OPINIONS

Wed 10 Apr 2024 3:17 pm - Jerusalem Time

The Middle East Is Still Post-American

By Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson

 

After years of being sidelined by successive U.S. administrations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been thrust back to the center of U.S. foreign policy. As some analysts now argue, given the intensity of the conflict in the Gaza Strip and the growing threat of a wider regional war, the past six months’ events will necessarily galvanize U.S. engagement in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. The prevailing view is that the United States must bring stability to the region or watch it descend into chaos—leaving a vacuum that Washington will have to fill either to deny the region to a rival power or to stanch radiating violence that reaches the United States and could impel intervention. After years of efforts to pivot away from the region, the logic goes, Washington will now be forced to be actively engaged—militarily and diplomatically—on an ongoing basis.

Although these assessments make sense in the heat of the current war, they are less persuasive as a premise for medium- and long-term U.S. policy. To judge from existing U.S. relationships in the region, as well as from prevailing power dynamics and U.S. policy priorities in recent years, the Middle East that emerges from the Gaza crisis will not be much different from the one that preceded it. Indeed, the general direction of U.S. policy seems likely to continue. Notwithstanding its intensity, regional powers have been approaching the current crisis cautiously or are just ignoring it. Furthermore, Israel and Saudi Arabia—the two most strategically important countries in the region for the United States—have become less responsive to American preferences and, despite stepped-up U.S. engagement, show little sign of renewed interest in what Washington wants. As a result, U.S. foreign policy in the region after the Gaza crisis may be less a question of how to bring the United States back to the Middle East than of how to better manage strategic distance from the region while still exerting a degree of influence.

LESS IS MORE

In late 2015, we argued in Foreign Affairs that the United States could substantially pull back from the Middle East. At the time, the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had demonstrated America’s inability to employ immersive military and political means—in particular, counterinsurgency and nation building—to export liberal democracy. Both had damaged American credibility, and insecurity stemming from NATO’s intervention in Libya, spearheaded by the United States, hadn’t helped. Moreover, since World War II, Washington’s primary strategic objectives in the Middle East had been to ensure the survival and security of Saudi Arabia and Israel—goals that had already been met by the end of the first Gulf War, in 1991. In turn, by 2015, the residual threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program had been addressed in the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran, though a nuisance, now appeared containable by way of a calibrated rapprochement.

Meanwhile, there were other indications that U.S. military involvement in the region would wane over time. Owing to the rise of China, Washington could not escape the need to reallocate resources from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. The United States was becoming far less dependent on Gulf oil, thanks to the hydraulic fracking revolution. And although the Arab Spring had exposed the brittleness of political progress in the region, the ensuing conflicts, including Syria’s civil war, had demonstrated the infeasibility of U.S.-supported regime change or efforts to erode authoritarianism. At the same time, terrorism springing from the Middle East had become less of a domestic U.S. concern: transnational jihadism—in the form of the Islamic State, known as ISIS—continued to impose heavy costs on other parts of the world, but it left the United States more or less untouched. As for the Israeli-Palestinian problem, politics on both sides had evolved in ways that made the two-state solution—the holy grail of U.S. foreign policy—less likely than ever.

In response to these concerns, we recommended a strategy along the lines of offshore balancing, under which the United States would selectively use its leverage over key actors to preserve regional stability, stepping in directly only when they proved incapable of doing so. Our case for stepping back from the region reflected the evolving position of the Obama administration, in which we had both served. After 2016, President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy broadly adopted this position as well, to the extent that it eschewed U.S. military intervention and deep American diplomatic engagement in the region and encouraged Arab-Israeli normalization. Although the Trump administration arguably made U.S. restraint harder to sustain by disavowing the nuclear deal and by assassinating Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, it left Saudi Arabia and Israel to their own devices where it really counted. In particular, Trump chose not to retaliate against Iran for its massive drone attack on Aramco facilities in November 2019 and acquiesced in Israel’s repressive policy toward the Palestinians.

Both Obama and Trump seemed to recognize that Israel and Saudi Arabia had become less constrained by U.S. concerns. This relative independence was a product of U.S. strategic success: the two states now enjoyed sufficient security and self-confidence to go their own way; in opposing the Iran nuclear deal, they rejected Washington’s legitimacy and authority to shape Middle Eastern security. There was some ambiguity, or perhaps a passive-aggressive attitude, that initially clouded this development. Israel and Saudi Arabia pleaded for American leadership but defined it as bowing to their own preferences. Since then, it has become clearer that a U.S. attempt to reimpose its will would have been futile or counterproductive.

BIDEN’S DILEMMA

This posture largely continued during President Joe Biden’s first two years in power; the fraught U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan seemed to underscore this continuity. Starting in mid-2022, however, the Biden administration began to step up engagement in the Middle East. Biden decided to advance Saudi-Israeli normalization by way of an agreement that would offer Riyadh support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program including the full fuel cycle, wider and easier Saudi access to advanced U.S. military equipment, and firm security guarantees modeled on the U.S. treaties with South Korea and Japan. In turn, the Israelis would gain the formal acceptance of the most powerful Arab and Muslim state and a strong partner against Iran. The U.S.-brokered deal would have had potentially important, if unstated, strategic implications: Washington could, for example, extract a Saudi commitment to deprive China of oil in the event of a U.S.-Chinese military confrontation, or simply to distance the kingdom from both Beijing and Moscow; reduce the pace of cuts in oil production; and advance Israeli-Palestinian peace by conditioning normalization with Israel on a path to Palestinian independence and then paying for it. This process of complex diplomatic coordination would, in the administration’s thinking, transform the region as a whole.

Following Hamas’s October 7 attack, however, the United States was abruptly and unexpectedly drawn back into the region. With the ensuing war in Gaza, Washington was compelled to immerse itself in the crisis not only to try to moderate the Israeli government and rally humanitarian relief to besieged Palestinians in Gaza but also to stave off a wider war by deploying U.S. military assets as a deterrent to intervention by Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon. The conflict has animated the Iran-led “axis of resistance” and bled into the Red Sea, where the Houthis, Iran’s Yemen-based partner, have attacked commercial shipping and, occasionally, the American and British ships deployed to stop them. U.S. officials now talk about the Houthi challenge as a 20-year problem, but these concerns will likely subside when the current emergency fades, as it will.

Although the U.S. engagement in the Gaza crisis is obligatory for several reasons, however, none of them involves strictly strategic interests. Israel’s emotional pull on Americans and a historically close relationship between the two democracies makes its legitimate defense imperative; shared strategic interest, however, is not a given. U.S. officials perceive a historical and perhaps moral obligation to help Israelis and Palestinians toward a durable accommodation. Just as important, U.S. policies are being shaped by domestic political considerations—which have been sharpened by the American presidential campaign and by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dismissive attitude toward Biden’s pleas to show restraint in Gaza. Thus, the administration has been forced into the absurd position of deploying the U.S. Navy to feed Palestinians who are simultaneously being attacked with munitions made in the United States. Nevertheless, American humanitarian values, if they mean anything, preclude Washington from turning its back on tens of thousands of grievously suffering Palestinians, especially when these values have become a cause célèbre for a key Democratic constituency. Backing out of this particular crisis is not an option.

Washington was compelled to immerse itself in the Gaza crisis, in part, to stave off a wider war.

But once the war winds down, the United States should not return to the consuming daily grind of crisis management in the region that the George W. Bush administration embraced after 9/11. The core justification for preserving a general policy of restraint remains substantially the same as in 2015: Washington’s ability to influence events in the region is extremely limited, and the administration has bigger strategic challenges not only in the Asia-Pacific but also in Europe. This does not mean a wholesale U.S. withdrawal from the region any more than it did eight years ago. But it does mean that the Biden administration should lower any expectations about U.S.-brokered grand bargains that could obligate the United States to fight a war tangential to its own interests or inadvertently contribute to a nuclear arms race in the region.

