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In the Middle East, Biden’s ‘little carrot, no stick’ approach isn’t working

In World
February 01, 2024
In a transformational election year, Biden is under intense pressure to act forcefully and go beyond his standard sporadic armed pinpricks. In a dire warning for his 2024 presidential campaign, a recent Gallup poll shows his approval rating at the lowest for a third-year president since Jimmy Carter, who served only one term.
Biden is likely to respond with a series of actions, including strikes on a far wider range of targets, as well as cyberattacks and covert operations over an extended period of time. Despite calls for direct strikes on Iran, this is unlikely at the moment but remains an option.

The bottom line is that Biden’s reactive military stance in the Middle East over time has further destabilised an already dangerous region.

His reluctance to take firmer proportional action and failure to create a more determined level of US deterrence in the Middle East, particularly since October 7, have resulted in serious consequences for regional security, and beyond.

Firstly, Biden’s hesitancy has contributed to the considerable loss of US credibility and leverage in the Middle East, resulting in a more fragile status quo.

Biden’s aggressive regional shuttle diplomacy, spearheaded by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will not yield dividends without firmer defence measures. Ultimately, Biden’s weakness on defence has undermined his diplomacy. In the Middle East, his approach is largely viewed by friends and foes as “little carrot and no stick”.
Furthermore, his wavering on the use of force has created a dangerous security void in the region which has emboldened Iran and its axis of resistance to engage in more daring hostilities – since October 7, they have taken part in more than 100 attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria.

What are US troops doing in the Middle East and where are they?

In addition, Biden’s regional reluctance is sending the wrong message to rogue actors globally, particularly those in important strategic locations affecting international trade and security.

The Houthis in Yemen and other like-minded “resistance” movements continue to exploit this. Despite Biden’s efforts at collective maritime security measures in the Red Sea against Houthi attacks, they are largely perceived as “too little, too late”.

03:21

US-led coalition strikes Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen

US-led coalition strikes Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen

The situation is growing more complicated as those spearheading the Middle East chaos – including Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and Islamic Resistance in Iraq – technically operate independently as non-state actors. Yet they form part of the axis of resistance supported by Iran.

Overall, the US needs to go beyond Biden’s strategic drift, start seizing the initiative and increasingly shape events in the region with a focus on its core interests. Reversing course will require a bolder longer-term strategy accompanied by firmer action that sends a clear message to friends and foes alike.

However, expectations need to be kept in check. US foreign policy cannot make or break the Middle East, nor should it try to. Recent decades provide ample lessons. Ultimately, local forces and dynamics will determine the region’s future. But external actors will inevitably have a role to play and the US needs to step up.

Until then, the Biden administration will remain vulnerable to the many risks threatening regional stability and global security.

Marco Vicenzino, a country risk expert for Euromoney, specialises in geopolitical risk and international business development

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