Enemies—and Partners—Will Get a Vote in the Middle East
January 11, 2021
This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.
If there is anyone who thinks U.S. policy in the Middle East has been fundamentally right for the last 20 years, that person has been awfully quiet. The critiques are consistent. No one favors fighting “endless wars,” no one favors overcommitment, and no one disagrees that U.S. forces should be rightsized to the task at hand. There is agreement that U.S. policy has failed each and every one of those tests, but beyond that, the consensus breaks down.
Amid a robust discussion about the appropriate U.S. posture in the Middle East, one element is underemphasized, and sometimes it is entirely missing. Too often, people assume that the United States will fundamentally reorient its strategy toward the Middle East, and other powers will essentially roll with the punches. There is confidence that none of them will fundamentally reorient their own strategy in ways that affect the United States, in large part because reduced interests will insulate the United States from any impact.
Unfortunately, that’s not true. While U.S. engagement in the Middle East has grown, the world’s engagement in the region has grown as well. Allies and adversaries alike are tied into the Middle East’s status quo. When it shifts, they will shift, and when they feel effects, we will feel effects. The United States might feel it is done with the Middle East, but the reverse isn’t true.
U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East will surely react to a U.S. refocus elsewhere by exploring new alliances and partnerships. Some will be with states friendly to the United States, and some will be with more hostile ones. In the near term at least, they are likely to engage in riskier behavior, partly through armed conflict and partly through weapons proliferation. We’ve seen signs of all of those things happening already—in Yemen, in Iraq, in Libya, and elsewhere—and they’re likely to happen more.
With the possible exception of proliferation, one could argue that none of those things matter much to Americans. For U.S. allies in Europe, though, who have watched refugee crises shape their politics, and for East Asian allies, who import three-quarters of their oil from the Middle East, rising instability is a major worry.
China, which lacks the domestic oil and gas necessary to drive its economy, seems lashed to the Middle East for years to come. It will almost certainly seek to increase its footprint there, and it is likely to use a more dominant position in the Middle East to exert leverage over East Asian neighbors who are also reliant on the region. As Middle Eastern states view a future in which the United States is receding and China is rising, the United States will be hard pressed to prevent China from embedding itself in the region’s physical and technological infrastructure. China is averse to replicating the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, or anywhere else, but is keen to advance its security by other means. If it is able to establish pervasive surveillance capabilities, it will do more than be a force multiplier for a limited Chinese military presence. It will also build relations with Middle Eastern governments, almost all of which are concerned by the prospect of popular discontent and are impressed by the Chinese model of economic development without destabilizing social and political change.
The United States may find itself ushered out of the Middle East more quickly or completely than it plans—at a time when Middle Eastern energy prices continue to shape global prices.
Iran will also seize on what it sees as a U.S. retreat, seeking to become a more dominant power in what Iranians across the political spectrum insist unequivocally is the Persian Gulf. That process is unlikely to be a smooth one, given the Iranians’ sophistication with asymmetrical tools and the impressive arsenals and deep wallets of the Arab Gulf states who would push back against it.
Russia, being opportunistic, is unlikely to play a constructive role. Instead, Russia pays special attention to weak states suffering from instability. It is not averse to driving conflicts toward crisis and then putting itself forward as a mediator to resolve it.
Three large uncertainties shoot through all of this. The first is what the world’s transition away from hydrocarbon-based energy looks like. A rapid transition would diminish the advantages China would derive from investing in the Middle East. If the world is not reliant on Middle Eastern energy anymore, that would free U.S. allies in Asia from another Chinese pressure point, but the resultant dislocation in the Middle East would probably hurt U.S. allies in Europe fearful of migrant flows.
The second is how effectively the United States can—and will want to—support the interests of its allies and partners in Europe and Asia. A U.S. refocus away from the Middle East and toward them will not end their own interests in the Middle East. Ironically, they may end up being hurt rather than helped by U.S. actions.
The third uncertainty, which links the two, is how effectively the United States can work with allies and partners, inside the Middle East and outside it, to peacefully and smoothly transition the Middle East away from oil-centered economies. All of the Middle East’s countries are tied to the energy economy—both those that export energy and those that export labor to countries that export energy. While regional governments have the principal responsibility for this transition, governments around the world, and particularly U.S. allies, have a keen interest in seeing that it is done successfully. The cost of failure would be felt widely, including in the United States, whether the United States decides to focus its attentions elsewhere or not.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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