Given the many pitfalls of renewed U.S. involvement, a far more palatable outcome to the Gaza crisis would be a return to something like the pre–October 7 regional status quo, for several reasons. First, as noted, Hamas’s attack did not, despite the group’s hopes, set off an offensive by Iran, which has fended off pressure as leader of the axis of resistance to engulf Israel and U.S. forward-deployed forces in violence, either directly or, more plausibly, by mobilizing Hezbollah in Lebanon or proxy forces elsewhere. (There was an initial round of strikes that ultimately claimed three American lives.) Second, although Israel has obviously degraded Hamas’s military capabilities, Hamas will likely survive the war and continue to be a critical political actor in the Palestinian context. The Palestinian Authority is the logical foundation for a revitalized Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but the PA has so little support and legitimacy among Palestinians that it will practically require Hamas’s consent to return to Gaza and govern it. Presumably, however much Gazans are angry or disgusted with Hamas for triggering the avalanche, their resentment will be irrelevant.

Third, the overall direction of Israeli politics and policies is unlikely to change much. Although Benny Gantz has now called for early elections and might succeed in harnessing Israeli anger with Netanyahu to defenestrate him, the Hamas attack and its aftermath will probably push the Israeli electorate further to the right and make it even more skeptical of any peace process. Fourth, Israel’s failure to address Palestinian grievances equitably, an issue that had always been an impediment to normalization with Saudi Arabia, has now become an even more formidable one.

DIMINISHING RETURNS

The Biden administration’s plan to bring together the region’s richest country and its most technologically advanced one had rested on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that in turn depends on changes in Israeli and Palestinian politics that could take a generation at best and may never materialize at worst. If Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), chose to normalize relations with Israel without a firm Israeli commitment to a plausible path to Palestinian statehood, he would only strengthen Netanyahu’s position. In any event, persuading the crown prince to enter a normalization deal would require Washington to offer a binding security guarantee, which presumably would be conditioned on an array of concessions by Riyadh that MBS seems unlikely to make. Even if such a deal were achievable, it might embolden Riyadh to use force in ways that would create pressure for U.S. military intervention—a step that in the Middle East has generally led to serious trouble. In any case, it still appears that Israel and Saudi Arabia are intent on going their own ways. For all the talk about a grand anti-Iran alliance that would transform the Middle East, events of the past few months have underscored both countries’ independence from—or even rejection of—the United States. And the fact remains that shared threat perceptions will drive cooperation in the absence of diplomatic parlor tricks.

Egypt in turn is in basically the same position it was in around 2015—as a ward of the Gulf states chafing at its ties with the United States—except with the added burden of the Gaza crisis and loss of Suez Canal revenues. Washington is not able to increase its influence with Cairo through military engagement, which also would not strengthen the United States’ hand elsewhere in North Africa or in Iraq. The U.S. presence in Iraq and Syria is small and perceived in Washington as impermanent; it was not expanded as a result of the Gaza crisis. Overall, neither was the permanent or rotational U.S. military presence in the region. Although the crisis did prompt the United States to surge military assets to deter Iran and its proxies from widening the war, the American effort quickly narrowed to countering Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and facilitating humanitarian relief in Gaza. Admittedly, in our 2015 essay, we did not anticipate the Houthi threat to international shipping, and that is exactly the sort of development that would logically call for U.S. military intervention. At the same time, insofar as the United States has undertaken the effort to counter the Houthi attacks only because none of its regional partners are entirely willing or able to do so in the interest of protecting global trade, that effort in itself remains broadly in line with offshore balancing. Iran, as we wrote in 2015, will continue to remain a wild card. But as it has shown in its response to the war in Gaza, Tehran remains cautious, preferring to express its disruptive regional impulses through proxy activity.

This growing chasm between U.S. and Israeli perceptions of the war illustrates the waning influence of the United States in the region.

Foreign policy analysts might argue that the Biden administration’s adroit handling of the Gaza conflict augurs well for a return of the United States to the Middle East. Citing the administration’s multifaceted response—swift and effective deployment of naval power, patience and calibration in the face of provocation, a resistance to beefing up the U.S. ground presence in the region, creative diplomacy to stave off wider war, and pressure on Israel to show restraint—it may be tempting to argue, as Daniel Byman and Thomas Friedman have, for reclaiming the United States’ role as the Middle East’s geopolitical umpire. To the contrary, the regional order appears to be sorting itself out without the United States, and the administration has not been able to prevent the deaths of more than 30,000 Palestinians and the physical devastation of Gaza. Biden has not used the tools supposedly available to compel Israel to stand down. He is constrained not so much by his vaunted love for Israel but by the wide gap between U.S. and Israeli stakes in the conflict and the challenge to his administration of navigating an emerging, historic partisan political split over the U.S.-Israeli relationship in a decisive election year. In any case, to Israelis the government’s military campaign in Gaza is unobjectionable. This alone would neuter a U.S. attempt to press Israel to substantially alter, let alone stand down, its operations.

