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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Joe Biden may keep Mideast policy on a back burner, barring new crises

A child in fatigues waves a Libyan flag

A child in fatigues waves a Libyan flag on Feb. 17 in Tripoli at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the uprising that ousted the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Credit: Getty Images/Nada Harib

President Joe Biden's administration appears bent on keeping its foreign policy focus on areas outside the Mideast. "If you are going to list the regions Biden sees as a priority, the Middle East is not in the top three," a former senior national security official who is a close Biden adviser told Politico. "It’s Asia-Pacific, then Europe and then the Western Hemisphere."

During his first month in office, Biden's only call to a head of state in the Middle East went to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made no secret in recent years of his preference for Republicans in the U.S. That was after Biden's first three weeks in office in which the 46th president contacted the leaders of other American allies, in addition to Russia and China.

Netanyahu and Biden of course have sharp differences over the Obama-era Iran nuclear pact from which Trump withdrew. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Israeli and U.S. heads of government will seek to reduce their tensions in the meantime by delegating discussions on the topic to senior staff.

Other longtime trouble spots lurk engaged by the U.S. in that part of the world. One is oil-rich Libya, where any faction's hope of governing in a functional way remains dim a decade after dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and assassinated. In the anarchy that followed Gadhafi's demise came a lethal attack on two U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, by Islamic militants.

This week, Erik Prince, a well-known figure in the security business and a friend of former President Donald Trump, denied a UN report that linked him to an aborted $80 million mercenary operation in Libya in 2019, during multisided armed conflict amid political turmoil in that country. The report also alleged Prince violated an international arms embargo. Prince is a brother of Betsy DeVos, who was Trump's education secretary.

Notably The New York Times quotes a senior UN diplomat saying the Biden administration may be "reluctant" to penalize an American such as Prince for breaking the arms embargo when others are guilty of worse. In October, the newspaper noted, the European Union placed sanctions on Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman known as "Putin’s chef," over his close ties to mercenaries in Libya.

Separately, the legendary involvement of individual U.S. players in shadowy weapons deals in Libya goes back decades. Former CIA agent Frank Terpil went rogue, did business with Gadhafi and was sentenced in absentia to 53 years in prison.

Terpil died in 2016 as a fugitive in Cuba. He'd allegedly worked with Edwin P. Wilson, an ex-CIA and Navy intelligence officer convicted in 1983 of illegally selling weapons to Gadhafi's regime. Wilson died in 2012.

Earlier this month, Biden announced a halt to U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the Yemeni civil war, including arms sales. "This war has to end," Biden said, calling it a "humanitarian and strategic catastrophe." Trump had continued the support despite a bipartisan congressional resolution to desist.