President Biden’s Middle East visit reveals the challenges for US diplomacy – and the cost of American withdrawal from the region

The war has raised questions about US diplomatic efficacy in the Middle East and its commitment to the region.

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As President Biden travelled to Israel, news of the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians in a hospital in Gaza captured headlines, complicating a presidential visit that was bound to be fraught.

Israelis are already grieving the victims of the murderous surprise attacks on 7 October. Now footage of the dead and injured in Gaza, moments after the hospital blast, are playing on television screens worldwide and hundreds of people have protested in the West Bank.

President Biden’s trip to Israel this week follows a relentless round of diplomacy across the region by US Secretary of State Blinken.

The notion of a ‘post-American Middle East’, with China displacing US power, seems remote

The notion of a ‘post-American Middle East’, with China displacing US power, seems remote. On Wednesday, President Xi avoided any mention of the war during a speech marking the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s offer is economic, and this has widespread appeal across the Global South including in the Middle East. But solutions to the region’s problems cannot avoid matters of war and peace.

The Hamas attacks and Israel’s response have mobilized and divided people around the world, including on America’s college campuses, where the next generation of American voters are making their voices heard.

All of this has raised the ante for US diplomacy, which will need to speak to multiple audiences. Quiet diplomacy designed to influence Israel’s response to the attacks by Hamas must be balanced by diplomacy that can demonstrate to governments in the region that the US is serious about its commitment to protecting civilians on both sides of the conflict.

The US will need to show that it can work with Israel, Egypt, and other state and non-state actors in the region to help put effective humanitarian measures in place

This is a tall order, but the US ability to contribute to peace in the region depends on it. The US will need to show that it can work with Israel, Egypt, and other state and non-state actors in the region to help put effective humanitarian measures in place.

America’s public diplomacy may be even more essential to prevent the widening of the conflict. US support of Israel is coming under intense public pressure.

A widely anticipated ground war in Gaza will lead to further deaths, stoking the flames of anti-Americanism abroad, and division at home, and increasing the pressure on states in the region to take steps that show their support for the Palestinians.

Public diplomacy has also become far more vital but immeasurably harder after the explosion at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.

Challenges for US diplomacy – a delicate balance

The devastating humanitarian impact of the hospital explosion has complicated Biden’s trip. In the week after the Hamas attacks, the US delivered public statements of unqualified support for Israel, while Secretary Blinken’s intense in-person regional diplomacy was delivered below the radar.

On Sunday, there was a change of tack, as President Biden called for Israel to exercise restraint and protect civilians, in a pre-recorded interview for 60 Minutes.

Despite President Biden’s decision to ‘go public’ on this point, the ability of the US to influence Israel in the short term may be limited: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that his country’s response to the Hamas attacks will ‘echo for generations.’

On top of efforts to encourage restraint from Israel, the US has the essential task of trying to deter Iran and Hezbollah from becoming directly involved, and to persuade Gulf Arab states to work towards peace and stability in the region.

Working to ensure Europe and the US remain closely aligned in their response is also critical

Working to ensure Europe and the US remain closely aligned in their response is also critical – anything less could spill over and have a negative impact on areas of ongoing concern for transatlantic cooperation, especially Ukraine.

But the Biden administration must also double down on its public diplomacy. The US President said he was ‘outraged and deeply saddened’ by the explosion of the hospital in Gaza. As the accusations are traded over who is responsible, he will be aware that American calls for Israel to protect civilians will have greater sway with the public if they can see concrete steps to protect civilians.

Quiet diplomacy has already sought to establish safe zones in Gaza, and worked to persuade Israel and Egypt to provide a humanitarian corridor, and to open the Rafah border crossing.

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Pressure from the MAGA Republicans in the US Congress to redirect aid from Ukraine to Israel, and radical partisan polarization risk undercutting diplomatic efforts to signal to people across the Middle East that Israel’s restraint is a priority for the Biden Administration. 

Disruptive Congressional politics also undermine the effort to build bridges across communities in the US that are divided by the war between Israel and Hamas.

Between withdrawal and occupation

Just days before Hamas launched its attacks, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said publicly that the Middle East was ‘quieter today than it has been in two decades’ and touted the US’s ability to focus on strategic priorities outside the Middle East.

The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and Afghanistan’s descent into chaos, and now Hamas’ murderous attacks on Israeli civilians are a reminder that the appearance of stability has been a façade.

Both disasters have exposed the dangers of binary thinking, and that US policy in the region must be forged somewhere between occupation and withdrawal.

The Palestinians still need a state, and the problem will not go silently into the night

The attacks by Hamas are also a stunning reminder that the problems of the Middle East remain of major concern for the US. The Palestinians still need a state, and the problem will not go silently into the night.

This war will undoubtedly renew concern about America’s capacity to work strategically across multiple theatres. Alongside questions about America’s diplomatic efficacy in the Middle East it has exposed another, perhaps greater concern: that of a US retreat from the region, which comes at a high price. In the weeks ahead, US diplomacy will be vital. 

The Biden administration must work actively to assure Israel that its security can be restored, to require all parties to protect civilians, and to keep states across the region firmly committed to restoring peace and stability.

In doing so, it must also seek to build bridges that can prevent Israel and Hamas’s war spilling over and creating bitter public divisions in the West.