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On the ‘Biden Doctrine’

With less than a year to go until the U.S. presidential election and the Middle East deep in crisis, the Biden administration has, almost coincidentally, decided to come up with a Middle East policy.

By Jay Mens 

With less than a year to go until the U.S. presidential election and the Middle East deep in crisis, the Biden administration has, almost coincidentally, decided to come up with a Middle East policy. It can only be described as an exercise in diplomatic alchemy, the goal being to turn the Middle East’s worst crisis in at least half a century into a Nobel Peace Prize.


Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and Biden whisperer, claims that in just eleven months the White House seeks the end of five ongoing crises (in Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria); the effective containment of Iran; a de facto two-state solution; and normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This, he says, is the Biden Doctrine. The problem is that the premises that might have once made this ‘doctrine’ appealing were systematically destroyed over the last three years. The culprit is none other than the original Biden Doctrine, as practiced over the last three years.

Joe Biden would not be the first American president to have a doctrine for dealing with the Middle East. With Friedman’s piece, Biden may be the first to christen a doctrine before its birth or to conflate it with a ‘grand bargain’. At the start of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine originated on the so-called ‘Northern Tier’ as Greece, Turkey, and Iran came under pressure from the Soviet Union. Truman offered to help those countries resist the threat.


In 1957, in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Dwight Eisenhower offered U.S. support to any Middle Eastern country that was threatened with armed aggression. About a decade later, Richard Nixon promised to furnish American allies in the region with military assistance as a bulwark against Communist expansion. After the humiliation of the Iranian Revolution, and on the heels of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter propounded the Carter Doctrine, which pledged to use military force if U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf were threatened. If, as was the case with Biden’s predecessors, a doctrine consists of a substantive commitment or actual actions, the Biden Doctrine has come and gone. Team Biden now seeks to clean up its mess. It will have a hard time doing so.


When it came to office, the Biden administration sought to base foreign policy on something more than pragmatism alone. The goal was to reassert America’s “moral leadership.” To that end, Candidate Biden campaigned on a pledge to “reassess” relations with Saudi Arabia, claiming that Riyadh’s leadership killed “children … and innocent people” in Yemen. He pledged to make the Kingdom a “pariah,” and to end the war in Yemen. U.S. Iran policy would step through a portal back to the halcyon days of 2015; the nuclear deal with Iran would be revived. Washington would scale back its “entanglements” in the region. The Biden administration cannot be blamed for a lack of trying to implement a vision. It can be blamed, though, for pursuing a policy with no clear notion of leverage, that most basic element of foreign policy.


By February 2021, the Biden administration paused arms sales to the Kingdom, implied official Saudi involvement in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, ended support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, and delisted Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. No doubt owing to the Kingdom’s sense of abandonment, the first round of normalization talks between Riyadh and Tehran began the following month.


In June, Biden made its first unrequited overture to Tehran, requesting the return of the Iran nuclear deal.


In August, there was the carnage of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan—the greatest humiliation that the United States has experienced since the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979.

In January 2022, the Biden administration literally snubbed the UAE after Dubai and Abu Dhabi were targeted in an unprecedented drone and missile attack. This compelled the Emirates to attempt to normalize their ties with Tehran, which it did that August.


The administration inherited a situation where the interests of the United States, Israel, and its partners in the Gulf had converged around the primary goal of stemming Iran’s regional expansion, with the subsidiary goals of fighting Islamist extremism. It actively wrecked that consensus. It triggered a period of reflection for America’s allies in the Gulf, forcing them to reconsider the entire underlying logic of their relationship with the United States. The new Biden Doctrine is made for a context that no longer exists. Its constituent policies matter decisively less in the world that the first Biden Doctrine created.  

Perhaps the most striking feature of the new thinking reported by Friedman is the abiding fixation with securing an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Once upon a time, this could have been a strategic construct akin to the one wrought by the Nixon administration: a ‘twin pillars’ doctrine for the 21st Century, with two U.S. allies supporting each other in the pursuit of a set of interests shared by all three parties. The last three years have undermined the convergence of interests that make this possible.


