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Between Trump and Biden: What is the Impact on the Gulf?

Featured speakers: Ambassador Patrick Theros (moderator), Dr. Dania Thafer, Congressman Ted Yoho, Congressman Jim Moran, and Barbara Slavin.


American foreign policy has often been described as a “residual” of U.S. domestic policy. This year’s election pits two widely polarized domestic constituencies against one another. This polarization will certainly affect American policies towards the Gulf region. Within the past four years, a multitude of changes have occurred and consequently altered the potential directions that the Trump or Biden administrations can take. This poses a challenge to the foreign policy calculations of Gulf states, who have long relied on long-term assessments of United States strategy – assessments that appear to be useless in America’s current political environment. The Trump administration has partially continued the gradual disengagement from the region initiated by the Obama administration. However, President Trump has sent mixed signals by breaking with Obama’s vision of reducing tensions in favor of a more aggressive posture that could potentially provoke war. While paradoxically doing its utmost to avoid war.

Trump began his presidency by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran and imposing crushing sanctions on Tehran. The balance of the Trump first term has seen a steady escalation between Washington and Tehran. The chances of war began started with Iran downing an American drone and ended with Iran striking U.S. bunkers in Iraq, and in between the U.S. killed Iran’s most prominent military commander. Since then, small-scale attacks on the U.S. presence in Iraq have been shrugged off. Trump added sprung a last-minute surprise by, taking credit for the September normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Gulf states policymakers must now puzzle out the contradictions as a guide to a second term Trump Presidency.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s lengthy public career should, in theory, makes it possible to predict his policy towards Gulf issues if he wins the presidency. During his career in the Senate, Joe Biden regularly voted to condemn Iran’s regional policy but, as Vice President, strongly supported President Obama’s JCPOA. He has pledged to put the JCPOA back into force and build on it to strengthen nuclear safeguards and restrict Iran’s capacity to threaten the neighborhood. Mr. Biden voted in favor of the resolution for the “use of force” against Iraq in 2002 and did not publicly acknowledge that his vote authorizing force in Iraq was “a mistake” until November 2005.

More recently, however, Biden has vehemently criticized Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Few doubts that Riyadh has apprehensions about a Biden Presidency. On the larger question of the American military presence in the Gulf, his record – and his support for Obama’s buildup in Afghanistan – would indicate that he would continue America’s traditional involvement in the region. However, American politics has changed, and many Americans (and, in particular, many left-wing Democrats) could well push him towards disengagement. His reputation as a peacemaker and a strong supporter of Israel could indicate that he would continue Trump’s policies on “normalizing” Gulf relations with Israel.

Although both candidates have policy differences, the incumbent and the nominee are both subject to the same historic trends that have seen the U.S. slowly reduce its role as the region’s primary security guarantor.

How can Trump sort out the inconsistencies in “maximum pressure” on Iran, his opposition to war and his stated intention to reduce the U.S. military presence? What could four more years of President Trump mean for the U.S. – Gulf relationship? How might the Gulf respond to Joe Biden’s victory? Will campaign rhetoric or reality play a greater role in determining the foreign policy actions of either Trump or Biden? Will the direction of U.S. policy cause some Gulf nations to look elsewhere for security? If so, where?

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