"Israel will remain a key partner for America": Former Pentagon official on Biden administration's West Asia policy

A short while ago, President Joe Biden completed his first 100 days in the office. Like his predecessor, he addressed a joint session of the Congress discussing his domestic and foreign policy. He equated the American leadership with ending the "forever war" in Afghanistan and expanding the terrorist threat to the "Middle East and beyond". Even after missing out on May 1, 2021, as the time for the pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, the Biden administration has gained support for their steady foreign approach compared to previous fast-paced, dramatic decision-making.

"Israel will remain a key partner for America": Former Pentagon official on Biden administration's West Asia policy

Webinar Report

By Usanas Foundation

On May 6, 2021, the Usanas Foundation organized an event on "100 Days: Assessing Biden's Middle East and South Asia Policy". The speaker for the event was Dr. Michael Rubin, former Pentagon official, currently a resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, and author "Into the Shadows Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran" and  "Dancing with the  "Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regime." The session was hosted by Mr. Abhinav Pandya, CEO of the Usanas Foundation.  

A series of questions were posed by Mr. Abhinav to Dr. Rubin concerning the current and possible future trajectories of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. On the question of whether the current administration is returning towards Obama-era policies vis-à-vis Iran, at the expense of the Gulf States—he responded in the affirmative. However, he pointed out that although the current administration is projecting that it is better at handling relations with key players such Saudi Arabia, behind the scenes it has failed to come to a solution over the Iran problem. He highlighted that if the deal with Iran is not ratified as a treaty, it will cause serious reputational damage to the United States and could potentially lead to pivotal middle eastern states developing their own nuclear arsenal.  

On being which United States “ally” advances American interests in the region, he highlighted that many traditional allies feel betrayed with Washington shift for Iran. According to him, earlier any American would call UAE and Saudi Arabia Israel as US allies in the region, but this is no longer the case. Now Israel, Bahrain, and Morocco are likely to be key players, especially since the former has great support within the Congress and among the domestic public. 

Given the bipolarization of world politics and Chinese presence in West Asia, Mr. Abhinav asked Dr. Rubin whether U.S. military disengagement is likely. His reply was that the 'Pivot to Asia' is being interpreted by many of the Gulf states as a 'Pivot away from us.' However, they look at this as U.S. necessity to make accommodations with other powers, which does not necessarily mean that they will tie themselves to China the way they do the United States. 

Commenting on the Afghan peace process, Dr. Rubin highlighted that India should have been involved in the from the very beginning, rather than "simply leaving a mess and expecting India to fill the vacuum."

Mr. Abhinav commented that "it is more or less clear that as American withdrawal Taliban is going to come back" and the emerging contours of a possible "new great game" where there are non-state actors and state actors. American withdrawal has effectively opened up space for states like Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, and China and which he sees as jeopardizing India’s interests. Mr. Rubin agreed with his assessment and further highlighted that all of Afghanistan’s neighboring states are likely to support their own proxy militias to create buffers, much like historical dynamics in the past. According to his assessment, Afghanistan is likely to be run over by various non-state actors and other terrorist organizations and may look to rebase themselves in other countries in the region. 

Contrasting the current administration’s approach with the past Trump administration, he sees the current administration’s more relaxed approach towards Iran as problematic. Commenting on the Iran-China closeness, he pointed out that the Chinese only formalized the deal once Trump was out of the office and saw that there would be "con consequences" of the same. According to him, the increasing Chinese presence in Iran is a cause of concern for India. 

Dr. Rubin also commented on Washington’s major concern vis-à-vis Pakistan being the complete collapse of the country given its "loose nukes" problem. According to him, although Washington is “simply lucky” that it has not had to deal with this problem yet, but considers it naïve to assume that it will never arise. According to him, the possibility of a nuclear fallout remains, and that Washington must priorities finding a solution for this 'dirty-bomb' problem. 

Highlighting the adverse role of Turkey in the changing balance of power equations in the Middle East, Dr. Rubin said that "Turkey in the 21st Century is what with Saudi Arabia was in the 20th Century." He sees Turkey as a major problem which Washington and other countries need to wake up to. Commenting on Washington’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, he argued that it had less to do with the good job done by the Armenian lobby and more to do with the "poor job" Turkey has done. He pointed out that under the current administration’s approach, Turkey continues to be an American partner but Turkey under Erdogan is not a partner.   

"Russia is an increasingly large problem" and in his opinion for Washington it is not an "either-or" approach and America must deal with the threat both countries possess. Commenting on the China-Russia relationship, he also highlighted how the Russian demographic is suffering as Russian women prefer to marry Chinese men, especially in Serbia, increasing the Chinese stake in that region. 

 A question came up during the discussions asking Dr. Rubin about the recent developments between India and the U.S., including refusal of raw material for vaccines, USCIRF recommendations to blacklist India, and putting India on a priority watch list. Dr. Rubin criticized the earlier statement by the U.S. on delivering critical raw materials and welcomed the reversal of this position. Commenting on the Indo-U.S. relations, he argues that these issues are much less intense than those issues which plagued the relationship even a decade ago—hence should not affect relations too seriously. 

Ambassador Trigunayat gave the closing remarks for the event where he commented on how grave the U.S. incursion in Iraq, causing destabilization in the Middle East but comments that "the past is the past." He appreciated Dr. Rubin’s insights he gave in the entire webinar and Mr. Abhinav brought the webinar to a close. 

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in the Webinar belong to the speaker and are not reflective of Usanas Foundation.