It is lobbying time in Washington
The four years after 2016 have shaped the nature of government during former US President Donald Trump’s era. There was really no American administration. Only Trump mattered.
In some cases, there was a gatekeeper called Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law. With the exception of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, members of the cabinet and White House advisers seemed largely expendable. They were replaced quickly depending on the mood of the president.
It did not make sense for any envoy or foreign minister from an allied nation to sit with a US secretary of state like Rex Tillerson and explain to him what he wants, only to quickly find out that Trump is bashing his cabinet member or firing him with a tweet.
This happened again and again with senior officials in national security and defence portfolios. Presidents and officials in the world quickly learned that talking with the president, and only the president, was key to seeking tangible results. This lasted until the last days of Trump’s presidency.
This trend within the administration was largely reflected in US foreign policy matters. Trump acted on Middle East issues on that basis.
In some instances, he succeeded. In others, things did not make any serious headway. Certain issues cannot be dealt with expediently or selectively. Despite everything Trump did, for example on Iran-related issues, Tehran remained strategically resilient if financially weakened by the end of Trump’s term.
Trump supposed that four more years would have been enough to drain Tehran. But Iran had another point of view. What was more dangerous is that it had the tools to realise its vision.
It had its lobby in Washington, which was in fact the most dangerous lobby in town. That lobby was none other than the previous Democratic administration, which is now in power.
It can be said that the matter included Qatar. Shortly after Trump’s election, Doha understood that its democratic season would be delayed and it would have to wait.
Doha coexisted with the realities of the Trump era, then switched gears with the return to the times of former Democratic President Barack Obama reincarnated as President Joe Biden’s administration. Obama, more than any American personality, was the official sponsor of the “Arab Spring’s” chaos.
Doha was the executive contractor. It was in fact both a US-commissioned contractor and a customer of the “Arab Spring”.
The arrival of Biden’s administration to the White House has imposed a different reality on the activities of the world’s leaders and senior officials, in addition to those of foreign embassies and institutions in Washington, especially those from the Arab world.
The past four years ended up being different in terms of the activities of Washington’s lobbies and counter-lobbies. Today, the vacation that extended throughout Trump’s term in office has expired; and serious political and diplomatic work is underway.
Biden is the legitimate child of the US deep state. He spent five decades in all sorts of public service activities and held all kinds of positions. He will not act as a transactional businessman considering his age and the extent of his career. The important thing is for him now to form his team and let it work.
In the early days of his presidency, there was no doubt that he would speak on issues of national security and foreign relations. So he did. And we have read his speech at the US State Department which spelled out the general outlines and left it for the team to fill in the blanks.
This is what will likely happen as he wants to devote his attention to the United States as a country that faces the risks of political polarisation, populism, economic crises and the coronavirus pandemic.
Foreign affairs, national security and military affairs are the broadest areas where the lobbies can operate. Biden’s choices make their job easier. He has brought back many from the Obama team with known leanings. Many of them are professional civil servants, but no one will miss the ideological prism through which some of them will operate.
The Saudi files moved early because of the lobbies that prepared themselves early, that is, since it became clear that Trump was heading out and Biden was on his way in.
It is dangerous for the United States to indicate that it is engaging Saudi Arabia, but there are no plans in the near future to communicate with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. MBS, as the crown prince is widely known, is targeted by a campaign exploiting a number of issues that have made him an easy target, especially human rights and the Jamal Khashoggi case. But make no mistake. You cannot engage Saudi Arabia without going through MBS.
The Iranian file has been put on hold because the lobby behind it does not want it to advance quickly. Kushner’s reconciliation initiative in the Gulf preempted whatever problems Biden and his team might create for the boycotting countries. More scores for the lobbyists.
The Yemen war has become a priority. A priority that Iran and the Houthis endorsed by sending a great number of drones and missiles towards targets in Saudi Arabia and by moving to seize Marib, the place in Yemen where the Saudis have invested the most, politically and on the popular level.
By appointing Timothy Lenderking as a special envoy for Yemen, the United States has indicated that it wants to get its hand on the region’s issues early on. Lenderking is clearly not about to complete what the failed UN delegate Martin Griffiths has spent two years exploring in endless and sterile tours.
What is more striking is that Washington has lowered the level of representation of envoys to delegates in order to limit access to the White House: “We sent you an empowered delegate so talk to him,” it seems to say. The era of direct contact with the president or his close advisers is over.
It becomes necessary now to interpret the Washington scene in a different manner. There are competent Arab diplomats who have already made important breakthroughs in the United States, although they now seem to be targeted by gossip.
But many of them are most capable of tackling the task of reaching out to the ruling political and legislative class in the US. They will be targeted by more gossip which will test their patience.
These diplomats cannot be left to do the job alone. Any capable English-language media that seek to clarify the policies of Arab countries towards Iran, Turkey and political Islam would be of invaluable help as these media will say what diplomats cannot. But the existing media are now of modest means, size and quality.
It is risky to prematurely conclude that the new US administration is bound to be hostile. This would be a gift for the other camp. And even if the administration was like that, wasn’t the Trump administration hostile to Iran?