Changes are at hand regarding US policy in the Middle East. In this article, I will argue the US pullback is misguided due to a narrow definition of risks and benefits.
While it is true that US interests have been declining in the Middle East for various reasons. However, this view fails to account for the significantly increased risks posed by instability in the region specifically on important US allies – Europe and Turkey.
A recent paper in Foreign Policy (November/December 2015 issue) titled ‘The End of Pax Americana’ by Simon and Stevenson argues that the US pullback in the Middle East is the right policy.
First, they argue that the not using ground forces in Iraq and Syria should be seen as not as a withdrawal but as a correction – from recent aggressive US policy to a more stable US restrained US policy. From WWII to 9/11, the argument is that the US was not involved militarily or just slightly at best in the Middle East. The Lebanon experience, a failure, then led to the ‘overwhelming force’ doctrine which was applied in Iraq in 1990.
Before going further, it is important to point out that the Middle East can be split up into three zones with each zone having a different level of importance for the US. The most critical zone is the Gulf states region. The second most critical region revolves around Egypt and Israel. The least important region is North Africa which is actually more relevant for the Europeans.
The key interests with the Gulf region are embodied in form of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC and includes the states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Omar, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain. The GCC is a regional political/economic union of the Sunni states in the Persian Gulf with their main objective to counter the influence of Iran. It is headquartered in and led by Saudi Arabia.
One of main areas of discontent is the Saudi – Qatari split on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. This split was most evident in Egypt and now in the Syrian War. Also note that Qatar is a backer of the AKP party in Turkey – the more successful offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the case of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood failed and was replaced by an authoritarian military regime (led by general Sissi). US support was tricky in this case since it was undemocratic in nature and it went against the interests of its ally in Turkey. It was no-win situation. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was inept and failed to take the example of the Turkish AKP party and in the end it really had to place blame on itself. But Egypt became the biggest failure of the so-called Arab Spring.
The US and the GCC had similar interests – stable oil prices and supplies, political stability and countering Iranian aggression. However, the partnership has weakened due to the US Oil rebirth, disagreements on support for Jihadist activities (overthrow of Assad in Syria and pushing back Iran have taken precedence for the GCC). As Simon and Stevenson argue, the GCC has become less answerable to the US and the US feels less obligated to back the GCC.
Additionally, Simon and Stevenson argue that the Middle East is not a very desirable place at the moment since it has massive oversupply of workers, little water, huge civil services, deprived young people, radicalization, etc. Pro-Western allies such as national militaries, technocrats, elites have lost power.
Thus interests are diverging and US power is less effective today. Transnational movements like ISIS are hard to defeat permanently. Yes, militarily easy but long-term difficult, especially if local partners are weak. See Iraq and Libya as examples. The US would fail most probably. It did consider action in Syria, but Russia and China would have opposed this at the UN and it would have been difficult to carry on talks with Iran on the nuclear issue.
In short, Arab countries that were ruled by authoritarian governments for such a long time, example: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria, were hardly ready for democracy. And this fact alone will limit the progress that US power can achieve. The region is simply not ready for democracy.
On the future of Syria, the major players in the Syrian crisis have finally had reality strike them in the face and will be brought to the negotiating table as I argued in my previous article. Simon and Stevenson argue that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will need accept that idea that Assad will stay. The key will be how marginalize both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (the Al Qaeda affiliate).
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be prolonged by the Israel even though the US has put great effort in solving this conflict. This means that the Egyptian-Israeli-US relationship will be supported by the US in the near and medium term. As Simon and Stevenson state, the US is in a no-win situation here since despite the effort no agreement will come to fruition and the US will look like a declining or ineffective power in the region. What one should not forget is that both Israel and Egypt have an interest in maintaining the status quo since both countries rely heavily on US economic and military aid.
In the end, I agree with the article that US leverage in the region has diminished and the US needs a more realistic approach of strategic intervention.
However, the ISIS threat to Europe and Turkey is real and the US needs to step up involvement here to eliminate this movement. Convincing allies to drop the demand to remove Assad would be an important step in defeating ISIS. That is the reality of the situation, like it or not.