What if the post-American Middle East actually works?

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Is it possible a post-American Middle East can thrive in a post-Ukraine world? From the Abraham Accords, evolving into Israel’s burgeoning entente with Sunni Arab states, and Saudi-Iran détente talks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reconciliation  with the Saudis, UAE and Israel, events in recent weeks underscore that new patterns of accommodation have been occurring at a dizzying pace in an increasingly multipolar Middle East. Why? 

What if these trends reflect a view among Middle East states that they need to hedge against a fear that the U.S., exhausted from two decades of failed wars, is no longer a dependable security guarantor? Hence, they need to be more pro-active in fending for themselves and reducing security threats in the region.

This tendency is not unique to the Middle East. There are rumblings in Europe about a more independent, sovereign posture. And in the Indo-Pacific there is a surge not only of regional economic integration but unprecedented intra-Asian security cooperation.

Indeed, it may be a feature of the post post-Cold War world that U.S. partners will take on more of the burden of their own security. This would be a new version of Richard Nixon’s Guam Doctrine, adopted after U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, a coping mechanism for a multipolar world.

But conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., holds that U.S. retrenchment from its post-World War II role as regional security guarantor is a grave mistake that will harm U.S. interests and regional stability as new actors such as China and Iran fill the vacuum. Never mind that U.S. policy over that past quarter century, after failing in two major wars and spending much blood and treasure ($6.4 trillion), was a disaster, resulting in neither peace nor stability.

Arguably, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and the “humanitarian” military intervention that led to regime change and a failing state in Libya, have been a destabilizing force in the volatile region. Add in four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” and a U.S. public with little appetite for more involvement in the region, and it’s hardly reassuring to the region.

Nonetheless, though the U.S. retains the bulk of its ring of military bases with a modestly reduced presence in the Middle East, it is argued that a U.S. political-security role in the region, incrementally diminishing since President Obama walked away from his own redline threat in Syria, is an unforced error.

Some argue that to put more pressure on Russia and lower oil prices, the U.S. should strike a new bargain with the Saudis to deepen a U.S. security commitment in exchange for more oil production, and other steps such as ending the Yemen war and recognizing Israel. But given higher priority U.S. global interests, does plunging deeper into the Middle East morass make sense?

U.S. retreat is more perception about intent than capabilities. But people act on perceptions, and that concern about the U.S. role is only one of the drivers of a new regionalism. Many Sunni-Arab states are driven by concern over Iran, exhaustion from proxy wars and fears of being left behind economically at a time of transition away from oil and of technology transformation — with hopes of Israeli trade, technology and investment.

UAE satellites orbiting Mars and UAE and Saudi Arabia’s massive investments in renewable energy and tech cities underline an effort to move beyond the past. Of late, geopolitical shifts resulting from the Ukraine war may also be a factor.

The unprecedented Israeli-hosted Negev-Summit in March with Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the UAE, attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, marked the evolution of the Abraham Accords into a rapprochement with economic, political and defense dimensions.

Erdogan, deep in an economic mire of his own making, has embarked on his own reconciliation campaign with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel. After five rounds of senior level talks, a Saudi-Iran détente, a core necessity for regional stability, appears to be slowly taking shape, though still problematic.

The evolving new geopolitical patterns, a thickening web of economic, political and security ties and intra-regional rapprochement, suggest that the new Middle East might actually work, despite, or perhaps because of, a less prominent U.S. role.

Many U.S. skeptics point to growing Chinese and Russian influence in the Greater Middle East and fear it is at the expense of U.S. interests. Apart from a generation of failed wars, a world heading into the post-oil era suggests it is time to rethink U.S. interests. U.S. goals have long included securing the flow of oil and preventing the domination of the region by a hegemon or hegemonic forces. The oil concerns were always overblown — Gulf oil exporters and their major clients, like China, have no incentive to disrupt oil flows.

Regarding hegemony, with China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all vying for influence in the region, a rough balance seems more likely than one of these nations dominating. China, the world’s largest oil consumer, has the fastest growing footprint in the Middle East, still principally economic. But it has been careful to avoid military intervention. As a major importer of both Saudi and Iranian oil, it has sought to be politically neutral and hands-off. How long can Russia sustain its new presence in the Middle East as it becomes a global pariah state?

The most wicked problem is Iranian regional and nuclear ambitions. With the future of the Iran nuclear deal in jeopardy and Tehran churning out more fissile material, it is not hard to conjure up a regional nuclear arms race with the Saudis, Turkey and Egypt. Iran’s Achilles heel is its economic dire straits. That doesn’t necessarily mean an end to proxy wars and a new era of Iran-Saudi détente. The tiptoeing toward accommodation could unravel. But Iran is not suicidal either.

In any case, there tends to be a false choice framed as the U.S. leaving the Middle East or staying. Neither is right. In fact, the U.S. retains sizeable capabilities in the Middle East, and will continue, if by default, to backstop threats to stability.

But going forward, the U.S. is unlikely to either crusade for change or get sucked into the Middle East’s pathologies. The remarkable trends in the region suggest all sides are downsizing their expectations accordingly. 

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001-04, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004-08 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008-12. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Abraham Accords Barack Obama China Cold War Hegemony Iran Israel Obama Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine United States

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