U.S. in the Middle East: Part Six

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Jon Alterman: During her tenure as secretary of State, Madeline Albright had a phrase for the United States.

Madeline Albright: I have said many times that the United States is the indispensable nation. And that is because nothing much happens if we are not involved internationally.

Jon Alterman: The United States, she argued, was the world’s most important decision maker and the unrivaled guarantor of the international order. Challenging the United States seemed reckless. And you could see proof of that in the Middle East. When she was secretary, virtually every country in the region had a positive relationship with the United States, or at least was seeking a better one. But after 9/11, the United States became mired in conflict in Afghanistan, then Iraq. The Bush administration leaned into a “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East that made democratization of the region a top U.S. government priority. Ambitions were high. As the decade drew on, though, achievements often seemed modest. Two decades of intensive U.S. engagement with the Middle East have left policymakers—and the U.S. public—exhausted. U.S. citizens increasingly ask what is really at stake for the United States in the Middle East and whether the Middle East should continue to be the principal focus of U.S. foreign policy.

Jon Alterman: Meanwhile, governments in the Middle East look at two decades of U.S. efforts to transform the region­–and a visible U.S. impatience to exit the region–and wonder what it all means for them. Should they tie themselves even more closely to a country that has seemed to flail in its efforts to stabilize the region and seems to be looking for the exits? Or should they risk their close ties to the United States by seeking new partners who lack both the interest and the ability to play the role the United States had played for more than a half-century?

Jon Alterman: In absolute terms, the United States is still the most dominant outside power in the Middle East in most dimensions. But is it still, in Secretary Albright’s construction, indispensable? If it’s not, what do regional governments think they should do?

Jon Alterman: Welcome to the U.S. in the Middle East podcast miniseries. In this series we talk to leading experts and former policymakers about the role of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East. I’m your host, Jon Alterman, senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. In this episode, we’ll explore how people and governments in the Middle East see the United States and what they want from the United States.

Jon Alterman: After two decades of trying to force their will on the Middle East, U.S. policymakers see the Middle East of 2022 in a different light than their predecessors. Countries in the region are looking at the United States differently, too. The U.S. retrenchment in the Middle East is considered a given in policy circles in Washington, and the feeling is echoed in capitals across the region. Maha Yahya directs the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut:

Maha Yahya: The power of the United States is waning in the region, chiefly because it is perceived as shifting its attention away. In the last decade, we've seen very clearly that U.S. priorities moved away from more maximalist goals that included democracy promotion and regional transformation and towards three far more clearly defined priorities: the nuclear deal with Iran, regional stabilization, and combating terrorism that threatens the U.S. homeland.

Jon Alterman: Alon Pinkas was a senior diplomat working at the top levels of the Israeli government.

Alon Pinkas: The United States is disengaging from the Middle East. It sees no vital interests to protect or to attain and no foreign policy goals to pursue in the Middle East. All it sees are troubles and pitfalls: Yemen, Syria, Israel, and Palestinians.

Jon Alterman: Nabil Fahmy agrees. He was Cairo’s ambassador to Washington for a decade, and then served as Egypt’s foreign minister.

Nabil Fahmy: In relative terms, your hard assets remain far stronger than anybody else's in the world, whether military or economic. However, there has been a difference in U.S. readiness to engage beyond its traditional domain. Particularly after 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, U.S. readiness is seen in the Middle East as having diminished. So I see a diminishing trend, rather than a growing one.

Jon Alterman: The United States falls into a bit of a trap. It is still the strongest outside player in the Middle East, but the perception that it’s looking for the exits makes countries discount U.S. power and influence. And with every announcement that U.S. attention is focused on the Indo-Pacific and strategic competition with China, U.S. partners in the Middle East doubt that the United States will have the resources or the will to protect common interests in the Middle East. For U.S. partners who have come to rely on the United States, that is a disquieting thought. One place where people are growing unsettled is Israel. For more than a half-century, U.S. support for Israel has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. U.S. policymakers saw Israel as a key strategic partner in a sea of adversaries, and the United States bolstered the partnership. It was Israel’s advocate and protector in a series of diplomatic initiatives and it granted Israel tens of billions of dollars in military assistance. Today, though, some Israelis—like former diplomat Alon Pinkas—don’t think they can take that active role for granted anymore.

Alon Pinkas: I don't think for a second that there's any compelling reason for the United States to stay in the Middle East because of its relationship with Israel. You look at the Abraham Accords and what you see is the United States saying, "Look, we mediated this great thing for you to normalize your relations with parts of the Arab world. You already have a relationship with Egypt and Jordan, and we have absolutely no intention of getting into the Palestinian issue once again." Even the Trump administration had the common sense not to get themselves seriously involved. Once the Abraham Accords were signed, the United States basically said, "Get off our backs now, we have other things to deal with."

