How has the US foreign policy in the Middle East progress over the years?


Donald Trump has lost the election to the former vice president Joe Biden, but victory for the liberals had been intensely narrow which is a summary of what America has become; undecidedly dissatisfied....

Donald Trump has lost the election to the former vice president Joe Biden, but victory for the liberals had been intensely narrow which is a summary of what America has become; undecidedly dissatisfied.

Sharp shifts in political orientation between governments often has significant implications on the rest of the world as well since US is a major global actor. In terms of the Middle East, a look back on the previous three administrations’ foreign policy strategies in the region will be useful to develop better informed and calculated expectations with the new US government in duty.

The US grand strategy regarding its international relations often follows a pattern in style despite the significant shifts in political identities in office. As much as Trump’s presidency has been unorthodox in many ways, he continued Obama’s steady withdrawal from the Middle East although with an abrasive fashion instead. What matters is this stylistic difference, even when following the same foreign policy between the two governments that will determine the final impact. With Biden, rough-edged policies of Trump will be softened but it is clear that American interest in the Middle East has subsided notably and involvement will be kept to a minimum for the foreseeable future.

Cold War roots of Arabian Oil Obsessions

Much of Trump’s policy aims have been parallel to the traditionalist style of the GOP. He famously campaigned in 2016 with the slogan “America first!“ which indicated the return to republican realpolitik and individualism. Similarly, George W Bush who pulled out of many treaties especially relating to arms control such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; Trump pulled out from a number of international agreements and treaties including the Paris Climate Accord and even the Iran Nuclear Deal.

What differs Trump from Bush is their approach to internationalism. Bush utilised moral hegemony construct within the realist hard power parameters. The historic proximity of Cold War in this context matters especially when analysing the progression of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

The power bipolarity between the Soviet Union and the United States reached extreme heights during the Cold War. An ever-constant threat of an enemy, not only challenging the security of American society but also American hegemony and polar opposite ideologies it represents. US perceived that instability and competition with communist powers in the Middle East as jeopardizing its energy security and therefore threatening the ample living standards of Americans. The OPEC oil embargo crisis and the Iranian Revolution in the 70s also amplified the belief that American energy security is contingent on the steady access to Arabian oil. The sense of insecurity and the threat of economic stability in the US has led to ‘tanker conflicts’ in the Gulf in the coming decades.

Soviet Union eventually broke down, however international power balances and policymaking strategies contingent on that took some time transitioning. For the victorious US, decades of proxy wars produced a tradition of interventionist/preventionist policies in both parties, even though how such policies are practiced might differ in style.

For instance, American involvement in the region continued with Clinton’s diplomatic efforts as a liberal president and switched to use of hard power and direct conflict with George W Bush as financial concerns such as oil exports from Middle East have solidified with September 11 attacks.

What changed with Obama?

Approaching 2010s, US has finally began to move forward from its Cold War mind set. The geopolitical conditions have changed, and the power dynamics have become increasingly multi-polar. On-ground military involvement was strategically decreased over time and capturing of Bin Laden marked the beginning of a sought-after end with Obama’s presidency. The US certainly still continued its questionable role as the warden of human rights in the region, but the level of interference is observably reduced.

Yom argues that the withdrawal is not because of opposing political traditions of realism and liberalism that Washington always jumps between but simply because America has lost interest. He claims that by this period the US has achieved energy security and no imminent threat of terrorist aggression or of a prevailing enemy existed to keep them in the Middle East.

During Bush administration, oil consumption and imports into the US and eventually oil prices reached record hights. To offset this and the crash of Libya oil market due to the Arab spring, Obama administration focused on increasing domestic production of oil. By 2014 the oil import hit its lowest mark for 20 years. This helped release American policymakers from the mentality of dependence on Arabian oil that seemed indispensable since the 50s. Overall, key security and financial interests that pushed the US to be involved in the Middle East to be militaristically interfering diminished.

Furthermore, compared to the Iraq War, the extent of force during the US intervention to Libya in 2011 was notably reduced. The operation was carried in compliance of NATO, with minimal field combat and without major commitment to stabilising the country. It qualified as an attack narrowly focusing on upholding humanitarian values meanwhile some other nations such as Yemen or Syria in the region experiencing violence similarly were left alone. Some suggest the later involvement in Syria 2014 negates the withdrawal policy, however, it must be considered that the US deployment to Syria in this period arrived 2 years after a full-blown civil war broke out along with resurfacing threat of global terrorism. Additionally, the intervention was an act of global coalition which when compared to Bush era conflicts, shows difference in intention.

What changed with Trump?

Especially the Arab Spring have shown that the US influence in the region is limited regardless of its presence and thus the foreign policy approach more visibly shifted to a more multilateral and selective use of force. Preserving the global leadership status was still important to Obama though getting involved in local conflict dynamics did not appear as necessary as it used to be. As much as Obama and Trump appear to be opposites in leadership style and their political views, regarding Middle East foreign policy Trump have not truly diverged too much from his democrat predecessor. He continued this reduction of force and influence, although did so with less diplomatic nuance and overtly aligned with ‘Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt against Iran’.

The US withdrawal policy from the Middle East definitely became more hastened with Trump. His asperity is one of his qualities his supporters adore so much, however, in his foreign policy practices it reveals his lacking comprehension of ‘complex regional dynamics’.

His decision of departing Syria created a critical environment and lead to conflict breakout between Turkey and the Kurdish YPG militants US has been cooperating with against ISIS. This allyship between Kurdish militias and the US has been a very sensitive move considering the long-lasting issue of terrorism in Turkey and required US containment of the YPG collaboration that was taken so close to the Turkish border. As a result of this major security threat, Turkey executed an aggressive operation against the YPG to open a buffer zone next to its border. Thousands of people were displaced and jeopardised the safety of the region that has been already demolished gravely.

