Jan 19th 2021

After Bush, Obama, and Trump: What Biden Can Do

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute


In January 2017, ​the Middle East that Donald Trump inherited from his predecessors was mostly in tatters. Daesh was in control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Civil wars were raging in Yemen and Libya. Iran and Turkey, each dreaming of becoming regional hegemons, were meddling in conflicts across the Middle East. And Israel, feeling no restraint, was continuing to oppress Palestinians and consolidating its control over the West Bank.

Other than continuing the effort launched by President Obama to defeat Daesh, instead of reversing the other negative regional dynamics​, the Trump Administration pursued a series of short-sighted piecemeal policies. And instead of attempting to play a leadership role in reducing tensions and resolving conflicts​ the US became a participant in many of them, causing them to grow more intense.

​Today, Daesh in Iraq and Syria may ​be dismantled, but deep sectarian tensions remain pronounced in both countries and extremist groups continue to present a danger. The wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya have become internationalized with the engagement of multiple regional and global actors lining up on competing sides of each of these conflicts. 

Iran, though severely weakened by the Coronavirus pandemic and the severity of US sanctions​, ​and embittered by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, continues to wreck regional havoc. Turkey and its ally​, Qatar​, have come play an increasingly dangerous role in supporting politicized Sunni groups especially, but not exclusively, in Syria, Palestine, and Libya. And now new regional anti-Iran alliances are forming between Israel and Sunni states.

Israel, emboldened by the Trump Administration’s carte blanche, has felt free to strike Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria, Lebanon, and even in Iran itself. It also aggressively expanded its colonial presence in the West Bank, making the once dreamed of Palestinian State almost impossible to imagine. And the Palestinian leadership​, reduced to a dependency on the whims of the occupier and deeply divided between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority​, has been incapable of projecting a strategy leading to liberation. As a result, the region’s attention has turned elsewhere.

This is where we are as we enter the century’s third decade – still paying the price of the disastrous consequences of Bush’s devastating Iraq war and the inability of the Obama and Trump Administrations to undo the damage. Added to this is the impact of the pandemic on the people of the Middle East and the incapacity of the weaker states of the region to deal with the continuing spread of the novel Coronavirus.

As the incoming Biden Administration begins to ​map out its approach to this region, several things should be clear. The first is that it is not possible to simply return to the status quo ante - resurrecting the nuclear deal, as it was, or restarting Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Consideration must be given to the new realities that now exist across the region and lessons must be learned from past failures.

It is also important to acknowledge that the US, while retaining significant strengths and resources, no longer has the dominant leadership role it possessed just two decades ago. And finally, it is critical to recognize that it is not possible to pick around the edges and deal with issues piecemeal. Everything is connected. All of the region’s players are engaged, in varying combinations, in ​each of the region’s upheavals. What is happening across the Middle East may not be of the magnitude of the two wars that ravaged Europe in the last century, but it is time we addressed ​these connected conflicts across the Middle East as the equivalent of a world war.

This being the case, if the US is to play any constructive role, it would be best to begin carefully by building a broad international effort that lays the groundwork for a comprehensive approach to resolving the connected crises that are currently tearing apart the Middle East. The immediate goal of this effort would be the convening of an all-party international peace conference under the auspices of the United Nations.

The main agenda item for this conference would be the creation of a regional framework – like the OSCE – that would provide all states a platform for dialogue to discuss regional security guarantees coupled with commitments to non-intervention and non-aggression. It would also lay the groundwork for regional trade and investment that would help to advance greater economic integration and prosperity.

The international conference would of necessity break out into working groups in which all relevant participants would address the region’s issues of concern. For example, there would need to be focused discussions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the wars raging in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and the role played by sectarian religious extremism.

Such an approach will no doubt be difficult and quickly rejected by hardliners in some countries. But it holds advantages over the alternatives. Since each of these conflicts involve competing regional players, working piecemeal by addressing each of them as if they are merely products of local unrest will continue be a dead end. Such a comprehensive approach taken by the P5+1 countries would a far better use of their combined strength and influence then just focusing on one problem. And promoting a vision of a peaceful Middle East that is so compelling that people can see the possibilities of a promising future may be the approach that will inspire the region’s leaders and opinion shapers to demand a change in course from the current downward spiral.  

What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want​ stable employment, education, health care, and better future for their children. It’s time we start listening to them.


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More Current Affairs

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "