The US and the Middle East in the Context of Shifting Global and Regional Politics- Meliha Benli Altunışık


In recent years, one of the primary debates in the study of
international relations of the Middle East has been understanding the United
States’ changing role in the region. After being the most important
extra-regional power for decades, the question emerged as to whether the region
has lost its importance for Washington, especially since the Obama
administration. Those who argued for the declining importance of the Middle
East for Washington have referred to several reasons. First and foremost, it
was argued that Middle Eastern oil which was one of the original reasons for the
US involvement in the region after WW II, was losing its importance as the US
once again became a net exporter of oil for the first time since the early
1950s with the discovery of shale oil. Secondly, it was argued that with the
rise of China, the US was finally determined to pivot Asia and thus wanted to
focus its energy and attention on the Far East rather than the Middle East.
Finally, the frustration with the results of the US involvement in the Middle
East, particularly with the invasion of Iraq, has been cited as one of the
reasons for declining US interest in the region.

However, despite the arguments that the Middle East losing its
importance for Washington, it has also been clear that the US has not been really
withdrawing from the region as it is sometimes claimed. Instead, the concept of
retrenchment has been used to argue that the US was still involved in the
region, but the extent and the nature of its involvement have changed and overall
declined. There are several indicators of continuing US relevance for regional
politics. In fact, what the US does and does not do continues to impact
regional politics. When a new administration comes to power, the regional
actors still reposition themselves accordingly based on their expectations of
the policy choices of the new administration. Specifically, US policies also
have an impact on different issue areas. The fact that the Obama administration
chose to sign the nuclear agreement (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan
of Action-JCPOA) with Iran and then the Trump administration unilaterally
withdrew from it, and the Biden administration made a pledge to come back to
it, all had an impact not only on Iranian politics and foreign policy but also
on regional politics.

Similarly, the US decision to withdraw its combat forces from Iraq has
had repercussions on how Washington has decided to get involved in the Syrian
crisis. The Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem
and its pivotal role in signing the Abraham Accords impacted the Palestinian
issue. It also triggered a wave of shifts in regional politics. Therefore, it really
is not possible to talk about a US withdrawal from the region, although it is
still possible to argue for an important shift in US engagement with the
region.

I would argue that the most significant shift in the US engagement with
the region has been the disappearance of Washington’s order-making role. This
role which had been the overarching element in the US policy towards the region
since the end of World War II, has disappeared in recent years.

The Cold War Years

As the emerging global hegemon after World War II, the US had already
recognized the rising importance of the Middle East during the War due to the
region’s oil potential. Thus, as Daniel Yergin writes in The Prize, a State
Department memo during the War predicted that “the center of gravity would
shift to the Middle East after the war” and advised the US to prepare to
act accordingly. In fact, the US was ready to compete with its closest ally
Great Britain to have access to the region’s oil resources right after the War.
With the emergence of the Cold War between the wartime allies, the US and the
Soviet Union, the strategically located oil-rich Middle East became even more
important. Washington tried to prevent any Soviet encroachment into the region.
To that end, it built a network of alliances and did not hesitate to interfere
in the domestic affairs of its allies to protect their regimes. In this
context, it perceived the rising Arab nationalism as a threat and mainly a
stooge for Soviet expansionism. Especially after the 1967 War, support for Israel
also became an important part of US policy in the region. Thus, the US vision
of a Middle East order aimed to protect its interests mainly by protecting
access to Middle East oil at reasonable prices and preventing Soviet influence
in the region. However, the original US policy of building a NATO-like alliance
system to achieve these objectives and support its regional allies failed
mainly due to the Arab-Israeli conflict that constituted the core issue in the
region. Thus, to achieve its goals, the US instead build a network of bilateral
alliances.

End of the Cold War

The end of bipolarity and thus the Cold War opened the way for the US to
be the sole order maker without competition from a global superpower. The 1990s
started with the Gulf Crisis, which provided further opportunities to
consolidate US dominance in the region and its acceptance by regional actors.
Thus, the Clinton administration that came to power soon after the Gulf War
engaged in an effort to create a new Middle East order as part of the new global
order in the making. This vision was composed of several elements: The most
important one was an Arab-Israeli peace process that would end the conflict, which
had been a source of instability in the region and had been one of the
challenges to the US policy of alliances between like-minded states. Thus, a
peace process between Israel and the Arab states and a resolution of the
Palestinian issue would open the way to the integration of Israel into the
region and bring stability. As the multilateral tracks of the Madrid peace process
demonstrated, there were more expectations from the peace process as to
creating economic interdependencies, water cooperation and arms control
agreements in the region. This was in line with the global agenda of political
and economic liberalization promoted by the US and global institutions like the
IMF and the World Bank in the region. Iran and Iraq were seen as the spoilers
of this vision of a new Middle East. Thus, the Clinton administration adopted
the policy of Dual Containment (later Dual Containment plus), which basically
aimed to contain these two states and, better yet, put enough pressure on them
to change their regimes. In the meantime, the US increased its military
presence in the region to unprecedented levels, especially in the Gulf. By the
end of the 1990s, however, the project of a new Middle East order was facing
serious problems and can be argued to collapse by the beginning of the new
century. The Arab-Israeli peace process only produced a peace treaty between
Israel and Jordan, which was not surprising. The rest of the process collapsed
in 2000. The start of the second Palestinian intifada was a symbol of that
collapse. The US policy of dual containment also weakened and started to be
criticized in the US as well. After all, it failed to achieve its aim of regime
change. The US allies did not even support the containment of Iran. In the case
of Iraq, the international consensus started to crumble beginning in the
mid-1990s.