Additionally, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital probably added to feelings of mistrust towards the US from surrounding Gulf states. The execution of the Iranian general which was stated to be a war crime by the UN also damaged the tenuous political relationship built with Iran and caused global fears for a conflict breakout. Therefore, while Trump revelled in the fact that he is the ‘only president who has not engaged in any major military encounter’ during his brief presidency, his unpredictable and ill-informed judgement have had dangerous destabilising effects in the region that could have long term outcomes.

He might have initially seemed appealing to players in the region due to his clear cut anti- military action stance. However, after decades of US presence in the region, careless and abrupt retraction would be dangerous and not in favour of those countries who were made to submit to American hegemony in the first place. A good example of this is the US abandonment of state building aims in Iraq after heavy military and political interference. Iraq was left vulnerable and volatile after the ‘war on terror’ was finalised, in other words the (later revealed to be falsely presumed) imminent threat to the US was eliminated. A connection can be made between the reckless abandonment of Iraq and more currently Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS which is believed to have generated from Al-Qaeda. Afghan vice-president recently expressed his concerns about the total withdrawal of troops Trump promised and the leverage that will give to Taliban.

Therefore, if the US withdrawal policy carried out too candidly it could create a power vacuum allowing other players such as Russia and Turkey an opportunity to foster dominance in the region. Too much of this might become threatening to the US, resulting in a reversal of the withdrawal policy which will undo the current state of arguable stability. It might appear that the Middle East is not directly beneficial to American interests right now but US needs to invest in its relationships in the region and take responsibility with long term strategies - if they want to maintain their global power position from a distance.

What is to be expected of Biden?

The expectations of the Biden government vary. Some worry that he will be representing a return to moral protectionist liberal stance of previous governments. However, as explained so far, a steady withdrawal has been in the works for a while. Others believe that Biden will mirror Obama era policies far too much. This can be expected in some areas, but too much has changed with Trump in some cases would be either unnecessary or too difficult to reverse or restore. Biden has a good relationship with Netanyahu but also has shown concerns over human rights issues and the struggles of Palestinian people. Abraham Accord Trump signed did not really provide financial advantages to the US but did make Palestinians and supporting states agitated. It is expected that Biden will not make any immediate reversals here, but it is clear that the emphasis on human rights will be increased, even if just in discourse initially.

Similarly, regarding regional conflicts, it can be expected that involvement will be kept to minimum especially with the increased domestic political and financial pressures brought by the pandemic. Still, more effort is foreseeable diplomatically to avoid total loss of hegemony. Those who look at Biden’s enthusiasm about the military operations back in early 00s worry he is going to be yet another American eager to strike. However, his beliefs and approach in the matter clearly changed which can be observed throughout the Obama period.

Nevertheless, without the necessary diplomatic support, the long brewing problem of the maritime sovereignty disputes over the hydrocarbon sources in the Mediterranean could knock down the delicate peace that currently stands. Both Turkey and Greece have called for US support in the matter as tensions between two countries intensified. Trump has mostly been a supporter of Erdogan while Biden has previously shown plenty of criticism towards him. However, Biden as president is less likely to dismiss Turkey outright. “Turkey borders Syria, Iran, Iraq, and, across the Black Sea, Russia. Whatever U.S. policy is in these places, it will be a lot easier and less costly with Turkey onboard.“.

As of now, there is still not a major sign that this issue is a matter of priority for Biden’s team and American activity in the Middle East still to be kept reduced. Overall, it should be acknowledged that US will never be wholly disconnected from the region nor it is claimed that US interests in the region are non-existent anymore. Middle East will always be an extremely strategic area for political affairs globally. An increased weight given to diplomacy and stability will likely be better for all the countries involved.


“Timeline: Oil Dependence and U.S. Foreign Policy.“ n.d. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed January 28, 2021.

“Obama and Declining U.S. Dependence on Imported Oil and Gas.“ n.d. Middle East Institute. Accessed January 28, 2021.

“Is the USA Withdrawing from the Middle East?“ n.d. OpenDemocracy. Accessed January 28, 2021.

BBC News. 2021. “US Has Conceded Too Much to Taliban, Says Afghan Vice-President,“ January 15, 2021, sec. Asia.

“America’s Failed Strategy in the Middle East: Losing Iraq and the Gulf.“ n.d. Accessed January 28, 2021.

Biden’s Foreign-Policy Priorities in China and the Middle East.“ n.d. IISS. Accessed January 28, 2021.

“Five Key Questions on Biden’s Middle East Policy.“ 2020. Chatham House – International Affairs Think Tank. November 18, 2020.

Yom, Sean. 2020. “US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: The Logic of Hegemonic Retreat.“ Global Policy 11 (1): 75–83.

Yazici, Hanefi, and Mim Kemal Öke, eds. 2020. Ultra-Nationalist Policies of Trump and Reflections in the World. New York: Peter Lang.

Welle (, Deutsche. n.d. “Under Joe Biden, Can US Middle East Policy Be Reversed? | DW | 18.01.2021.“ DW.COM. Accessed January 28, 2021.

Hohmann, James. n.d. “Analysis | The Daily 202: Trump Abandoning Kurdish Partners in Syria Sends a Chilling Message to Every Other American Ally.“ Washington Post. Accessed January 28, 2021.

Graham, Euan, and John Raine. n.d. Biden’s Foreign-Policy Priorities in China and the Middle East. Sounds Strategic.

Gorvett, Jonathan. n.d. “Biden Faces Troubled Eastern Mediterranean Waters.“ Foreign Policy (blog). Accessed January 28, 2021.

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