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The Biden administration and the Middle East: Reflecting on the first 100 days

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Charles W. Dunne

On human rights, the administration is still trying to live up to expectations

The Biden administration set a high standard for itself when it promised a foreign policy “centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.” As a candidate, Joe Biden had vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” and insisted there would be “no more blank checks for Donald Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.

One hundred days on, the administration is still trying to live up to expectations.

Biden quickly fulfilled a campaign promise to lift Trump’s “Muslim ban,” and in early February his administration announced it would seek re-election to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which Trump abandoned in 2018. More substantively, Biden ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

But there have been serious disappointments as well. The administration walked back its pledge to lift the ceiling on refugee admissions, leaving in place the limit of 15,000 set by Trump, a 40-year low. While the administration made public a U.S. intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi that made clear Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was responsible for ordering the killing, Biden refused to sanction MbS personally. The administration also announced, after a period of review, it would proceed with a $23 billion arms sale to the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s chief partner in Yemen, including advanced F-35 fighter aircraft. Outrage swiftly followed in the human rights community.

Egypt is shaping up to be the administration’s next big test. The State Department currently faces a decision on whether to release $300 million in military aid that is subject to human rights conditions, or to issue a national security waiver, as Biden’s two predecessors did. Having raised expectations for a tougher line with el-Sisi, the Biden administration is now under pressure to come through. Failure to do so will send a signal to the Egyptian government and other repressive regimes in the region that business as usual continues.

Biden has a tough circle to square. The idealism of his campaign has begun to clash with the real-world imperative of maintaining U.S. security interests and relationships in the Middle East. At times it appears the president himself is torn between the desire to reassert American leadership on human rights and his own roots in the international realpolitik of the Senate, honed by his years as a member (and chairman) of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The administration should take several steps now to place its human rights policy on a stronger footing. For one thing, the protection of civil society and human rights defenders must be a higher priority; the administration should speak out consistently against jailings and punitive laws intended to stifle their voice and their work. Biden should rethink the increasing securitization of U.S. Middle East policy, which has tended to crowd out support for democracy and governance programs. (Here he will find congressional allies.) And the administration should enforce existing laws governing arms sales and end use restrictions; national security waivers should be the exception, not the rule.

By thinking more of how to effect systemic change and less about reacting to every daily controversy, Biden can lay the groundwork for a more effective and comprehensive approach to human rights in the Middle East and beyond.


Charles W. Dunne is a non-resident scholar with MEI, an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington D.C.


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