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Foreign Policy

US Diplomatic Dilemma in the Middle East

Nov 15 , 2013
  • Wu Sike

    Member on Foreign Affairs Committee, CPPCC

From November 3 to 11, John Kerry made his seventh trip to the Middle East in his capacity as US secretary of state. He was scheduled to travel to eight countries and regions, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Algeria, with priority given to three of its traditional allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It’s noteworthy that Kerry’s Middle East trip came at an unusual moment: just after a 16-day federal government shutdown and the US still mired in the foreign surveillance scandal. Some media described this shuttle visit as a “trip of appeasement” and the Washington Post even categorized Kerry’s trip as a “damage-control mission.” Then, what happened in the Middle East that Kerry had to go there in a hurry to appease its allies? 

Wu Sike

Ever since the Cold War, the United States has depended on three of its important Middle East strategic allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel – for its diplomatic maneuvering in this region of extreme geopolitical importance, so as to take the bull by the horns in Middle East affairs. Political storms and dramatic changes in the region about three years ago, however, have led to a significant overhaul in the social structure and regional political ecology in the region. Along with and after the dramatic changes, came the people’s growing awareness for autonomy, the rise of Islamic forces, and an apparent change in strength among the countries and regions. But it seems that the United States continues to apply its old tricks in dealing with these countries, and attempted to lead and control the development of regional affairs. This has triggered strong discontent or opposition from these countries and their political groups. US relations with its traditional allies has begun to lose momentum and become tense, and the US diplomatic policy in the Middle East is gradually failing. 

After the turmoil in the Egyptian political arena in July, the hedging strategy adopted by the United States greatly disappointed the Egyptian military, which changed its attitude towards the US and openly distanced itself, sending a strong signal of independence and autonomy. When the United States threatened to withhold military aid from the Egyptian military forces, Egypt immediately received generous assistance from the Gulf countries. At the same time, Egyptian contacts with Russia also became active, and Egypt won understanding and support from Russia. People have since come to realize that it is the United States that can’t do without Egypt, not vice versa. 

Saudi Arabia’s discontent with the United States was caused by the US refusal to offer military assistance to the Syrian opposition forces and its backing away from a military strike against Syria. Saudi Arabia also expressed its frustration and anger over the warming ties between the United States and Iran. It is widely believed that Saudi Arabia’s rejection of a seat as a non-permanent member in the United Nations Security Council was to air its discontent, and a posture to distance itself from the United States. 

Israel was also deeply worried about the recent contact between the United States and the new Iranian leader. Israel insists on the stance that Iranian possession of nuclear technology (weapons) is the biggest threat to Israel and has a direct bearing on its survival. It, therefore, vigorously urged the United States to up the ante in military pressure on and economic sanctions against Iran, and it considers any easing on the Iranian nuclear issue by the United States as a risky and dangerous move. The United States, however, in consideration of its overall strategic interests, increased its contacts with Iran and took steps in easing the tense relations, ignoring the concerns expressed by Israel. This approach frustrated and angered Israel – the US’ No.1 ally in the Middle East. On the eve of Kerry’s visit, Israel announced that it will construct 1,859 Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, which is meant to quell US efforts to push forward Israeli-Palestine peace talks, and to sound a warning on US practices. 

The Middle East, a region full of hot issues, is an important pillar in the US global strategy. Long-standing problems in the region are difficult to solve, but could not be ignored. As the most influential country in the region, it is true that the United States needs a new approach or policy. In the face of a changing situation in the Middle East, this writer believes that the United States should, first of all, respect the will and choices of the peoples of the countries and regions in the region. Any country outside of the region should not impose its own values on or pursue its own interests, nor should it interfere, otherwise, it will invite trouble for itself. Second, regional hot issues should only be judged on the basis of the code of conduct for international relations, and solutions should be sought through the United Nations and relevant international organizations. Unilateralism must be avoided, because it is not welcome. And third, inclusive cooperation is needed in seeking solutions to complicated issues. Big powers outside of this region and major powers in the region should all have an inclusive mentality. Cooperation is the solution to problems, and can help achieve regional peace and stability. 

China does not harbor any private interest in the Middle East. It has defended the international system with the United Nations as the core, and has taken part in and promoted peaceful solutions to the Middle East issues with a constructive attitude. The globe is becoming one village, and the concept of a human community of common destiny should be advocated and established. To achieve this goal, sound big-power relations and regional relationships are needed. It is less than one year to go before the mid-term elections in the United States, and the Israel-Palestine peace talks and the Iranian nuclear issue, hold the key to any diplomatic breakthroughs in the region for the Obama administration. If the United States wants to continue to exercise its influence in the Middle East, it cannot do without its regional allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is hoped that Kerry’s Middle East visit will herald a new diplomatic approach, and will play a positive and significant role in mending its relations with allies and in promoting regional peace in the Middle East. 

Wu Sike is a member on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and member on the Foreign Policy Consulting Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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