In the Godfather: Part III, Michael Corleone laments his failure to escape his fate as a member of organised crime. This alluring analogy was used by Jeffrey Goldberg during a 2016 interview with former US President Barack Obama to describe his policies in the Middle East.
Goldberg said that the Middle East is to Obama’s presidency what the Mob is to Corleone, quoting the Al Pacino line: “Just when I thought I was out—”
“It pulls you back in,” said Obama, completed the thought.
If he makes it into the White House, this is the biggest challenge “President Joe Biden” will have to deal with, having served as Obama’s vice president, he knows you cannot ignore or downplay the importance of the most combustible region in the world – as Donald Trump has tried to do.
Biden seems to know it. There will likely be a cautious approach towards his future policies in the region, which would reflect a desire to strike a delicate balance between re-installing security and stability, and not being fully drawn into its festering conflicts.
But contradictions are rife in dealing with the Middle East and Biden is no exception.
In a 2007 interview, Biden describes himself as a “Zionist” and a “stalwart supporter of Israel”, but he is also in opposition to the annexation of parts of the West Bank. He also wants to open a “dialogue” with the Palestinians – this includes resuming US aid to the Palestinians, reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem, signalling his support for the two-state solution, and restoring the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) diplomatic mission in Washington DC.
There are no simple answers, as much as Trump often suggests otherwise.
On the issue of the Iran nuclear deal, Biden’s campaign is clear that “If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, President Biden will re-enter the agreement”. But on many other occasions, the former vice president called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action a “starting point” and that he would work to “extend” its nuclear restrictions.
Biden is willing to resume a strategy that proved to be working, until Trump decided in May 2018 to pull the US out of the deal. Trump's policy on Iran may have been one of his most consistent, but Biden understands that “maximum pressure” policy towards Iran has so far failed to curb its nuclear programme, change its regional behaviour or result in a regime change.
However, Biden is no different than Trump in acknowledging that the nuclear deal needs to be fixed. He is aware of issue of the "sunset clause" – the date when restrictions on Iran can be lifted – and the fact that it needs to include a much longer deadline.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia might not be so keen on Biden's take on their country. When Obama was asked: “Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” he replied: “It’s complicated.” Not quite the support that Trump has offered.
Biden has not been afraid to criticise Riyadh. During a Democratic debate last November, Biden said he would make Saudi Arabia “pay the price” over the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. He also said: “We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are”, and promised to stop the weapons’ sales to Riyadh to put an end to the war in Yemen.
Many analysts across the region think that Biden's policies will be nothing but a spin on Obama's, who worked hard to shift the US focus to south-east Asia instead. But, the Middle East kept "pulling him back in." Biden has pledged to keep a small number of troops in the region to achieve two clear objectives: patrolling the waters of the Gulf and making sure Isis will never make a comeback.
In addition to Iran, Arab US allies fear another imminent threat: an expansion of Turkey's influence.
The UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed once called Obama “Untrustworthy” for “abandoning” former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 uprising that ended his 30-years rule. There is concern among some that Obama promoted the Muslim Brotherhood (a Sunni group) narrative about the region, and Biden would throw the group a new lifeline, by looking the other way on largely Sunni Islamist Turkey’s ambitions. But that is ignoring the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood group, which is designated as a terrorist organisation in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, has been completely crushed in these countries, losing its gravitas too.
But the biggest fears for many countries are already happening, even with Trump's kind words. Half of Saudi Arabia's oil production was briefly knocked out in September by attacks claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. And on a number of occasions, oil tankers have been harassed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Strait of Hormuz.
In Syria and Libya, many accuse Trump of granting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a green light to advance his country's agenda with no constraints. Trump sees the wars in both countries as not his problem, leaving others to fill the vacuum left.
Leadership is what Biden has promised. Like Trump he wants to bring an end to “forever wars” in Afghanistan – but also in Yemen. But rather than that coming via unilateral withdrawal, he pledges to “elevate diplomacy” and “restore and reimagine partnerships”. According to his campaign, this will be through strengthening US alliances with the Nato partners, reviving US partnerships with South Korea, Japan and other South Asian allies, and signing a new START nuclear treaty with Russia.
The “restoration” of the US as an active participant in shaping the new world order is key when it comes to the Middle East. Even if this US strategy is based on a strategic re-posturing to tackle China,
Under Biden, Turkey, Iran and Israel are likely to receive a clear message that expansion – by whatever means – will not be left unchecked. The same message will be extended to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where activists, journalists and dissidents still disappear by the thousands behind bars.
Biden has a growing lead in polls, and some in the Middle East will no doubt miss the more friendly nature of the Trump administration if there is a new president in the wake of November's election.