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Murphy ’23: Trump’s Midnight Middle East Moves May Be Here to Stay

As the realization crept into the West Wing that — despite his best efforts to nullify the election — Donald Trump would soon be on his way out of power, last-minute policy decisions came flowing out of Washington. There were ludicrous pardons, environmental protection rollbacks and several rushed executions. But Trump’s last few days were also accompanied by major changes in the U.S. approach to Israel-Palestine, Morocco and Yemen that originally appeared to entrap incoming President Biden with several major headaches in the region. Now that Joe Biden has been in office for 50 days, reflecting on his handling of these “midnight” Middle East changes reveals a mixed record. In contrast to his decisive reversals of Trump’s policy on the domestic level through sweeping executive orders, Biden has chosen, on balance, a much more measured and accommodating approach to the Trump-induced crises in the Middle East. Although there are many honorable aspects of his Middle East approach, especially in ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, many at-risk populations are being left behind as Biden grapples with Trump’s legacy in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

Israel was the focus of the Trump administration’s efforts in the Middle East, and his relationship with the nation was decidedly one-sided and ignorant of U.S. precedent — which officially supported a two-state solution — from the very beginning. From day one, the Trump administration sidestepped peace with the Palestinians in lieu of Pompeo’s evangelical beliefs about who should govern the Holy Land. The frequency of policy shifts with Israel ratcheted up in the final months of the Trump presidency as his administration pushed the Abraham Accords in the region, producing peace deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco that failed to include a discussion of relations with Palestine. Other subsequent changes moved the United States further and further away from past precedent as the days to the inauguration counted down. In November, Pompeo became the first secretary of state to visit an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and announced that all goods exported to the United States from the settlements must be labeled “Made in Israel," even if they are made by Palestinians.

While the Biden administration has made some moves to restore the pre-Trump status quo, it has also clarified that the majority of Trump’s changes — especially those from his last days — could stay in place. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the Abraham Accords as a “very good thing,” and President Biden has committed to reaffirming and building upon the peace deals made under Trump, despite the fact that the deals evade the most pressing matter within the region: the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The changes in approach to settlements and the new labeling of goods produced in the occupied territories have gone unaddressed, and Israel has faced no pushback from Biden regarding the construction of 800 new settler homes in the West Bank, announced just 10 days before the 2021 inauguration. Outside of last-minute shifts, Biden still verged on emulating Trump by denouncing the International Criminal Court’s investigation of Israeli abuses and upholding Trump’s sanctions on ICC officials over a perceived offense to Israel. At a briefing earlier this week, U.S. Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price failed to adequately answer repeated questions about where Palestinians could go for justice without the potential for ICC trials. Although the peace prospects of the Abraham Accords are a welcome development for Israel, Biden appears unwilling and unable to grapple with Israel’s troubled relationship with Palestine, preferring instead to accept the Trump administration’s model of evasion.

As a part of the Abraham Accords push, one of Trump’s final foreign policy moves in the Middle East was to declare a plan with Morocco: On December 10, Trump announced via Twitter that in exchange for Morocco’s establishing of relations with Israel, the United States would overturn nearly 50 years of policy and recognize the disputed Western Sahara region as Moroccan. Sahrawis, the residents of the disputed region, have fought for sovereignty over the territory since 1975, citing their independent cultural and linguistic heritage. However, under Moroccan military rule, pro-independence movements have long been persecuted, as the state remains in conflict with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front which supports Sahrawi independence.

In the past 50 days, the Biden administration has made no effort to undo this major policy change. A bipartisan group of senators led by Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy urged the administration to “reverse this misguided decision” in a letter stating the change was “short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent U.S. policy and alienated a significant number of African nations.” Nevertheless, the State Department has provided no updates on the situation. Current State and CIA maps of North Africa show no division between Morocco and the Western Sahara.

The more time passes, and the more standard the decision becomes, the harder it will be to reverse it, indicating that the Biden team may very well accept the Trump changes. But like the Palestinian question, accepting Trump’s last-minute foreign policy moves means vulnerable populations are left without a plan for how to handle the consequences of changes in the relationship. In this case, these are the 160,000 Sahrawi refugees that remain displaced in squalid conditions in Algeria and the many others living under undemocratic conditions in the Sahara. These populations have yet to receive a message from Biden on how the United States will ultimately approach the conflict and remain unaware of whether their U.N.-supported right to a resolution ensuring self-determination will still be respected.

A final, late policy decision of the Trump administration came for Yemen when, on January 11, Yemen’s Houthi rebel group was designated as a foreign terrorist organization. International aid groups decried the move, as the FTO ruling could have made it more difficult for aid to enter the region. In contrast to his handling of Palestine and Morocco, Biden’s response to this change and the greater Trump policy on Yemen has proved much more successful, although work still remains to be done.

Last month, Biden’s team lifted the FTO ruling as part of a larger shift in Yemeni policy that involved ending support for the Saudi offensive in Yemen, including relevant arms sales. The war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which the United States became involved with through military support for Saudi under former President Obama, has killed an estimated 110,000 civilians and left millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation. Lawmakers, peace activists and theorists alike have welcomed the Biden Administration’s moves towards ending the war in Yemen. Make no mistake, this policy is excellent both for peace and for Yemenis. However, many barriers to peace remain, such as getting the Houthis to agree to a ceasefire, and the U.S. does not appear totally disengaged from Saudi Arabian violence in the region. Biden’s failure to penalize Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder made that abundantly clear last week. Therefore, it remains to be decided if peace between Yemen and Saudi Arabia will become an early foreign policy victory for President Biden or if the region will continue to bear the violent consequences of Trump’s policies.

While many anticipated that Joe Biden’s presence in the White House would give rise to sharp rebukes and reversals of Trump’s most provocative policies, Biden’s early decisions in the Middle East may suggest otherwise. The most immediate consequence of this response is that Washington will continue to brush aside populations like the Palestinians, Sahrawis and Yemenis in favor of regional hegemons. While it is certainly no easy task to pivot toward a more egalitarian approach — completely abandoning promises made during the Trump administration would spell diplomatic failure — the Biden team cannot ignore the consequences of policies that failed to address the MENA’s most pressing crises and under-represented communities.

Meghan Murphy ’23 can be reached at meghan_murphy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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