Dr. Jim Sperling to Gulan: The notion that there is or can be a single Middle East policy for the United States is part of the problem
Jim Sperling is professor of political science at the University of Akron, where he has taught since 1988. Prior to that time he held appointments at Davison College and Michigan State University. He received his BA in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1974, his MA in international relations from SAIS, the Johns Hopkins University, and his PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
He teaches introductory courses in comparative and international relations theory, upper level courses in comparative foreign policy, and a graduate level seminar in regional and global security governance.
His publications have been focused on comparative foreign policy (particularly Germany and the United States), the EU as a security actor, transatlantic relations (particularly with respect to NATO), and regional security governance. In a written interview he answered our questions like the following:
Gulan: What has changed in the international relations since the Biden Administration assumed power, given that this Administration has reiterated its commitments to multilateralism?
Dr. Jim Sperling : The most important change has been President Biden’s effort to repair our long-standing strategic allies (e.g., NATO countries, Australia, Japan, & South Korea). It is unlikely that he will be able to regain fully the trust of our allies that Trump squandered or overcome the residual distrust that our allies must have given the potential for Trump’s re-election or the election of a Trump clone.
Gulan: And do you see and emerging Biden Doctrine with regard to the foreign affairs?
Dr. Jim Sperling: I think it is too early to make such an assessment. What is clear, however, is that Biden will continue the Obama and Trump efforts (despite the latter’s rhetoric with respect to Russia) to contain China’s geopolitical ambitions and to thwart any Russian efforts to make further gains along its western frontier.
Gulan: Between transactional and transformational foreign policy, which one do you recommend the current US administration should pursue, and which one of them is more realistic and realizable?
Dr. Jim Sperling: I think that either a transactional or transformational foreign policy agenda and practice is the last thing that the US should pursue. There needs to be a turn towards a more modest foreign policy that recognizes the limits of US power, but continues to support, protect, and reinforce the liberal international and rules-based international order established after 1945.
Gulan: What is your overall evaluation of the Mr. Biden’s Administration’s foreign policy regarding the Middle East?
Dr. Jim Sperling: The notion that there is or can be a single Middle East policy for the United States is part of the problem. There are discrete (albeit interconnected) issues that the US must address simultaneously, but those issues are nonetheless separable. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is separate from the issue of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or the necessity of protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region to ensure the stability of the international economy or the potential insertion of China into the region towards rewriting the rules of the liberal international order. And those issues are distinct from the disintegration of Iraq and the ongoing effort to reconstruct a viable state that also protects the interests and rights of the minority populations vis-à-vis the majority. The US can address some of those issues successfully (e.g., China and the flow of oil) and minimize the damage of others (Israeli-Palestinian conflict and non-proliferation). And some are beyond American capabilities (e.g., constructing social cohesion in divided polities)
Gulan: There is a belief—real or perceived—that USA is disengaging from the Middle East, do you agree that this is because this region is less important to the vital interests of America since it has achieved energy self-sufficiency?
Dr. Jim Sperling: Any disengagement from the Middle East is likely to be both a matter of perception derived from a change of approach (viz., a less militarized approach to problems in the region and a greater reliance upon diplomacy), the geostrategic challenges posed by China and Russia to US interests, and the necessity of coping with the deep economic and social ills of the US itself. It is also the case that the military footprint in the region will be smaller but the engagement is likely to remain via UAVs performing both combat and ISR operations. American energy self-sufficiency and the accelerating trend towards renewables will provide the nations of the Persian Gulf less direct leverage vis-à-vis the US, but it remains the case that the international economy remains dependent on fossil fuels as do our most important allies.
Gulan: As you know there is an enormous trust deficit between US and Iran, but it seems like Mr. Biden’s administration is willing if not determined to resume negotiation with Iran, so what are the prerequisites for taking confidence building measures between these two rival countries, at least for revitalizing the nuclear deal?
Dr. Jim Sperling: There has not been much trust in the US-Iranian relationship since the Shah was deposed, the revolutionary guard seized the American embassy and held US diplomats hostage, the US undertook retaliatory measures in the form of sanctions, and has since tolerated if not abetted Israeli cyber-attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. The multilateral nuclear agreement, which the Trump administration reneged upon, has never enjoyed universal approval within the US foreign policy establishment and the Iranians must be aware that a ‘new’ agreement could be jeopardized by any future Republican Administration, particularly if the Republican party remains in the thrall of Donald Trump. There are two pre-requisites that need to be met if a new agreement is to be forged: first, the rhetoric of the Iranian government needs to become less inflammatory and its actions, particularly in the Gulf need to be less provocative; second, the US needs to recognize that Iran has legitimate security concerns that stem in large part from the (relatively) unqualified American support of Israel and the fact that Iran lacks a deterrent to the Israeli (and American) nuclear arsenal.
Gulan: Do you see any prospect for Sustained, Strategic U.S.-Iraq Partnership after Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue?
Dr. Jim Sperling: Paradoxically, the prospect for such a partnership depends upon the continuing internal threat to political stability in Iraq and the continuing role of the Global Coalition there. That said, the US (along with its NATO allies) will have an enduring interest in aiding the stabilization of Iraq and this dialogue enhances that prospects for a successful outcome so defined.
Gulan: How do you evaluate Mr. Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the subsequent rapid and dramatic deterioration of the security situation in that country?
Dr. Jim Sperling: One of the false narratives surrounding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is that the US absence has ignited a civil war that will produce a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. It is my view that the US (along with its allies) had simply contained a civil war that remained active during the 20-year reconstruction/stabilization operation. The deterioration of the security situation reflects the weakness of the government in Kabul and the strength of the Taliban. The rapid collapse of the US-backed government suggests that the central government lacks the same level of legitimacy and commitment that the Taliban enjoys. Our nation-building impulse in Afghanistan was an error and a failure despite our best efforts; if we couldn’t help build a stable polity with or without the Taliban after 20 years, I don’t see how staying longer would produce a different outcome. Biden reached the conclusion that to continue the US presence no longer serves a vital American interest. It is an assessment with which I find no fault.