Jon Alterman: Pinkas says that shift is going to pose a big challenge for Israeli leaders—even if they haven’t fully realized it yet.

Alon Pinkas: This is the relationship that we have. It's asymmetrical. It is by far more important to Israel than it is to the United States, despite what everyone would tell you­–that is, how invaluable Israel is to the United States. The United States can live without Israel. Israel will have a lot of problems dealing with the Middle East without the United States.

Jon Alterman: That means that Israel needs to adapt to the United States’ new calculus in the region.

Alon Pinkas: Israel is going to have to make tough choices. From an Israeli point of view, there’s no alternative to the United States. Israel can't adopt China, Russia, India, the UAE, or Belgium as its strategic benefactor. Israel is powerful enough to make these adjustments. It just needs to understand that this is no longer the Cold War. The United States is not going to go fight another war in Iraq or Syria or actively put plans on the table for an Israeli–Palestinian peace plan. It is focused on other places. Israel needs to make an adjustment and make itself vital through the value-adds that Israel brings to the table in its relationship with the United States.

Jon Alterman: Abdulkhaleq Abdulla sees things a little differently. He’s an Emirati political scientist. For much of the last 20 years, the UAE has largely thrown its lot in with the United States. It has supported U.S. initiatives and played a crucial role in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The two countries grew closer. As a sign of that closeness, the United States agreed to sell the UAE the F-35, the most advanced fighter jet in the U.S. inventory. It is only sold to some of the United States’ closest partners. But negotiations over the F-35 deal broke down, and it is unclear whether they will be resurrected. That’s left Abdulkhaleq Abdulla feeling a bit abandoned.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: We thought after the Abraham Accords and the F-35 agreement that we were building a long-term relationship. All of a sudden, it seems that this long-term relationship is no longer relevant or important to Washington. It doesn't want to go through with the F-35 sale. It's not recognizing the risk that we have taken with the Abraham Accord. I think they need to level a little bit with where we’re coming from.

Jon Alterman: As the United States tries to shift its attention out of the region, he says that it needs to change its approach to the UAE by acknowledging that it’s grown into a key partner.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: The first item on the agenda should be recognition that the UAE of today is vastly different from the UAE of yesterday. You're no longer talking to a junior partner. The UAE today is a middle power with a vast network of friends globally, with influence all over, and with investments in the United States that exceed $300 billion. We are a third U.S. trade partner. We have really been investing in this relationship so much.

Jon Alterman: One country that might want the United States to pull out of the Middle East is Iran. For more than four decades, the United States and Iran have been grappling with each other in the Middle East, often through allies and proxies. Nasser Hadian is an Iranian political scientist. He doesn’t think the United States is going away any time soon.

Nasser Hadian: We think it's going to reduce its commitment and presence but that it's certainly not going to leave the region the way the others may expect. Our strategic value is less than before to the United States, but the United States still cannot dismiss or ignore the region.

Jon Alterman: In fact, the persistent concern that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability is one of the key factors keeping the United States engaged in the region. Alon Pinkas argues that the Iran nuclear deal might be the United States’ only real remaining interest in the Middle East.

Alon Pinkas: The United States is only focused on one thing in the greater region: the Iran nuclear deal. Even that, I tend to think, is not a prime priority or a prime interest for the United States. They want to get it over with.

Jon Alterman: The United States might want to get it over with, but the negotiations for a new nuclear deal have been tough. Still, Hadian is hopeful that a new JCPOA might offer a path to de-escalation and a wider dialogue between the United States and Iran.

Nasser Hadian: Certainly, there are other issues which are of concern to both of us: for instance, our presence in the region and your own. A negotiation of how to routinize behavior or come up with a code of conduct between us would enable us to begin talking through what should be done about Iraq. We could talk about Yemen and voice our concerns over your military presence in the region and incidents at sea. These are all issues which we can discuss, debate, and hopefully come up with a sort of an agreement.

Jon Alterman: To get there, the United States and Iran will need to make a lot of compromises. But to Abdulla, a deal made with concessions to Iran—but without assurances for U.S. partners in the region—doesn’t really feel like a solution at all.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: What is scary is that, as America tries to scale down its presence, the one country positioning itself to benefit is Iran. We're going to see even more of an Iranian threat, so the most bothersome thing as the United States is drifting away—but not necessarily leave—is that Iran is positioning itself to be the provider of security in the region. To us, that is the nightmare scenario.

Jon Alterman: In the last five years, U.S. partners in the region have concluded that they can’t afford to rely on the United States the way they used to. Now, they are taking a more active role shaping the region toward their own objectives.

Maha Yahya: There's the growing power of countries like the UAE and Turkey. All of these are the new kids on the block and they're wielding considerable leverage across the region. They have interests that are at odds with each other and often at odds with the United States. We're seeing them adopt a far more expansive interpretation of national security. For example, a country like UAE is carrying a lot more weight. They're intervening militarily, politically, and financially across the region and beyond—from the Horn of Africa to Yemen to Libya to Sudan. They're trying to shape political outcomes. This is all happening under the mantra of stabilization, amid the sense that everyone is tired and most conflicts being in stalemate.

