Is This the End of the American Era in the Middle East?

Is This the End of the American Era in the Middle East?


In an article written by Stephen Simon and Jonathan Stevenson on the reasons for the reduction of the military presence of the United States in the Middle East published in the “Foreign Affairs” magazine a few months ago, the researchers argue that US intervention after the September 11 was unnatural.

Stability in the region was achieved based on the disposition to not lead a direct military intervention or a rapid time-limited intervention, as was the case during the first Gulf War.

Accordingly, Obama’s decision to reduce military presence in the Middle East is a return to the natural order of things that has ensured  stability in the region for years, if not decades. According to the writers, what reinforces this argument is the fact that the political and economic transformations in this region have extremely lowered the importance of any potential intervention, especially with the “absence of a direct threat to the US interests”.

The stability mentioned by the authors is the result of a historical junction between the interests of political allies in the region and those of the United States, under a light military presence. The Gulf States and the United States share the same objective since the fifties: to maintain the stability of oil prices and flow in the global market. After the Iranian Revolution, the United States, the Gulf States and Israel had a common objective, to reduce Iranian expansion. After the Camp David Accords were signed, the US supported Egypt and Israel to maintain “peace” as a positive indicator to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 9/11 however, led to differing priorities amongst Arab States, the US and Israel regarding the war on terror.

Over the last decade, many factors have emerged, tearing down these alliances. The reduction of US dependency on Arab oil, especially with the development of the drilling and blasting industry in the US, and the growth of US domestic oil production is the first factor. The second is the outbreak of Jihadism and terrorist organizations, in addition to the US and Saudi Arabia having different agendas on the subject of overthrowing Bachar Al Asad and supporting anti-Shiite religious groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the authors said.

Furthermore, violence, poverty, marginalization and structural deficiency in many countries meant the Middle East “was no longer a safe place for Americans to invest in”, they added. Lastly, even groups that, up until recently, had liberal and western tendencies and represented hope for the West and the US in the establishment of a democratic liberal fair state in the Middle East had changed their allegiances and adopted different agendas.

What makes the matter more complicated, in Simon and Stevenson’s opinion, is the fact that making major change in the region through military intervention is nearly impossible. There is a significant imbalance between the traditional structure of the US military and the war led by extremist groups and ISIS in the region. Additionally, even if the US military intervened and won, achieving stability requires support from the American public opinion as well as an accurate knowledge of local communities and an important militarily presence that supports reconstruction efforts and responds to the aspirations of the population.

Similar approaches have been adopted in Syria and Iraq and failed, the results were opposite of what was expected. Even drone strikes, although useful in the elimination of senior leaders of Al-Qaida and Taliban, have proven to be counterproductive at the political level in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moreover, any intervention in Syria means war and could lead to unpredictable results in the region.

Consequently, the authors suggest, “Offshore balancing” which refers to using power and influence instead of broad intervention in preserving partners’ interests in the region. Although some may fear this approach would only help strengthen some states such as Iran, Simon and Stevenson do not believe Iran is capable of tipping the scales in the Middle East by its interventions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine.

Even though Israel and Saudi Arabia did not approve of the Iranian-American agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, it is considered to be beneficial for the balance of the region. US military presence in the surrounding seas must be sustained in order to ensure the security and stability of Washington’s allies. In the authors’ opinion, the agreement on the Iranian nuclear file is the first step to improve relations with Iran, and to increase its interaction with other parties, including Saudi Arabia, to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, a solution that takes into account the conflicting interests of all parties.

The authors concluded their article by stressing the fact that the American era in the Middle East is coming to an end and that the United States ought to continue its fight to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to provide support to stop the spread of Daesh’s ideology, but without any direct intervention or attempt to impose military or political choices in a region living in transformations that do not match neither the strategic priorities of the US nor the capacities of its army.

What I find to be intriguing about this,is that it refutes every statement and theory stating that it is necessary for America to lead a direct and broad intervention in Syria, Yemen and the Middle East in general to defeat ISIS to counter Iranian influence, and to restore peace in this region. Not only do the authors believe that any direct intervention will have disastrous consequences on the Middle East and on the US and its allies, but they think there are other strategic priorities that require America’s decision-makers’ highest consideration, especially in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. They do not have to leave the area, a smart pragmatic presence could maintain the stability of the region without causing human casualties or major losses on the political level for America.

The main problem with this perception is that the analysis it follows is based on the failed intervention in Iraq. If we set this intervention in the context of America’s intervention in this region in general, we find it clear that it’s far from a pragmatic historical approach led by an America that seeks to maintain the stability of the status quo, regardless of the ideologies of itspartners and of the parties it is trying to stop.

Iraq is an exception to this, because it’s the ideological approach that ran the new conservative vision of the Middle East and international relations that was behind the military intervention, and not a potential threat to interests as was the case during the first Gulf War, the Lebanese civil war, or the war in Afghanistan, after the September attacks. The intervention in Iraq has revealed great naivety, if not ignorance in the way of dealing with the end of Saddam’s regime and the tribal structure of the Iraqi society, as well as the problems related to reconstruction. And so, the intervention in Iraq raised many questions about America’s role and how to adapt it with the complexity of the traditional societies of the Middle East.

I imagine the lessons decision-makers in Washington have learned from the Iraqi issue will not discourage them from interfering, but push them to find creative ways in dealing with the growing threats of terrorist organizations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is likely that, in the near future, America will adopt a pragmatic approach based on proxy wars, mobilizing allies in the field and providing logistical and intelligence support, as well as helping Special Forces and providing humanitarian aid, in addition to funding development programs, reconstructing, and supporting following governments under air and water military presence.

Secondly, it’s difficult to picture a major shift, in terms of the strategic priorities of the US, in which the Middle East becomes secondary, compared to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean. It’s not only a matter of oil or Israeli security (which is has been an anchored dogma in American politics for several decades) nor is it about Iranian threats; it is about a very important area that has direct effect on Europe, Africa, West Asia, and on the international stability overall, especially as it is close to the center of tension in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Horn of Africa as well as the Sahel, the Sahara and the Great Lakes. This is a highly sensitive and strategic area for the US, and it always will be as long as there still is conflict, stress and instability.

Finally, this saying doesn’t take into account the increasing role Russia has played in the region, or its direct intervention in Syria, especially under the substantial conflicts that surfaced regarding Ukraine, Georgia, and the role of NATO in Eastern Europe, which brought back memories of the Cold War. Russia wants to play a bigger role in the Middle East and create local alliances that will allow it to negotiate in defining roles on a geostrategic level in the Baltic Sea, the Pacific Ocean and in Eastern Europe. It is very difficult for decision makers in Washington to accept the possibility of gradually letting go of the Middle East, in which the Russian influence is increasing, and perhaps even the Chinese influence supported by Iran and its field allies.

Consequently, the approach adopted by the US in the Middle East is on the verge of change, but the Middle East will remain a priority for decision makers in the US. There are no direct threats to America’s interests in the region, despite the presence of Daesh, Al Nusra, Taliban, and Al Qaeda groups. However, the Iranian threat, Russian infiltration and the looming threat over the Gulf States, in addition to the effect the end of Assad’s regime could have on strengthening terrorist organizations, the dangers of dividing Iraq and Syria, and the instability in Yemen and Libya are all factors that indicate a need to find a stronger smarter and more effective intervention system and not the opposite.

Translated by Jihane Boutchich and edited by Hinna Sheikh.