During the past weeks, the contours of the new administration’s Middle East policy have become clear. Speaking at the Department of State, President Joe Biden stated that the U.S. will limit military assistance to Saudi Arabia and cease supporting Riyadh’s efforts against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Blinken retracted the Trump administration’s efforts to initiate “snap back” measures against Iran, effectively conceding Iran’s right to import weaponry. That’s a one-two punch: reducing support for the Saudis and clearing the way for Iran’s military build-up.
Meanwhile, as Washington made these gestures of appeasement, Tehran had its proxies in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon continue their assaults on American assets or partners, including the February 15 rocket attacks on Erbil, with American casualties. As Iran ratchets up the violence, U.S. leadership makes unconditional concessions. American policy makers are living in a parallel universe, oblivious to the wars on the ground. This lack of realism became painfully clear in recent statements which deserve close reading: an article by Senator Chris Murphy addressing policy in the Gulf and responses by the State Department to gross violations of human rights by the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, operating in Northern Iraq.
Writing in Foreign Affairs on February 19, Murphy set out a vision for a revised U.S. policy for the region, including prospects for a military drawdown. One might in fact reasonably explore a transformed American presence in the region, as did both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. However, Murphy barely mentions Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony or considers the consequences if the U.S. abandons its partners. In addition, while correctly arguing that America should hold Saudi Arabia to human rights norms, he is silent on human rights abuses in Iran. This is a glaring double standard, calling out the Saudis but ignoring how Iran regularly tortures prisoners and has its agents murder critics abroad. For instance, the Lebanese activist Luqman Salim was recently executed by the Iran-supported Hezbollah.
Furthermore, Murphy’s article includes a factual error that undermines his credibility when he attacks the Gulf states. He criticizes those countries because they “maintain a draconian ‘guardian system’ that restricts women’s ability to travel” without permission of a male authority. Obviously, that is a truly reprehensible practice. Yet, he fails to mention however that Saudi Arabia abolished this practice a couple of years ago as part of the reforms initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Murphy is a distinguished member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, therefore a key player in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. The fact that he can get this important point of information wrong—and that an influential journal like Foreign Affairs did not catch it through fact checking—is evidence of a strategic weakness of thinking in the foreign policy establishment. Apparently, any anti-Saudi claim gets a pass, as the administration steers in its pro-Iran direction.
We have recently also witnessed a comparable gaffe in executive branch foreign policy management. On February 10, Turkey launched an operation into Iraqi Kurdistan with the goal of retrieving hostages whom the PKK had been holding, in some cases for more than five years. As the Turkish forces approached, the PKK executed the hostages in cold blood, with point blank shots to the head. As with all failed rescue missions, one can question the operation retroactively; that debate is underway in Turkey. Yet there is no doubt that the summary execution of hostages is an egregious human rights violation. One would expect the Biden administration to be vocal in its condemnation—and not only because the Turks are a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally and Washington has labelled the PKK a terrorist organization.
Yet the initial statement issued by the State Department on February 14 was half-hearted at best. Not until the next day did the State Spokesperson offer a correction with a firm condemnation of the PKK. How to explain this waffling? One might be tempted to attribute it to incompetence, but this administration—in contrast to its predecessor—has recruited personnel with considerable prior government experience. This team ought to be able to get things right the first time round. More likely the two statements reflect a tug of war inside Biden’s foreign policy group. Some evidently want to cushion, if not entirely shield, the PKK from criticism, presumably because the PKK is crucial to the Obama-era legacy Kurdish strategy in the fight against ISIS: these Kurds were a potential partner in the counter-terrorism campaign and would not antagonize Iran. Yet others in today’s State Department seem to be trying to maintain the fiction that one can separate the PKK terrorists, the bad Kurds, from their alter ego, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) whom they view as the good Kurds worthy of American support.
Given the ongoing violence in the region—the wars in Yemen and Syria, the rockets hitting targets in Saudi Arabia, and the political violence across both Iraq and Lebanon—these two misstatements, by Murphy on guardianship and the State Department on the PKK—may seem to pale in significance: they are just words, after all. However, they are also symptomatic of a tendency in parts of Congress and in the administration to tilt toward Iran and its proxies and away from traditional partners, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. According to this view, the major problems in the region are American presence and the character of U.S. partners and allies; the implication of this vision is for the United States to acquiesce to Iran’s campaign for regional hegemony.
An open question remains as to the source of this infatuation with Iran, despite its forty years of fever-pitch anti-Americanism that has never shown any sign of abating. The answer may have to do with some ideological affinity: the revolutionary character of the Islamic Republic may appeal to parts of the liberal Democratic spectrum, while the generally conservative Republicans are more comfortable with stable monarchies.
Yet more importantly, Iran’s anti-Americanism evidently confirms progressives’ America-centric world view that treats the United States as the primary cause of strife everywhere. It is an “America First” thinking with a negative sign: America as the worst, not the best. The hate-filled slogans from Tehran resonate with the internalized anti-imperialism of American progressives, who prefer to embrace America’s enemies instead of supporting its friends. During the next four years, the task for cooler heads in Washington will involve limiting the damage that this mindset can do to American interests and the network of partners and allies on which the United States relies.
Russell A. Berman is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of the Humanities at Stanford University. The opinions expressed here are his own.