For American policy, the Middle East remains a paradox

If Washington is more committed than ever to its historic role as the guarantor of Middle East security, why do American officials feel compelled to constantly reassure their regional partners that the United States is not withdrawing from the region ?

The question reflects the mismatch between Washington’s strategic interests in the Middle East and the priorities of its regional partners. It also reflects the difficulty that US policymakers face in seeking to exert influence in a region plagued by poor governance and a multiplicity of state, non-state and hybrid actors.

But it also reflects a paradox at the heart of US engagement in the region. Despite protests from some US officials, Washington is demoting the Middle East as a US foreign policy priority. In practice, this means a decrease in high-level attention and the allocation of diplomatic and other resources in the short term, and a relegation of the region from the category of core US strategic interests in the long term.

But what makes this shift confusing – for regional governments as well as for U.S. policymakers trying to craft this realignment – is Washington’s huge military footprint in the region, which has persisted despite the efforts of three. administrations to deprioritize the Middle East in Washington’s strategic calculation.

This tension and the confusion it generates was fully exposed at this year’s Manama Dialogue, an annual forum hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the capital of Bahrain. On Sunday, Brett McGurk, the top National Security Council official for the Middle East, tried to assure an audience of senior officials, advisers, analysts and influencers that Washington was not going to repeat his Afghan withdrawal – and the chaotic conditions surrounding that withdrawal – in the Middle East.

“The United States is Going Nowhere” McGurk said. “This region is too important, too volatile, too linked to American interests to consider otherwise.”

At the same conference, the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin also tried to allay the concerns of his hosts with a long explanation of the interests and defense agreements that still bind the United States to the Middle East.

Nonetheless, the short-term hesitations of US policy in the Middle East resonate strongly because, going back to the mid-2000s, Washington has failed to define a coherent strategy for its engagement in the region. The last clearly articulated strategy – the untenable, destabilizing and maximalist “war on terror” of former President George W. Bush – has also proved terrible, taking the fight against the enemies of the United States, however small. -they, abroad, so that these enemies could not strike the American homeland. At the same time, Washington has undertaken to promote democracy and good governance throughout the Middle East, in order to reduce the number of terrorist groups. None of these policies have achieved their objectives, instead sowing misery and instability in the region, while undermining Washington’s credibility and draining its resources.

At the end of his presidency, Bush tried to distance himself from this strategy, while seeking to strike a balance between preserving American hegemony in the Middle East and refocusing American foreign policy on strategic competition with China and Russia, a model that his successors followed. Despite some significant differences between them, former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been frustrated by the Middle East’s tendency to monopolize US attention.

Both Obama and Trump rejected the idea that the region is of ineffable strategic importance to the United States, and they tried to dispense with bipartisan shibboleths over America’s responsibilities there. Obama completed the withdrawal of US fighting forces from Iraq and attempted to limit US military involvement in the Syrian conflict, only to find himself deeply engaged, militarily and diplomatically, in both countries at the end of his presidency. Trump has chosen his side in the region’s conflicts more openly than US presidents have historically done, pitting Israel and Saudi Arabia against their rivals early on. He, too, vowed to reduce Washington’s military footprint in the region, but by the end of his presidency the troop numbers had not been reduced, but simply moved.

For his part, US President Joe Biden executed the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan that Trump negotiated during his tenure, but even he does not seem to be pushing his team to make a real strategic break with the projection of military power. As McGurk insisted in Manama, the decision to end the US military presence in Afghanistan was “sui generis”.

“Afghanistan was about Afghanistan,” McGurk said. “It had nothing to do with our interests and commitments here in the Middle East region. In fact, it frees up America’s time, attention, and resources to focus here on our vital and important interests. “

It is the same approach that has led Trump to increase the US military’s commitments in the Persian Gulf while ostensibly reducing its role in Syria. This was tantamount to moving military assets around the U.S. Central Command – or CENTCOM – area of ​​operations without clear strategic goals and without any political strategy that could potentially shift Washington’s approach from over-reliance to from an army-led toolkit to an approach characterized by -diplomacy-led.

This mismatch is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, to the detriment of stability in the Middle East and US interests in the region, unless Washington abandons the last buzzword in foreign policy circles: “competition”. strategic ”.

Like two Center for a New American Security analysts, Becca Wasser and Stacie Pettyjohn, recently wrote in Foreign Policy, this easily abused concept “has become the magic word to use for successful seizure of resources” by the US military. In practice, this means that the main CENTCOM commanders can justify any request for deployment by framing it as necessary in the strategic competition with Iran, Russia or China.

“For example,” write Wasser and Pettyjohn, “US aircraft carriers have deployed in the Middle East at a rate well above what the 2018 NDS would have suggested under the pretext of countering Iran’s pernicious behavior and reducing Chinese and Russian influence in the region through a display of power and commitment.

This in turn drives the current paradox in the Middle East, where Washington’s colossal military footprint does nothing to quell endless cycles lest the United States abandon the region.

Overview of rights

A month after the Sudanese army derailed the country’s fragile democratic transition with a coup, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok agreed to join the government. Opposition forces condemned the deal as a facade for the army’s seizure of power. At least 41 protesters have been killed since the October 25 coup, and the agreement between the military and Hamdok gives the military the lion’s share of political power, including overseeing future elections. Demonstrators denounced the deal on Sunday, even though Hamdok was released from house arrest.

Top of page

The world is becoming less democratic and more authoritarian, like the Swedish NGO International IDEA details in a full report released on Monday. Title “The State of Democracy in the World 2021 report: Building resilience in the era of the pandemic”, the report looks at the last decade of democratic retreat around the world. In the Middle East, the least democratic region in the world, two democracies have become autocracies in the last decade, while IDEA classifies only four countries as democracies: Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia. The coronavirus pandemic, according to IDEA, has given autocrats the pretext to further erode due process and civil liberties. “Democracy is at stake” concludes the report, which raises themes we can expect to see at the Biden administration’s upcoming virtual summit for democracies on December 9-10.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international politics program at the Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story”, “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions” and four edited volumes on politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book on the global impact of the Iraq war. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

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