scorecardBiden doesn't need to wait to start cleaning up Trump and Pompeo's mess in the Middle East
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Biden doesn't need to wait to start cleaning up Trump and Pompeo's mess in the Middle East

Geoff LaMear, Defense Priorities   

Biden doesn't need to wait to start cleaning up Trump and Pompeo's mess in the Middle East
PoliticsPolitics3 min read
  • President Joe Biden takes office as the US struggles with a number of serious domestic crises.
  • Biden's foreign policy doesn't have to take a back seat, however, and there are several steps he can take to advance US interests quickly and with little resistance, writes Geoff LaMear, a fellow at Defense Priorities.

President Joe Biden is entering office as the country is beset with a host of domestic problems, from the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine to civil unrest. But Biden's foreign policy doesn't have to play second fiddle to these domestic challenges.

In the Middle East in particular, the Biden administration can advance US interests in a short time frame with minimal political challenges.

Most critical is undoing the final actions of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in listing the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group fighting Saudi Arabia, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The problem with this designation is that it mismatches rhetoric and reality. The US can view the Houthis as malign actors while acknowledging that this designation does not promote US interests or regional stability.

Moreover, keeping the designation would prevent humanitarian organizations from acting in areas governed by the Houthis. This would lead to the deaths of "hundreds of thousands if not millions of innocent people in Yemen," according to the World Food Program.

The Biden administration can quite literally save millions of lives if it delists the Houthis as an FTO in the first days of the administration.

yemen houthis
Houthi militants in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, December 14, 2015.      REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

At the same time, the US needs to reassess its support of Saudi Arabia.

The US is in the process of selling thousands of precision bombs to the Saudi government, which will only incentivize the Saudis to prolong the conflict in Yemen rather than negotiate. These precision bombs have enabled the Saudi government to conduct war crimes against noncombatants.

This weapon system, the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, is designed to enable more strikes per sortie. The sale of this weapon system directly translates to increased strikes, and consequently, civilian casualties.

Based on the 30-day timetable from when this sale was approved by the Trump administration, the Biden administration has little time to stop the sale. In doing so, the Biden administration could restore US moral leadership while incentivizing a negotiated end to the war.

Biden shouldn't just look at ending US support for an ongoing war. He should end the policies which are likely to bring the United States into a new one, namely, the "Maximum Pressure" sanctions on Iran.

While there are over 1,000 existing sanctions on Iran, the authority to use these sanctions derives from a handful of executive orders signed by President Trump: Executive Order 13846, Executive Order 13871, and Executive Order 13902. Biden could quickly nullify these executive orders and gut the legal basis for the bulk of these sanctions with minimal outside input.

Ali Khamenei
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, January 17, 2020.      Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has already offered a return to compliance with the 2015 Iran deal in exchange for sanctions relief. Such a deal is both sensible and advantageous for the US.

Yet a cacophony of voices are crying out to complicate the deal by conditioning it on Iran's ballistic missile program or by allowing Arab states or Israel to partake in negotiations. These are both red herrings which would make any deal less likely.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie described ballistic missiles as the "crown jewel" of Iran's military, the one impressive aspect of an otherwise antiquated and poorly funded military. Iran is not suicidal, and abandoning its only deterrent is not an expectation grounded in reality. The US needs to manage expectations and that means aiming for limited security objectives through negotiation.

It also means deescalation in our regional military presence. The US stepped up a "deterrence" posture in the final days of Trump's administration, which elicits fears from Iran. The US has deployed B-52 bombers, retained an aircraft carrier in the region, and deployed an additional nuclear submarine. This does two things, neither of which are good.

First, it heightens fears in Iran that a US attack is imminent. Second, it gives Iran several high-value targets which it could strike preemptively or in retaliation. Iran conducted an exercise just this month simulating a missile attack on a hostile ship, clearly signaling its capabilities to the United States.

warplane refuel B-52
A US Air Force B-52 is refueled by a KC-135 tanker over the US Central Command area of responsibility, December 30, 2020.      U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Roslyn Ward / US Central Command

As commander-in-chief, Biden can deescalate tensions by withdrawing these additional forces from the region.

This move would not undermine deterrence because the US still outclasses Iran in every domain even without this increased presence.

Military posture serves as a signal of American intentions, and the withdrawal of these assets would reinforce the Biden administration's pivot to a diplomacy-first foreign policy, making negotiations easier.

These changes are both urgent and actionable. The Biden administration has full authority to act on the American blunders in Yemen as well as to engage Iran diplomatically and withdraw forces.

These measures don't require votes in Congress and they would save taxpayers money while advancing US interests. Where Trump failed, Biden can still succeed.

Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.