How the Biden Administration Misread the Middle East
Five days before the Iran-backed terror group Hamas invaded Israel and killed more than 1,400 Israelis, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan claimed the Middle East was “quieter than it has been for decades,” in part because the Biden administration had “de-escalated crises in Gaza” and “enhanced deterrence … to discourage further [Iranian] aggression.” Events quickly proved these statements wrong, indicating that the Biden administration had misread the situation in the Middle East. But they were proven wrong so dramatically and rapidly that it might signal a deeper problem within the Biden administration.
Sullivan wrote the analysis in question as part of a lengthy article for Foreign Affairs, a semi-academic journal published by the left-leaning Council on Foreign Relations. His words were scheduled to appear in print in the journal’s November/December edition, which went to press on October 2. In the online version posted last week, an editor’s note linked to the original version, but Sullivan was allowed to make substantial edits, removing some embarrassingly wrong predictions and making general references to “the original version of this article.”
Among the statements Sullivan deleted from his essay are these:
- “The Israeli-Palestinian situation is tense, particularly in the West Bank, but in the face of serious frictions, we have de-escalated crises in Gaza and restored direct diplomacy between the parties after years of its absence.”
- When Biden took office, “U.S. troops were under regular attack in Iraq and Syria. … Such attacks, at least for now, have largely stopped.”
- “The region is quieter than it has been for decades. … [Biden’s] approach returns discipline to U.S. policy. It emphasizes deterring aggression, de-escalating conflicts, and integrating the region.”
- “We have acted militarily to protect U.S. personnel, and we have enhanced deterrence, combined with diplomacy, to discourage further [Iranian] aggression.”
- Biden’s “disciplined approach frees up resources for other global priorities, reduces the risk of new Middle Eastern conflicts, and ensures that U.S. interests are protected on a far more sustainable basis.”
After Hamas’s October 7 terror attack on Israel, cruise missiles launched from Yemen, and a barrage of strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militias, the inaccuracy of these statements is self-evident. Even the progressive New York Times admitted, “The essay offers a rare insight into how the United States misread an explosive situation in the Middle East.”
To be fair, one reason the Biden administration was fooled is because Hamas devoted years to pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, as senior Hamas official Ali Baraka admitted during an October 8 interview on Russian state-controlled TV. Said Baraka:
“In the past couple of years, Hamas has adopted a ‘rational’ approach. It did not go into any war and did not join the Islamic Jihad in its recent battle.”
Interviewer: “But all this was part of Hamas’s strategy in preparing for this attack.”
Baraka: “Of course. We made them think that Hamas was busy with governing Gaza, and that it wanted to focus on the 2.5 million Palestinians [in Gaza] and has abandoned the resistance altogether. All the while, under the table, Hamas was preparing for this big attack.”
Hamas’s deception was so successful that even Israel was apparently fooled. Israel’s signals intelligence agency had stopped listening to radio traffic among Hamas militias a year before the attack, reported The New York Times.
But this reason only explains one of Sullivan’s faulty predictions. It fails to explain how the Biden administration could completely misread the situation in the Middle East — from top to bottom.
None of this is to disparage Sullivan in particular. In contrast to some of the Biden administration’s more fringe, extremist personnel selections, Sullivan has an impressive resume and worked his way up through the foreign policy apparatus of the Obama administration. Although his name was on the poorly-timed article, he represents the viewpoint of the left-leaning foreign policy establishment. Still, Sullivan — and the entire Biden administration — badly erred in interpreting the situation in the Middle East.
In fact, the Biden administration’s foreign policy blunders in the Middle East did not begin this month. In the fall of 2021, the Biden administration precipitated a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan that left Americans and allies stranded, enabled a terrorist attack that killed U.S. troops, turned that country back over to the Taliban, and left them more than $80 billion worth of U.S. military equipment. In negotiations with Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, the Biden administration has repeatedly given them money in exchange for nothing — all the while keeping U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia at arm’s length.
In the article, Sullivan defended Biden’s record, claiming these deliberate policy decisions — what he called a “disciplined” approach — had made the region safer and “avoid[ed] the protracted forever wars” — in addition to claiming credit for expansions on the Trump-era Abraham Accords.
Under the Obama administration, these same policies had given rise to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a brutal, radical group that called itself a caliphate and attempted to impose a strict version of Sharia law across a wide swath of territory it had conquered. So, there was already precedent to show the Biden administration’s foreign policy was heading in the wrong direction.
