On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran, just days after President Biden returned from his visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It will be Putin’s second visit out of Russia since he began his invasion of Ukraine began in February and included meetings with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. By making this visit, Putin teaches Biden an important lesson: America’s deterrence of adversaries around the world depends on its leadership in the Middle East.
In fact, geography matters less in a world that in recent decades has become so interconnected and where many of America’s threats are transnational in nature.
The America First approach to foreign policy embraces this perspective when it comes to working with allies to confront threats, as a recent publication by the America First Policy Institute explained, whether our allies are in the Pacific, the Middle East, or Europe. Just as the Trump Administration aggressively fought Communist China’s exploitation of America’s immigration and education systems, it also penalized European companies for conducting business with Iran.
When it came to the Middle East in particular, the Trump Administration not only saw how Communist China and Russia undermine American interests and security through their influence in the region, and actively worked with allies to deter them.
Indeed, even the language of the Abraham Accords declaration itself makes this perspective clear. The mentions of “peace” in the text of the Abraham Accords declaration are not restricted to the Middle East — the word applies “around the world.”
President Trump and his Cabinet consistently warned Israel’s leadership of the dangers of its dependence on China. Congress adopted a similar approach. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a provision to establish a U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group (OTWG) tasked with reporting to Congress about any potential compromise of American intellectual property in Israel’s diplomatic relations with China and Russia.
Similarly, President Trump kicked Turkey off the F-35 program when they decided to acquire the Russian S-400 air defense system.
A presidential visit to any part of the world is always important and a good move, particularly with a region as important as the Middle East. That said, fist bumps and gaffes aside, President Biden’s visit was poorly executed and poorly conceived.
The stop in Saudi Arabia, including the rush to repair relations, was transparently designed to help mitigate America’s (partly self-imposed) energy crisis. Not only did President Biden return without Saudi commitments, but his divergent public remarks – whether shaming the Saudis publicly or his difference of views with Israel’s Prime Minister on Iran – did little to repair trust with either Saudi Arabia or Israel.
The White House’s messaging about the trip reflected this lack of seriousness or understanding of the region. A press statement released a month before the visit glaringly makes no mention of building on the Abraham Accords. It also mentions nothing about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the threats from Communist China — naively, as if the various theaters of foreign policy are completely independent of each other.
Furthermore, it does not even include the word “terrorism,” a subject of pronounced regional and transnational importance. The only mention of Iran in the statement — “deterring threats from Iran”— appears inconspicuously in a section addressing regional cooperation following the mention of “new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives.”
An op-ed by Biden published in the Washington Post was awkwardly framed as a justification for his visit to the region rather than a clear vision statement. The rambling piece is also chock full of claims that would keep a fact-checker busy, including that the Middle East is currently “more stable and secure than … 18 months ago” and that the Biden Administration “helped end the violence in Gaza.”
That Biden returned empty-handed from the visit is not necessarily its biggest failure, although it is a noteworthy mark of where our relations with our allies currently stand. Far more important is that Biden arrived with neither the right words to say nor with open ears to hear what his counterparts said during his short visit.
As America’s top adversaries actively engaged in the Middle East to threaten Americans and their interests, the Biden Administration does not even merit an “e for effort” when it comes to repairing its relations with its allies. With Biden downplaying Putin’s visit to Iran, his fist bump in Saudi Arabia will likely be the least of Americans’ concerns.