The U.S. Can’t Just Quit the Middle East
We have genuine geopolitical interests in the region, and so we must repair the relationships we’ve damaged.
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.
The Trump administration was an aberration in some ways. Team Trump’s willingness to jettison every cliché about the proper conduct of U.S. Middle East policy, relegate the question of Palestine to the back burner, lock Iran in a web of punishing sanctions, and throw its full weight behind what had been a clandestine partnership between Gulf Arabs and Israel had an almost transformative effect: new peace treaties, new attitudes toward security partnerships, and a firm and shared belief that the American century was well and truly over.
Ironically, with Trump underscoring what could be, the return to the White House of Obama’s former vice president only entrenched the notion that the future is too uncertain, and Iran too dangerous, to assume the answer to all security questions would be Washington. Plus, regional leaders note, look at the retreat from Afghanistan. Finally, however, Ukraine has well and truly laid bare the change: Israel has wobbled on applying sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his cronies despite calls to do so from Europe and the United States. Saudi crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly refused to take a call from U.S. President Joe Biden begging for oil to backfill supply lost from Russia. Ditto the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammad bin Zayed. The White House subsequently denied the calls were rejected, but the message from the Middle East is crystal clear: We do not trust the United States, and will no longer align with your national security priorities.
Others have capably laid out the evidence of Middle East hedging, including the quiet but clearly important Moscow-Jerusalem relationship; Emirati arms purchases from China; Saudi cultivation of both Russia and China; and much more. But the question is not whether this realignment is occurring, it’s whether it is in American interests to allow it to continue. And perhaps more importantly, if not, what to do.
Is the realignment in America’s interests? From the perspective of the Biden administration and its Obama holdovers, the sooner the Middle East tends to its own knitting the better. Israel can defend itself from Iran and others; as for the rest of them … In this vision, the renewal of the Iran deal is a coda, allegedly tying off the Islamic Republic’s pathway to a nuclear weapon and clearing the way for Washington to tend to more serious threats like China. But this is an ahistorical, willfully ignorant take.
To be sure, much of the Middle East is a chore—autocrats, Salafis, murder, mayhem, tyranny. There are only two democracies (Tunisia, for those wondering who besides Israel counts), and neither are the Netherlands of the Orient. However, contrary to the warped worldscape seen from 1600 Pennsylvania, America has enduring interests in the Middle East. Some are economic interests, like the energy supply that drew the president of the United States to call the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and lured his national security adviser to Riyadh on bended knee. Other interests relate directly to the safety and security of the American people, including the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons, the growth and flourishing of Sunni and Shiite Islamist terrorism, and the security of Europe (in case some had forgotten the refugee masses that poured from Syria into Europe in 2015).
There is no confronting China without secure oil supplies, no guaranteeing Israel’s security from the Pacific, and no pretending that freedom of navigation through Suez or the Bab el Mandab is without value.
If the reality is that the United States has genuine geopolitical interests in the Middle East—setting aside false pronouncements about the imperative of democracy or human rights—then the second question is how to pursue them, having royally mucked up Washington’s relationships with even its closest friends, the Israelis.
The most obvious source of deteriorating relations with the Arabs and the Jews is Iran. The easiest step for the Biden administration to take would be to recognize that its efforts to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran should end, and be substituted with an effort to forge what candidate Biden promised would be a “longer and stronger” deal. This is not some fringe recommendation, but rather the view of a majority of the Congress (Republicans and Democrats included) and many in the non-proliferation community.
It’s not that Iran’s neighbors aren’t afraid of Iran finalizing its development of a nuclear weapon; it’s that the extra cash, sanctions relief, and readmittance to the community of civilized nations is a proven recipe for Iranian escalation, attacks on its neighbors, enhanced funding flows to terrorist groups, and greater regional destabilization. It happened in 2015, and it will happen again in 2022 should Biden’s negotiators capitulate to Tehran’s demands.
Another key to restoring relations is to recognize that commitments have been broken to almost all of Washington’s erstwhile friends and partners. In Iraq, promises to secure the country against Iranian threats both political and military have fallen by the wayside. In the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, promises to treat growing attacks by Yemen’s Houthis against soft targets with seriousness and provide defensive weaponry have been ignored. Israel’s security requirements have been honored, but the growing threats from both Syria and Lebanon have been ignored. It’s no coincidence that all of these threats are coming from Iran-backed proxies.
It’s also high time to acknowledge that the terrorist threats that crisscross the region are real. Lebanon has been taken over by the world’s most potent terror group, Hezbollah. Syria is a hub for Iranian weapons proliferation and a training ground for Islamist terrorists. Egypt is under the gun from ISIS and al-Qaeda. Yemen is an ongoing threat to its neighbors, and a training ground for terrorists targeting the United States. These are indisputable facts, and the Biden administration’s desire to downplay those threats—removing the Houthis from the terrorist list, downplaying Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanon, ignoring Syria entirely, declaring (repeatedly) the defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS—diminishes the very real dangers to the people of the Middle East.
These are not terribly difficult steps; restoring trust will be more difficult. It will require reversing many of the signature ambitions of the Biden administration. In addition, many will insist—rightly—that apart from Israel, the nations of the region are largely tyrannies with no moral claim to American friendship or support. In most cases the charge is just. But there will be no advancing democracy or human freedom without leverage. And no leverage without a relationship of trust. The key is to understand that the partnerships Washington has jettisoned over recent decades are vital to America’s interests in the world, and key to continuing to lead. They must be fixed.