Behind the smiles, Mideast leaders smell Biden’s weakness


Eyal Zisser

American presidents usually aren’t very popular in the Middle East. Although every Arab, Iranian and Turk dreams of one day immigrating to the United States and making a life there, until that day comes, they will wholeheartedly hate the West. Especially the United States, which more than anything symbolizes the West’s diplomatic, economic and even technological superiority over the East.

Joe Biden, who visited the region for the first time as president last week, is not a Bush, Trump or even Barack Obama, who, as we recall, tried riding the wave of the Arab Spring to encourage the younger generation to seek change but ultimately found himself mired in chaos and a swelling tide of Islamist extremism.

Biden came here weak and domestically challenged, needing the goodwill of the region’s rulers — Saudi Arabia’s in particular — more than they need him. To be sure, Biden’s primary goal was to enlist Saudi support for stabilizing global oil markets before it costs him a trouncing in the midterm elections this November, and of course the presidency in two years.

During his visit, Biden said all the right things, but what’s more important is what he didn’t say. First and foremost, that he doesn’t really care about the Middle East and that unlike Eastern Europe, where he is eager to confront the Russians, or the Far East, where he is preparing for a conflict with China, over here he wants to cut a deal with Iran that will allow him to disengage from the Middle East and its assortment of problems.

Second, that he is committed to defending his allies, the rulers of the moderate Arab countries. The Americans, to be sure, have built a reputation for lacking credibility and loyalty to their friends and allies.

Such was the case with the shah in Iran, Hosni Mubarak and then Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt, and today, again, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whom Biden has shunned and even treated with hostility since entering the White House, over the assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi.

All of this is obvious and plain to see, and therefore it’s no surprise that the Saudi press was apathetic about his visit and instead chose to highlight his weakness and a lack of faith in Washington’s steps. After all, no one is truly pinning any hopes on American commitments and resolve when it comes to fighting Iran, and not just on the nuclear front but over its support for terror, subversive activities and spreading military presence across the region.

The person who capitalized on Biden’s visit to the region was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will visit Iran this week. No one particularly likes Putin either, not even Iran, but Putin is respected and Putin is feared.

Hence, it could still emerge that Biden not only failed to advance a regional defense alliance against Iran but brought Russia and Tehran closer together — a blunder for which Israel might have to pay in the form of reduced freedom of action in Syria.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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