Since the end of the Vietnam War, despite their best efforts, every U.S. president has had the trajectory of their time in office shaped by conflict and repeated blunders in the Arab World.
The success or failure of a president’s term in office is rarely judged by whether or not they accomplish the agenda they set for themselves. A more important measure is how effective they are in responding to the unexpected challenges with which they are confronted. And more often than not, these unexpected challenges originate in the Middle East.
One week before the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser was quoted saying:
The war in Yemen is in its 19th month of truce, for now the Iranian attacks against U.S. forces have stopped, our presence in Iraq is stable, I emphasize for now because all of that can change. And the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades. Now challenges remain… but the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11 is significantly reduced.
Four and a half months later: Israel is pursuing a devastating genocidal war against Palestinians in Gaza; Israeli military and settlers are engaged in widespread, often uncontrolled, violence in the West Bank with at least 360 killed and thousands injured; Israeli attacks on Lebanon have killed nearly 200, including women and children, and a number of journalists, with an estimated 90,000 Lebanese displaced from their homes due to ongoing ominous cross-border shelling between Lebanon’s Hizbollah militia and Israel; Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria continue to challenge U.S. forces in the region; and another Iranian ally, the Houthi movement in Yemen, has created havoc by attacking ships in the Red Sea. Needless to say, the White House has had to shift from neglecting the Arab World to making it a full-time concern—one they neither expected, nor for which they were prepared.
This isn’t unique to the Biden administration because since the end of the Vietnam War, despite their best efforts, every U.S. president has had the trajectory of their time in office shaped by conflict and repeated blunders in the Arab World. During the last half century, the U.S. has sent more weapons, spent more money, committed more troops, lost more lives, and expended more political capital in the Arab World than anywhere else, and yet, time and again, we have failed. The problem isn’t just the wars, lives, treasure, prestige, and trust that have been lost. It’s also that we’ve never acknowledged these failures, or are simply oblivious to them.
We have been down this road too many times and are still being led by the same policymakers who’ve failed in the past, haven’t learned, and seem determined to fail again.
It’s fascinating that during this entire period, candidates competing for the presidency have never seriously debated U.S. policy in the Middle East. They have never made a course correction in our approach toward the region. The media has rarely called them to account for their inadequate policies. And so, we continue to fail and each time we are either surprised by or oblivious to our failures. This is so for three important reasons.
In the first place, we don’t know the region and its peoples. Too many of our policymakers see the Middle East through the lens of Israel looking out, instead of the Arab World looking in at Israel. Because of this, we have failed to recognize the centrality of the issue of Palestine to the Arab people. Since 1948, Palestine and the fate of Palestinians has been “the wound in the Arab heart that has never healed.” Time and again, policymakers have either proclaimed the issue dead or made efforts to sideline it, only to be stunned when Palestine erupted in violence and reasserted its centrality in Arab consciousness.
A corollary to this has been our refusal to acknowledge the consequences of our self-imposed limits on how we deal with the Middle East. Because of domestic political considerations, concern for Israel is the cornerstone of too many policy decisions made in Washington. We don’t challenge or sanction Israel for its bad behavior or even for violations of U.S. law. It is spoiled while the Palestinians are abused. To ensure the protection of Israel we have insisted on dominating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, refusing to allow others to partner in decision-making or accepting their challenges to our hegemonic role.
And finally, we have not recognized the disastrous impact that our failed policies have on the trust needed for us to pursue the leadership we insist on having as we seek to shape the region’s future.
What follows is a simple list of surprises that have confounded American presidents since the Nixon/Ford administrations a half century ago. They all occurred because we didn’t understand dynamics unfolding across the region, and what Arabs were thinking about their lives, needs, and aspirations for the future. Each of these momentous events shaped the presidencies of those who tried to manage them while in office.
Think of the impact of the 1973 war and Arab oil embargo on the Ford and Carter administrations. Or how President Jimmy Carter’s time in office was shaped by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel and the resultant Camp David Accords, followed by the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis.
President Ronald Reagan had to contend with Israel’s bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the killing of over 240 U.S. marines who had been positioned to facilitate Israel’s withdrawal from Beirut, the eight-year Iran/Iraq war, and his administration’s Iran/Contra scandal as they sought to play both sides of the conflict.
The first Bush administration woke up to Iraq’s sudden invasion of Kuwait, took months assembling an international coalition to free that country, and then used its political stature to convene an international peace conference to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That conference failed, as did efforts that preceded it, because we had tied our hands more than a decade earlier by promising Israel that we would never talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). So Israel and the PLO surprised President Bill Clinton with their own negotiating effort which was incomplete because of the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians. Because the U.S. refused to provide balance, the years after Oslo were up and down with no serious steps toward peace and a continued brutal occupation with never-ending tension mounting across the Palestinian Occupied Territory.
The Bush years opened with the deadly attack of 9/11 and the second Palestinian uprising. In both instances, Bush’s responses to these “surprises” were flawed. Aligning with the neoconservative ideologues who populated his administration, Bush embarked on two misguided wars that devastated Afghanistan and Iraq and cost the U.S. lives, treasure, prestige, and the capacity to lead.
President Barack Obama tried to recoup these losses, but one speech without a change in policy wasn’t enough. His inability to effectively plan for the withdrawal from Iraq, to firmly challenge Israel on its refusal to meaningfully pursue peace, and his floundering and lack of understanding in the face of the Arab Spring uprisings all proved costly to his administration.
The only surprises that occurred during the Trump era were his unilateral moves to remove “Occupied Territories” from the State Department lexicon and to accept Israel’s annexation of “East Jerusalem” and the Golan Heights. This led some Arab states to move to normalize ties with Israel in an effort to forestall further Israeli moves toward annexation. But Israel, emboldened by its support from Washington, remained intransigent.
With this as background, it’s not exceptional that the Biden administration failed to adequately understand or respond to Hamas’ attack on Oct 7, the subsequent Israeli genocidal assault, and the Arab World’s deeply emotional response. Not exceptional, but also not excusable. We have been down this road too many times and are still being led by the same policymakers who’ve failed in the past, haven’t learned, and seem determined to fail again. Given the scale of human loss now, in the end, Biden’s presidency will be judged not by his domestic successes—which are many—but by his failures in the Middle East.