The U.S. Can’t Just Quit the Middle East

A profound realignment is taking place in the Middle East. Not simply the Sunni Arab-Israeli entente—witness the Israel-hosted Emirati-Bahraini-Moroccan summit over the weekend—nor the controversial Iran-U.S. rapprochement, but also the growing hedging against American betrayal by traditional allies like Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. What is happening is indisputable. And the why is also easily deduced—growing doubts about the fealty of Washington to its old friends, questions about the judgment of successive American administrations on traditional threats like Iran, and newer adversaries like al-Qaeda and ISIS. The question is what to do. The future security of the region, and of American geostrategic dominance rests on the answer.

For Middle East hands, the straws have been in the wind for some time, perhaps even as early as the turn of the 21st century. Israeli governments were becoming more obviously irritated by perennial American efforts to “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Palestinian leaders, too, had soured on the “peace process” that after more than half a century appeared more process than peace. Each began looking at advancing their national interests parallel to, but less and less often with, the United States.

American disaffection with the region in the wake of the Iraq War only deepened existing trends and fears. When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, the Obama administration made clear it had few stakes in supporting longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak (no democrat, he), nor in the outcome of the political tsunami that swept across the Levant, North Africa, and even into Iran and Iraq. Barack Obama’s disinterest in the war in Syria, the Syrian people’s battle for democratic freedoms, or even, ultimately, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons was viewed with consternation throughout the region. His willingness to invite Russia into Syria, heedless of the consequences, stunned most observers.

NATO’s strange and feckless intervention in Libya only worsened the dilemma for Arab and Israeli leaders. Sure, Muammar Qaddafi was no loss, but the almost pathological lack of strategic follow-through in Libya, and Obama’s oft-professed horror at having joined the campaign looked less like a bug, and more like a feature of new American foreign policy. Layer on Obama’s disastrous Iran nuclear deal that, from the region’s perspective, gave fresh license to Iran’s hegemonic aims, and the roadmap away from reliance on Washington was written.

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