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…