Post 9/11 and the US Response in the Middle
East

The Bush administration, which was already critical of the Middle East
vision of the Clinton administration, came up with another Middle East order
project. The new vision was crafted by the neo-conservatives that were dominant
in the administration and influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US,
putting the “war on terror” at the center of that order instead of
the Arab-Israeli conflict. According to its advocates, this would have mainly
two interrelated dimensions: First, the invasion of Iraq, which would not only
bring long-waited regime change in that country but accompanied by the
discourse of “rogue states” and “axis of evil”, which would
also install fear in foe regimes in Iran and Syria. Second, the so-called
“freedom agenda” that was based on the idea that authoritarianism was
the main problem in the region would also target the friendly regimes. This new
vision which was tried to be implemented through military and economic means,
also failed. It agitated not only the foes but also Washington’s friends; thus,
all in their own ways, they tried their best to make sure that US policies
failed. But the main challenge to the US position in the region emanated from
the Iraq invasion. Although it became a symbol of US hegemonic overlay, it also
marked the beginning of shifting US position in the region. This War, which was
declared as “illegal” by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was
criticized not only in the region but also in the US itself.

The Lack
of a Grand Strategy: Obama, Trump, and Biden Years

The criticisms of the Iraq experience and a reassessment of the evolving
US interests in the region have led to an overall US retrenchment from the
Middle East, starting with the Obama administration. However, as argued above,
the US continued to be engaged in varying degrees with the region and its
policies, such as Syria, Iran nuclear issue, and Arab-Israeli relations
continued to have far-reaching consequences. Yet what is different is that Washington
no longer seems to have an overarching vision for the region. The Obama
administration’s most important initiative, which aimed to prevent Iran from
becoming a nuclear power, did not come with a vision of how the region should
be organized after such an agreement. Similarly, it is not clear what have been
the general strategic objectives of the US in Syria beyond defeating ISIS and
how its specific policies have been serving those objectives. As to the Abraham
Accords, again, there has been ambiguity as to whether these have been part of
a broad vision of a Middle East order that the Trump administration had in
mind. Similarly, it was unclear how the Trump administration planned to tackle
the Iranian nuclear issue after withdrawing from the JCPOA.

The Biden administration has
not developed a comprehensive Middle East strategy either. Until recently, it
has had two major policy lines: to restart nuclear negotiations with Iran,
which have so far produced no results; and to make democracy and defend human
rights the core of its relations with regional countries, which in practice
meant unlike President Trump distancing from the GCC countries, mainly Saudi
Arabia and to some extent the UAE. This policy also seemed to change with the
reset of US policies towards Saudi Arabia, which was blamed for Jamal Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in the Saudi
consulate in Istanbul.

The
Consequences

Changing US engagement with the Middle East has already had some
consequences. First, it has allowed more room for maneuver for regional powers
to develop and try to implement their visions for regional order. This
development initially led to a deterioration of regional stability and
insecurity as main contenders engaged in fierce geopolitical competition in and
around the region. However, in the last two years, regional countries have
seemed to realize the unsustainability of this competition which has led to a
wave of normalization in the region. The main project of a regional order
currently is a “Gulf-centered” one which is mainly underwritten by the Gulf
states’ financial and economic power. However, such efforts are still highly
fragile.

Second, it has also allowed other global actors to be more active in the
Middle East. Russia recognizing US disinterest in comprehensive involvement in Syria
has become the leading actor. Russian interest in the Middle East has expanded
to the Gulf, Egypt, and Libya. Similarly, especially after the Belt and Road
Initiative launch in 2013, China has increasingly become interested in the
region, and its economic and strategic reach has expanded. These developments
also led regional countries increasingly adopt hedging strategies. As these two
countries have increasingly become US’s global competitors, their involvement
in the region may turn it into an area of global competition.

Third, the US policies and lack of a clear commitment to a regional
order led to questions of the dependability of the US and even worse suspicions
about its aims in its allies. The disastrous withdrawal of the US from
Afghanistan further strengthened these views. On the other hand, US foes looked
for ways to extend their influence in a region where the US was retrenching.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have changed things to some extent. The Biden administration is under pressure domestically for high energy prices. Thus, especially Gulf oil producer states became important in the US policy calculations once again, which led to a reset in relations with Saudi Arabia, which was initially considered a pariah state. But more significantly, the invasion ended the already weakened ambiguity about Russia’s place in the emerging global order for the Biden administration in the wake of its quest to consolidate the US hegemonic position in global politics and its leadership role. Parallel to this, relations with China continued to deteriorate amid the arguments for a “new Cold War”. These recent shifts seem to push the Biden administration to re-engage the Middle East as well. The significance of President Biden’s first trip to the region in July 2022 was not only the reset with Saudi Arabia but also the beginning of a new strategic network of allied Arab states and Israel. It is still not clear to what extent this would turn into a project of a new Middle East order. Yet one of the most important challenges to such an effort by the US is how to deal with the two other significant non-Arab states of the region, Iran, and Turkey, in this new order.


This paper is one of the outputs of the Opportunities for Shared Security Project, conducted by the Middle East Studies program at METU, supported by by the U.S. Embassy, Ankara, Grant No: STU15019612017.


Prof. Dr. Meliha Benli Altunışık, Middle East Technical University

Meliha Benli Altunışık is a faculty member in the Department of International Relations at METU. She works on the international relations of the Middle East, Turkey’s Middle East Policy, Rentier states.


To cite this work: Meliha Benli Altunışık , “ The US and the Middle East in the Context of Shifting Global and Regional Politics ”, Panorama, Online, 23 November 2022, https://www.uikpanorama.com/blog/2022/11/23/ma-2/


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