Jonathan Spyer, Middle East Forum
An increasing body of evidence has begun pointing to a major shift in American foreign policy in the Middle East. Over the course of the Obama Administration's tenure, amid the turmoil of the Arab spring, the United States has shown itself unwilling to defend some of its traditional allies (such as the military in Egypt), or to stand by its own threats and red lines (such as punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons); in many cases willing to cede significant influence to other outside powers (such as Russia); and to attempt to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran that is far more conciliatory to Iranian demands than had been the previous policy (such as allowing for uranium enrichment).
Much analysis and attention has been focused on the implications for Israel of these changes in American policy. But Israel is not the biggest loser in the region. On the contrary, Israel is far from isolated in the new Middle East. In fact, its more stable and western-oriented Arab neighbors seem to have more in common with the foreign policy perspective of the Jewish state than at any time in recent history.
Instead, those who have the most to lose are the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. Control of the Gulf, which is vital to global energy supplies and thus the global economy as a whole, has been the linchpin of American policy in the Middle East for the last half-century. A strong alliance with the Arab monarchies that dominate the Gulf, fueled by credibility of American power, has been at the core of this policy, and this--American military credibility and steadfastness to longstanding foreign policy partnerships--is what appears to be eroding, and causing nothing short of alarm among Gulf leaders.
This, of course, is because of Iran. A central element of Iranian regional policy is expanding Tehran's sphere of influence into the Persian Gulf, throughout the Middle East, and across the Islamic world. At the moment, the US appears to be softening its approach to Iran, offering the easing of sanctions in exchange for a phantom slowing of the Iranian nuclear program, but without any Iranian concessions in terms of their support for terror or efforts to undermine neighboring regimes. As a result, the Arab states of the Gulf are now terrified at the prospect of abandonment, compounded by what they see as the Obama administration's questionable competence with regard to the Middle East.
There are currently strong indications that some Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have concluded that the Americans are indeed abandoning the region, or are fully unreliable at a minimum. As a result, these Gulf states are doing their best to assemble alternative alliances in order to meet the challenge. Other countries, such as Oman, appear ready to accommodate the new reality, placing themselves between the US and the Iranians in hopes of playing the role of power broker, while Qatar already appears to be moving away from the US and toward Iran. Clearly, major change is underway.
From the point of view of strategic analysis, prior to 2011 the Mideast looked like a dangerous but clearly demarcated place, with Arab states relying predominantly if not exclusively on US hegemony. The key challenge to the regional order was the attempt by a lose bloc of rouge states and movements led by Iran to challenge the US-led dispensation in the region, which had held sway since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
The Iranians want to replace the Americans as the dominant force in the Gulf by cajoling or intimidating the energy-rich Arab monarchies of the area into moving away from reliance on the US and toward Iranian tutelage. In addition, they have ambitions of expanding their influence as far as the Mediterranean and the Levant. The latter goal only became conceivable when the US toppled Saddam Hussein, conveniently removing its primary obstacle.
Iran's long-standing alliance with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, its creation and sponsorship of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, and its growing closeness to Iraq's post-Saddam Shia-dominated government has produced a contiguous line of pro-Tehran states stretching from Iran's western border to the Mediterranean Sea and, importantly, Israel's northern border. Essential to this strategy is the Iranian nuclear project, which is intended to be a kind of insurance policy against any determined action by Iran's regional or global rivals.
This dangerous but clear "cold war" situation has now given way to a far more complex and unstable map of conflicting interests. There is a single element, however, which has determined these changes: The decision by the United States to abandon its leadership position in a coalition of regional allies dedicated to challenging the pro-Iran bloc and the lesser (but still substantial) challenge of radical Sunni Islam.
This decision cannot be found in any public declaration by the Obama administration. But it is apparent in the practical policy moves made by Washington in a number of key areas over the last two years. These new policies have produced deep concern and, in some cases, a search for realignment among key members of the bloc formerly led by the US These key members are Israel, the military regime in Egypt, the Gulf monarchies, and Saudi Arabia. No single pattern of response has emerged among these countries. All are carefully weighing their options and drawing their own conclusions.
The US preference for seeking alternatives to its pre-2011 stance in the region has manifested itself in two areas: Its response to the "Arab spring" uprisings of 2011 and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and what appears to be a willingness to leave Iran with everything it needs to make nuclear weapons, despite American's and President Obama's longtime promises.
The American decision to abandon Hosni Mubarak, who had been a loyal ally for thirty years, was the pivotal moment in the Arab Spring. The result of this decision was a chaotic year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, which was then ended by the return of military government in July 2013 after some thirty-million Egyptian citizens took the streets demanding change. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's removal of the Islamist radicals of the Muslim Brotherhood was not welcomed by the US administration. Other key members of what had been the US-led alliance, however, the popular as having averted the very bloodshed the US demanded Mubarak step aside to avert, and ended the disastrous rule of an Islamist regime in the Arab world's most populous country. While America had a hard time choosing between those states aligned with US policy and in step with the fight against al-Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists, many in the region and closest to the calamity -- the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Emirates and the Israelis -- have good and close relations with the new military regime in Cairo.
The Gulf Arabs, and above all the Saudis, were deeply worried by what the American response on Egypt seemed to indicate. Washington's perception of its own interests appeared to have undergone a kind of paradigm shift, one that made future discussions regarding specific threats and opportunities deeply problematic: Allies like Mubarak would no longer benefit from their association with the US Enemies like the Muslim Brotherhood would no longer be punished.
The first indication of America's former regional allies' reaction to this shift was in 2011, when the Saudis hastily assembled a Gulf military coalition to crush an incipient Shia uprising in Bahrain. This indicated that, believing themselves rebuffed by the US, the Gulf states would now seek new alliances and show a greater willingness to take action on the basis of these new ad hoc alignments. Saudi efforts to support the Syrian rebels against Assad's pro-Iranian regime and to undermine Muslim Brotherhood-linked elements among the rebels in 2012 and 2013 were a further reflection of this new proactive stance.
Here, too, US absence was clearly a major factor. America's failure to swiftly declare itself in favor of the Syrian rebellion and assist the rebels left Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia as the rebellion's primary supporters, which led in turn to the takeover of the rebellion by Islamist and jihadi elements, as well as its subsequent divisions and dysfunctions. This sense of a lack of shared perceptions regarding Syria was compounded by America's failure to take military action against Assad in the summer of 2013, after it became clear that the regime had used chemical weapons against its own citizens. The Gulf states' primary concern was US credibility. In August 2012, President Obama had defined the use of chemical weapons by the regime as a "red line," but now appeared to be blithely disregarding this commitment.
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Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
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