Today, such an agreement would have significantly less strategic content. Since October 2022, Iran and its Yemeni proxies have given Saudi Arabia a modicum of peace and quiet in exchange for normalization and disengagement from Yemen. It is in Riyadh’s interest to bide its time, to focus on its ongoing political and economic transformation, and to better prepare for a future collapse in relations with Tehran. A confrontation with Iran is not in its interest right now, and it would likely not change its stance for a Biden administration that is pivoting out of political desperation and months away from a coin-flip of an election. An agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh would perhaps be a silver lining. It would do little to dispose of the numerous dark clouds that have gathered around the region.

The other striking aspect of the emerging doctrine is the plan to take irreversible steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state (“NOW”, as Friedman impatiently writes). The hypothetical merits of a two-state solution and the Palestinian right to self-determination are not in dispute. The problem is context. The Biden administration’s approach to the idea of ‘legitimacy’ resembles its notion of ‘credibility’, in that it perceives it as both fluid and dispensable. Israeli President Isaac Herzog put it best when he told Davos that “no Israelis in their right mind” are thinking about the peace process. Pushing it, in the midst of a war no less, has served to damage the willingness of Israeli politicians and the Israeli public to listen to the United States. In the political aftermath of October 7, it is ludicrous to think that any Israeli politician would be able to make a case for a ‘dialogue’ with the PLO, let alone push for progress towards a two-state outcome. There is no Rabin or Sharon with security credentials that could soothe the Israeli psyche. Israel even struggled to find an adequately uncontroversial former chief of staff to lead the IDF’s post-October 7 inquiry. There is no political configuration in the Knesset that would entertain such an effort, even in a post-Netanyahu setting. That problem of legitimacy extends to the Palestinian arena, too.


Friedman floats his hopes for a “demilitarized Palestinian state led by a transformed Palestinian Authority.” Hypothetical scenarios aside, the question begs: On what authority would such a Palestinian Authority exist? Mahmoud Abbas, geriatric as he is unpopular, could surely not assume such a role. There could be no easier push-over for Hamas, already soaring in popularity. It would be impossible to isolate Hamas in any Palestinian political configuration, much less, to ban it wholesale. The recognition of a Palestinian state in the aftermath of October 7 would merely corroborate that fact. Elections would almost certainly produce a similar result to 2006, where Hamas won and an attempt to rush towards peace snowballed into another crisis. The options would once again be an Islamist take-over or a Palestinian civil war.


The other option is a Palestinian unity government. This would be unacceptable to Israel but would also mean the dwarfing of the PA’s ruling Fatah party and the hijacking of the PA’s budget, police force, and offices to the ends of Hamas. This is, of course, what Hamas wants. It is not a coincidence that Hamas is pushing for the release of Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned head of Fatah’s military wing who some have described as a potential ‘Palestinian Mandela’. Securing Barghouti’s release in exchange for Israeli hostages would allow Hamas to challenge Fatah from within, acquiring an extremely valuable political asset, forcing Barghouti to acknowledge an IOU that coopts him for Hamas’s purposes, or at the very least secures Hamas’s role as the central protagonist of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. They have covered all the bases.


There is also the question of leverage. The recognition of any state by the United States is political leverage. Recognizing a Palestinian state would empower the party responsible for the achievement. As it stands, doing so would serve little purpose other than to make Hamas the main protagonist in the Palestinian quest for statehood and to incentivize yet more armed resistance. Already the grandiloquent pronouncements of British Foreign Minister David Cameron are being trumpeted by Hamas as a justification for the massacre of October 7. This should not come as a surprise. Perhaps, within the ‘Deep State’, there are murmurs that Hamas could be like the African National Congress, Sinn Fein, or the Viet Cong: a national movement that outgrows its violent past and settles once its national aspirations have been achieved. But Hamas is not merely a national movement. They are a Palestinian faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, they are ideologically-driven Islamists who could not possibly sign a Good Friday Agreement, the agreement signed in 1998 that ended the troubles in Ireland, because doing so is religiously forbidden.