For the Biden administration to steer the ship of state back into this same political cul-de-sac, there must be a serious blind spot in their political worldview.
I submit that the Biden’s administration’s blind spot is religion.
The Biden administration walks right into foreign policy mistakes and totally misreads a situation because it simply cannot imagine that other parties really believe their avowed religions — or any worldview other than post-modern progressivism, for that matter. In his 22-page essay on America’s foreign policy challenges, Sullivan never once mentioned Islam, Jihad, Judaism, the Russian Orthodox Church, or any other religious term. Somewhere among discussions of diplomacy, deterrence, power, and materiel, the Biden administration has lost sight of what actually motivates many of our partners and adversaries around the world.
Thus, the Biden administration believed the Middle East had achieved a relatively peaceful stasis because it overlooked the radical Islamist beliefs animating many of the region’s actors. When Hamas, Iran, or other Iranian proxies articulated religious reasons for why Israel must be destroyed, the Biden administration interpreted that as so much rhetorical bluster, which could be appeased with another aid package or a reprieve from economic sanctions. Based on their ongoing negotiations with Iran, and the course those negotiations have taken, they never took seriously the notion that Iran wants to destroy the nation of Israel.
The Biden administration apparently fails to grasp the religious aspect of other areas of conflict around the world. In 2022, the State Department de-listed Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) for religious persecution, even though Islamist terrorists had killed 6,000 Christians there in the span of 15 months. Religious and non-religious observers alike were shocked that the Biden State Department refused to recognize the religiously motivated violence taking place there.
Meanwhile, the Muslim government of Azerbaijan has conducted a blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, a small exclave of its neighbor, predominantly Christian Armenia. While the Biden administration has expressed its concern over the situation on humanitarian grounds, it seems unwilling to acknowledge the religious aspect of the crisis.
A key theme running throughout all three conflict zones — and which the Biden administration also seems to have overlooked — is the inherently political nature of Islam. While Christian teaching has long advocated for — and, to varying extents, practiced — the separation of church and state, Islam has been a political religion since the time of its founder, Muhammad. Thus, for the Biden administration to misunderstand or ignore Islam in foreign policy is to ignore what motivates the very actors it seeks to persuade, pressure, or influence. America is playing Rummy in a game of Uno.
This religious blind spot has afflicted the Biden administration on domestic policy matters, too. House investigators discovered this summer that multiple FBI field offices were spying on “radical traditionalist Catholics” as potential domestic terrorists; had the FBI understood what traditional Catholics actually believe, they could have skipped the whole embarrassing charade. In May, Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services threatened to revoke a Catholic hospital’s accreditation because the hospital’s chapel contained a single burning candle, per Catholic teaching. In 2021, military commanders tried to deny or ignore as many religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine mandate as possible.
The list could go on, but the common theme is a failure of imagination among Biden administration officials to conceive of any religious belief as legitimate where it diverged from their progressive policy preferences.
In fact, this religious blind spot is not unique to the Biden administration; commentators across the Left demonstrated it upon Rep. Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) election as Speaker of the House. “This guy is a religious nut,” said Washington Post columnist Jen Rubin. “And, by that, I mean he subscribes to all of the extreme, Christian nationalist views.” And, by that, she meant that he believes standard biblical teachings, something she cannot conceive any sane person would do. MSNBC host and former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki echoed the same sentiment, “The Bible doesn’t just inform his worldview. It is his worldview.”
“Evidently, we’re the scariest people on planet Earth, and evidently people like Jen Psaki and Jennifer Rubin thought we were rare. They thought we had been sidelined,” responded Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler on “Washington Watch.” “You pay a lot of attention to what the other side thinks. … That doesn’t go on, on the Left.”
“They’re just totally clueless about such a large population in the United States,” agreed Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, host of “Washington Watch,” “that not only reads the Bible, but actually believes the Bible and understands it to inform our lives, and that God wants us to live according to the teachings of Scripture.”
Hamas’s terror attack against Israel and the subsequent wave of anti-Semitism provides the perfect occasion for the Biden administration to correct their blind spot to any religious beliefs out of alignment with current progressive orthodoxy. If they choose to ignore the opportunity, they will continue to be surprised by developments, foreign and domestic, whenever they interact with people who actually hold sincere religious beliefs.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.