Under Joe Biden, can US Middle East policy be reversed?

Over the past fortnight, the outgoing Trump administration has rushed to cement its foreign policy plans in the Middle East. Last week, the US designated the Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization and placed sanctions on an Iraqi military official and several Iranian organizations. In December, it recognized Moroccan sovereignty over disputed territory in the Western Sahara area.

All these actions have served to alienate Iran and boost Israel in the region, moves that many American voters might well agree with. Yet the most recent initiatives have also been heavily criticized.

'Deeply troubling consequences' for Trump's policies
"US officials' rush to the finish line has had deeply troubling consequences," wrote analysts at the Brussels-based policy think tank Crisis Group last week.

Designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization could hamper aid agencies working in war-torn Yemen, they argued. It could unleash "a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years," a UN official said.

Meanwhile, Iraq's foreign office described US sanctions placed on Iraqi official, Faleh al-Fayyad, last week as "unacceptable and surprising." Al-Fayyad is the head of local paramilitaries known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, known to be supported by Iran. Sanctions like this "provoke reactions from the Iraqi political system, perhaps forcing foreign [US] troops out of Iraq," analyst Sajad Jiyad warned earlier in a July 2020 policy brief.

'Trump playing domestic politics with foreign policy'
The US recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara in December, one of the world's longest-running territorial disputes, has also met with widespread disapproval. The latter was seen as an American "thank you" to Morocco for officially reestablishing tieswith Israel.

President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, called it "gratuitous grandstanding" and a "nakedly transactional approach" in an article for Foreign Policy magazine in mid-December.

The Trump administration is 'trying to lock the US into a certain direction': Julian Barnes-Dacey

"This is Trump playing domestic politics with foreign policy to the bitter end," said Julian Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"As the clock is ticking down, they're trying to energize their political base and possibly cement some kind of legacy. They're trying to lock the US into a certain direction, to prevent Biden from reversing it."

But will the incoming Biden administration reverse these moves? And even if they want to, how long and how complicated would that process be?

Just one day needed to make changes
"In theory, some changes could be quite easy," said Marina Henke, professor of international relations at the Hertie School, a post-secondary institute teaching public policy in Berlin. "Technically, many could be done in a day."

For example, the decision on Morocco and the Western Sahara was in the form of a proclamation made by Trump. This has no force of law unless the US Congress authorizes it, and can simply be reversed by another proclamation from the new president