Their unique selling point is that unlike the venal gerontocrats of the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah Party, they do not ‘sell out’. Hamas is also financially and militarily beholden to the Islamic Republic of Iran in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. Recognizing a Palestinian state without handling any of the conflict’s substantive constituent issues—the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian right of return, or the composition of Palestinian leadership—would all at once hand Hamas both a reward and further opportunity. 


The other myth that Friedman invokes is the idea that recognition of a Palestinian state would “take away the Palestinian card from Tehran.” It is here that the Biden administration’s difficulty in digesting the sources of Iranian strategy is most clear. There might be a curious analogy to be made with 19th Century Europe and its handling of nationalist movements within the Ottoman Empire. More often than not, those movements in the Balkans were a Trojan Horse for Russian interests, Serbia being the most famous example. Across Europe, liberal politicians tended to back those movements on moral grounds, concocting spurious geopolitical arguments for the ‘liberation’ of these new states.


In our time, the equivalent of such a spurious geopolitical argument is that creating a Palestinian state would deflate Iran’s appeal in the wider Arab world. On the contrary, in the current circumstances, a future Palestinian state would have an incredibly high risk of becoming an interface for the furtherance of Iranian interests. Anything approaching such a guarantee would massively impinge on the extent of Palestinian ‘independence’. The natural result of this is that Iran would redouble its backing for supporters of a one-state outcome, such as Hamas. The Islamic Republic, meanwhile, actively rejected the Oslo Accords and the Arab Peace Initiative. Today, not only does it still reject a two-state solution—it has doubled down on that stance. Why would it change its mind?


The even greater irony, however, is that the Palestinian component of Iran’s geopolitical construct is in fact the smallest one. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution—in Friedman’s phrasing, “taking away the Palestinian card”—would have no effect on Iran’s broader proxy network in the Arab world. Iran controls Syria and, by proxy, dominates Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. It operates a sprawling network of proxies, with a now-evident ability to conduct joint operations. Its network is built on physical infrastructure of bases, depots, and checkpoints; a coherent, elaborate narrative soaked in theology; and a region-wide network, based along sectarian affiliations and broad points of ideological comity. By design, it is all centered on Iran’s revolutionary brand of Shi’a Islam. The gordian knot of Iran’s proxy network has numerous political and military strands. The Palestinian component of that network has little bearing on the alignment of the Hashd al-Shaabi, Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat al-Nujaba, any other Iran-backed militia in Iraq or Syria. The same goes for the Houthis, and presumably for Hezbollah too.


That this massive, central component of the Middle East’s geopolitics does not feature once in a purported doctrine is incredibly telling. Like the Obama administration before it, the Biden administration wasted years transfixed by the shiny bauble of the Iranian nuclear program. That fixation came at the expense of allowing Iran to expand and consolidate its proxy network, undermining regional efforts to contain Iranian influence, loosening economic pressure on Iran in numerous ways, and allowing Iran’s proxies to repeatedly attack U.S. bases in the region. There were already 80 attacks prior to October 7. With this track record, the bar for what constitutes a “strong and resolute stand on Iran,” to use Friedman’s language, is remarkably low. So far, the “robust military retaliation” against Iran’s proxies have amounted to little.


It is one thing to decide that Iran should not be allowed to push America out of the Middle East, it is another to consider how the United States will engage with the region in the future. That question, which has far higher stakes for the Middle East and the world, is one that Friedman’s rendering of the Biden Doctrine fails to answer.


Besides its numerous analytical flaws, the worst part of the second Biden Doctrine is that it is so transparently political, so oozingly desperate, that everyone in the region—a region where policymakers are usually shrewder and more experienced than their American counterparts— sees a wounded animal. Israel can take advantage of the upcoming election either with the timing of a war in Lebanon or with more military aid. Saudi Arabia will try to snag a security agreement on maximalist terms, all while retaining its ability to flirt with Russia and China at will. Iran will continue to take advantage of the White House’s fear of escalation by continuing to target American troops and bases and putting political pressure on the United States to leave the region.


By associating ‘Biden Doctrine’ with a bold, radical effort to achieve peace, Thomas Friedman has tried to rehabilitate the term for posterity. Historians will certainly not be as kind.