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U.S. Resets Middle East Policy

Jun 02, 2022
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The last decade has seen American adjustments in the Middle East. President Barack Obama initiated policy changes in 2009, and Donald Trump and Joseph Biden have continued them. But Middle East experts doubt that the U.S. will ever turn its eyes away from the region. This feeling has grown in recent months as things on the ground suggest that the U.S. is moving in the direction of more engagements in the region.

The calculation of costs and returns is a major motivation behind U.S. policy changes in the Middle East. The region’s decline as a major source of energy and the high cost of maintaining its strategic presence in the region have pragmatically justified America’s adjustments over the last decade, although it is true that the U.S. will always regard controlling the region as part of its strategy to maintain its global hegemony. That was the reason the U.S. had maintained a modest military presence in the region while reducing strategic spending. That same logic will remain, even as the U.S. seems to pull back in some ways.

But the latest developments do pose challenges. The first is the increasing importance of the Middle East in global geopolitics within the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The world sees that the Middle East can be a significant substitute of Russian energy and an alternative transportation route for energy supplies that currently cross Russia and Ukraine. The U.S., particularly, sees the Middle East as another source of votes in the United Nations to justify its international agenda, as Middle Eastern countries refused to vote with it on resolutions condemning Russia.

The second challenge concerns the intensive interactions between regional actors. The year 2021 and early 2022 saw prospective detente among regional actors. Major Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, received visits from Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan in March and April, respectively, thawing the ice in relations. Egypt was preparing for a similar visit. Turkey’s relations with Israel were also warming after the Marmara flotilla incident in 2010 and fluctuations over the last decade.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have held five rounds of negotiations in Iraq over the resumption of diplomatic relations. This is to say that aside from the Iran-Israel hostility, relations on all other fronts have gained new momentum and have changed for the better.

Reasons of the recent detente are numerous but primarily lie in the fact that Middle East countries have realized that sustainable security will ultimately come from benign interactions among themselves, and they cannot rely on a particular external power for security protection.

America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31, 2021, and reluctance to provide hard support for Ukraine in 2022, in some ways have discouraged Middle Eastern countries from sticking with the strategy of reliance on the U.S. for protection.

The two developments do initiate new questions for any U.S. policy of retrenchment in the region. On one hand, the Middle East, unlike in the past, will be more crucial as the U.S. attempts to maintain its global hegemony. The region has turned to be more important lately in global geopolitics, as well as within the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

On the other hand, detente among regional countries will weaken America’s role, and even marginalize it in regional affairs, which is not the scenario the U.S. would like to see. As a result, Middle Eastern countries will have much more leeway in maneuvering their relations with the U.S. While the U.S. intended to reduce its strategic input in the region, it does not want to lose its influence altogether.

Actually there are indications that the U.S. is looking for a kind of re-engagement with the region. On March 27 and 28, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated the Negev Summit at the foreign minister level. It was hosted by Israel and attended by some Arab countries that had diplomatic relations with Israel, including Egypt, the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain. Observers believe that Israel and the U.S. intend to institutionalize the summit as a kind of mechanism to address new realities and enhance America’s regional standing. It is reasonably believed that the U.S. will organize a kind of coalition or alliance as a geopolitical instrument for dealing with regional affairs.

While the Negev Summit is one thing, the latest reversal of U.S.-Turkey relations is another. As a result of Turkey’s buying a Russian missile defense system and a number of other issues, U.S.-Turkey relations have plunged to their lowest ebb in decades. But recent months have seen a warming of the relations. On April 4, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal met in Ankara and launched the U.S.-Turkey Strategic Mechanism, which covers a variety of institutions on the two sides. Within this framework, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, was to meet Blinken in May.

In addition, the U.S. has been reconsidering Turkey’s request to buy 40 new F-16 fighter jets and 80 modernization kits for existing fleets. Media reports are optimistic about prospects for a deal.

All these things suggest that after decades of tensions, the U.S. is gaining new momentum in reclaiming Turkey as a major ally in the region. While America’s re-engagement with the Middle East constitutes part of the dynamics, Turkey’s concern for Russia’s further expansion after Ukraine has offered a way for the U.S. to soft-land its previously hard policy toward Turkey.

All in all, despite U.S. retrenchment, the Middle East has seen a kind of re-engagement this year as another side of U.S. policy. America does not want to further lose influence in a region that is gaining new weight in global geopolitics, so it is redefining its interests and policy in the region.

Having said that, it is also safe to say that America’s re-engagement with the region will be limited. The U.S. is currently situated in a geopolitical struggle on three fronts, including Eastern Europe, the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. To maintain its flow of resources to the first two, the U.S. cannot afford to expend more in the Middle East.

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