a “Biden Doctrine” that meets the seriousness and complexity of this dangerous moment.
And if we don’t see such a big, bold doctrine, the crisis in the region is going to metastasize in ways that will strengthen Iran, isolate Israel and leave America’s ability to influence events there for the better in tatters.
A Biden Doctrine — as I’m terming the convergence of strategic thinking and planning that my reporting has picked up — would have three tracks.
On one track would be a strong and resolute stand on Iran, including a robust military retaliation against Iran’s proxies and agents in the region in response to the killing of three U.S. soldiers at a base in Jordan by a drone apparently launched by a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq.
On the second track would be an unprecedented U.S. diplomatic initiative to promote a Palestinian state — NOW. It would involve some form of U.S. recognition of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would come into being only once Palestinians had developed a set of defined, credible institutions and security capabilities to ensure that this state was viable and that it could never threaten Israel. Biden administration officials have been consulting experts inside and outside the U.S. government about different forms this recognition of Palestinian statehood might take.
On the third track would be a vastly expanded U.S. security alliance with Saudi Arabia, which would also involve Saudi normalization of relations with Israel — if the Israeli government is prepared to embrace a diplomatic process leading to a demilitarized Palestinian state led by a transformed Palestinian Authority.
If the administration can pull this together — a huge if — a Biden Doctrine could become the biggest strategic realignment in the region since the 1979 Camp David treaty.
The three tracks absolutely have to be tied together, though, for a Biden Doctrine to succeed. I believe U.S. officials understand this.
Because this I know for sure: Oct. 7 is forcing a fundamental rethinking about the Middle East within the Biden administration, given the barbaric Hamas attack on Israel; the massive Israeli retaliation against Hamas that has killed thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza; the widening attacks on Israeli and U.S. personnel in the region; and the inability of Israel’s right-wing government to articulate any plan for governing Gaza the morning after the war’s end with a non-Hamas Palestinian partner.
The rethinking underway signals an awareness that we can no longer allow Iran to try to drive us out of the region, Israel into extinction and our Arab allies into intimidation by acting through proxies — Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shiite militias in Iraq — while Tehran blithely sits back and pays no price.
And, simultaneously, it signals an awareness that the U.S. will never have the global legitimacy, the NATO allies and the Arab and Muslim allies it needs to take on Iran in a more aggressive manner unless we stop letting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold our policy hostage and we start building a credible, legitimate Palestinian Authority that can one day govern Gaza and the West Bank effectively and as a good neighbor to Israel along final borders they would negotiate together.
Nader Mousavizadeh, founder and C.E.O. of the geopolitical consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners and a senior adviser to then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, describes this emerging Biden Doctrine as “the dual reckoning strategy.”
“You strategically call Iran’s bluff and, at the same time, you embark on an unprecedented initiative to lay the groundwork for a demilitarized Palestinian state, in ways the U.S. has never done before,” said Mousavizadeh. “Each track needs the other to succeed. Each track bolsters and justifies the other. Pushing back on Iran and its proxies in an enhanced and sustained manner strengthens Israel’s security and the security of our Arab allies. Pairing that with an authentic and bold U.S. commitment to a Palestinian state gives us legitimacy to act against Iran and the allies we need to be most effective. It also isolates Iran militarily and politically.”
I think this is exactly right. It is way past time for the U.S. to call both Iran and Netanyahu’s bluffs.
Netanyahu is the reason I coined this rule of Middle East reporting: “Whatever people say to you in English in private is irrelevant. All that matters is what they say in public in their own language.”
Netanyahu has been whispering to Biden in private that he might be ready one day — maybe — to consider some kind of demilitarized Palestinian state, while in Hebrew in public he has been saying just the opposite.
Fortunately, Biden has been around the track enough times to know that Netanyahu is just trying to string him along. Sometimes age is an advantage. Time to call Netanyahu’s and the ayatollahs’ games at the same time. A Biden Doctrine is the right way to do it.
We have tolerated Iran destroying every constructive initiative we have been trying to build in the Middle East — just as long as Tehran stays below the threshold of directly attacking us. And, at the same time, we have tolerated a Netanyahu government that is out to permanently prevent any form of Palestinian statehood, even to the point of bolstering Hamas against the Palestinian Authority for many years to ensure that there would be no unified Palestinian partner.
“Oct. 7 revealed that our Iran policy was bankrupt and our Israel-Palestine policy was bankrupt,” Mousavizadeh said. “Those policies enabled and empowered Hamas to savage Israel. They enabled and empowered the Houthis to paralyze global shipping, and they enabled pro-Iranian Shiite militias to try to drive U.S. forces out of the region — forces deployed there to prevent ISIS from returning and help to keep the region reasonably stable.”
All of this transpired, he added, without anyone holding the regime in Tehran responsible for the way “it deploys its poisonous and destructive nonstate actors across the region against the constructive aims of our allies,” who are trying to build a more inclusive region.
It is for all these reasons that I believe, hope and pray that a Biden Doctrine for the Middle East is coming — and Israelis should, too.
Israel is losing now on three fronts. It has lost the narrative war over Gaza: Even though Hamas murdered and raped Israelis, it is Israel that has gotten hauled before the International Court of Justice in The Hague for the civilian casualties it has caused in Gaza while trying to root out Hamas fighters who embedded among civilians. It is losing the ability to keep Israel safe without being overextended in the long term — by invading Gaza without any plan for how to find a legitimate non-Hamas Palestinian partner to effectively govern there so Israel can pull back. And it is losing on the regional stability front: Israel is now the target of a four-front Iranian onslaught — by Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shiite militias in Iraq — but cannot generate the Arab or NATO allies it needs to win that war, because it refuses to do anything to nurture a credible, legitimate Palestinian partner.
If a Biden Doctrine emerges, concluded Mousavizadeh, “it will be good geopolitics abroad and good politics at home.”
It could deter Iran both militarily and politically — by taking away the Palestinian card from Tehran. It could promote Palestinian statehood on terms consistent with Israeli security and, simultaneously, create the conditions for normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia on terms Palestinians can embrace.
And it is a strategy that could work with Arab Americans on Lake Michigan and with Arab allies on the Persian Gulf. It is a strategy that could force a reckoning inside Iranian politics, inside Palestinian politics and inside Israeli politics.