Jon Alterman: As countries in the Middle East take a more active regional role, the conditions they are trying to forge are not those that the United States would necessarily endorse. These governments are, on the whole, more interested in order than liberalization and they are more focused on outcomes than processes. It is a set of preferences that U.S. commentators once argued laid the groundwork for the 9/11 attacks. But regional governments argue in return that U.S.-led efforts to democratize the Arab world helped prompt the chaos and civil wars of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. To people like former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, Western aspirations for the region still resonate with the public even if they might not seem attainable.

Nabil Fahmy: If you talk to the average Egyptian, his dreams are more Western than they are Eastern. But does he feel able to attain them? No, because he wants immediate results that happen yesterday, rather than today and tomorrow. Some of our problems need a more generational approach.

Jon Alterman: Fahmy said you could see the proof that longer-term U.S. investments paid off in the Egyptian government.

Nabil Fahmy: At a certain point in time, 40 percent of our cabinet at the ministerial level had U.S. degrees, be they from the American University of Cairo or from universities in the United States. They therefore thought, not without Egyptian flavor, but with a functionally U.S. mindset in terms of business and management.

Jon Alterman: For some countries, the pro-United States orientation they’ve maintained for decades no longer makes sense. Russia and China are looking to raise their profiles in the Middle East, and they see regional governments’ instincts toward top-down economics and a strictly regulated political order as the right ones. Rather than re-litigate old tensions with a U.S. government that seems to be on its way out, why not explore closer ties with governments that seem to be on their way in?

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: The question people over here ask is whether we are moving into a multipolar world system and, if it is, whether it is appropriate for everybody over here to see what kind of multipolar positioning that we need to do in the years to come.

Maha Yahya: I would also say that, as we've moved into a post-pax-Americana world, others have also moved into the gap—Russia and China being the most obvious.

Jon Alterman: But to Alon Pinkas, moving away from the United States would be a big mistake.

Alon Pinkas: It’s not a conundrum and it’s not a paradox. Israel should stick by the United States no matter what. If forced to make a choice, maneuver all you want. Delay and procrastinate, and don't make decisions when you don't have to make a decision. But when you have to choose between President Biden who is saying, “X” and President Xi Jinping who is saying, “Y,” you go with the X. You don't play games. Israel needs to be more understanding of the United States’ change of priorities. When the United States is asking Israel not to entertain Chinese and not to accept Chinese investments in strategic infrastructure projects, Israel should heed the advice. This is not because the United States is right­. The United States may be very wrong in asking this, but this is the relationship that we have.

Jon Alterman: Abdulkhaleq Abdulla disagrees.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: Let's think about 2025 or even 2030. You are most likely going to see less of the United States militarily, politically, and otherwise. At the same time, we're probably going to see more of China, more of India, and more of Korea. We already signed a military deal with South Korea—a $3.7 billion arms deal that the United States probably wouldn’t provide.

Jon Alterman: For her part, Yahya doesn’t think the United States can get off quite so easily.

Maha Yahya: For the United States to disengage, it needs stability here. For stability to take place, there are very specific policies that need to be put in place. There also need to be manpower and resources invested in order for us to move in that direction. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing that. Given the conditions in the region today, I think it's only a matter of time before things start cracking up again. And the United States might find itself reluctantly getting involved again in a region it really wants to get out of.

Jon Alterman: A generation ago, the United States saw itself as the “indispensable nation.” In the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, the United States was the principal driver of diplomacy and the principal guarantor of security. Two decades and several wars later, perceptions of the United States and its interests are shifting. Partners and adversaries alike question U.S. capabilities and the U.S. commitment to remake the world in its image. In the Middle East in particular, the United States seems on its way out, while powers such as Russia and China are judged to be on their way in. Iran, a longstanding U.S. adversary in the region, sees some potential for accommodation from the United States. Several of Iran’s neighbors see any U.S. accommodation of the Islamic Republic as a harbinger of disaster. What to do? For some, the logic of standing by the United States continues to make sense. If anything, they see U.S. eagerness to leave the region as an argument for hewing even closer to the United States. Others see a changing order upon us, and they are keen to chart their own paths in a more multipolar world. There are voices in the region who think that it’s all more complicated than that. In their mind, the United States never sought to play a key role in Middle East but was forced to when the region’s dysfunction came to threaten U.S. and global interests. Now, the fissures that once erupted in cycles of violence and enmity are re-emerging. The United States may be done with the Middle East, but the Middle East may not be done with the United States. Next time on the podcast, we explore views on how the Middle East fits into U.S. global strategy. This is the United States in the Middle East podcast miniseries.