This growing chasm between U.S. and Israeli perceptions of the war illustrates not only the difficulty of orchestrating compellence but also the waning influence of the United States in the region. It has not been able to solve the region’s problems, which makes investing heavily in different results in the future worse than speculative. Nor is it in the interest of the United States to try to impose an order it has not been able to make stick since the Cold War. All that has materially changed since 2016 is China’s strategic extroversion and its tentative entry into the region, and that is insufficient justification. The case for restraint remains the strongest one.

An additional factor is political polarization within the United States itself, which has made its foreign policy less stable, less consistent, and less reliable. The Gaza crisis, as we have noted, has split Democrats and unified Republicans on the eve of an extraordinarily consequential U.S. presidential election. Israel and the Gulf states might harbor doubts about Donald Trump’s reliability, but the combination of his quasi-isolationist sensibilities and his affection for authoritarian leaders would ease U.S. pressure on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and other discomfiting issues. Even if Biden were reelected, without control of Congress he would likely be subject to the kind of willful obstructionism that has frozen U.S. aid to Ukraine, perhaps even more so due to Republican vengefulness. The United States has not fared well in conducting an extroverted foreign policy in times of intense domestic political discord. It’s worth remembering that the George W. Bush administration’s effort, prompted by 9/11, to counter terror through quasi-imperial American assertiveness lost support substantially due to the early unraveling of U.S. domestic bipartisanship. That process has continued.

BETTER AT ARM’S LENGTH

For now it will be essential for Washington to keep a close eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attuned to opportunities for diplomatically advancing conflict resolution. But it would be imprudent for the United States to rest its post–Gaza crisis vision for the region on an implausible grand bargain that it is ill equipped to advance or sustain. The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is, by mutual agreement, not binding or enshrined in any ratified documents. The United States has only a very small military presence in Israel, temporarily elevated owing to the crisis. It would be a mistake for the administration to insert troops into Gaza as part of a peacekeeping or peace enforcement arrangement, as U.S. agencies are planning, albeit without a U.S. military component. In practical terms, the United States would have minimal control over the parameters of any such peacekeeping mission—a situation it has rightly avoided since Lebanese militants bombed peacekeepers’ barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French military personnel.

Saudi Arabia is naturally opposed to Iranian power projection but interested in containing it peacefully, having normalized diplomatic relations and engaged in talks with Iran and floated a large investment package as an incentive to further cooperation. Riyadh’s motivation derives from self-interest rather than U.S. pressure. Since Saudi Arabia has no other plausible security guarantor, Washington could consider the possibility of serving as such to provide positive reinforcement and to keep Riyadh reasonably close. But a key concern is whether such an arrangement would over time or in an unanticipated contingency force the United States to commit to a significant and problematic military presence.

Overall, the transactionalism that has regulated the U.S.-Saudi relationship so far should continue to do so. On this score, it is encouraging that the past few administrations have abjured a permanent increase in a relatively small U.S. military footprint in the region. This includes Biden’s team. This suggests that, notwithstanding the grandness of the mooted bargain, they have recognized its speculative nature and harbor doubts about whether it would yield the advertised strategic gains. Ending the pursuit of the grand bargain and forgoing the security guarantee might mean that the United States could lose arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but this risk is far less serious than that of entanglement in a conflict started by Riyadh in which the United States had no comparable stake, its fraught involvement in the Yemen war having hinted at the immense downsides of a more substantial commitment. The United States should keep a carrier strike group in the Red Sea owing to the ongoing Houthi threat, but the small U.S. training mission in Iraq and the counterterrorism contingent in Syria might well be withdrawn in the next couple of years without seriously compromising U.S. interests, given that its permanent bases and rotational forces in the region afford it adequate rapid-response capabilities to address Iranian provocations or a resurgence of the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS. But the United States has time to work this out.

Although the current crisis may reflect a serious regional breakdown, it has also starkly exposed the limits of American power in the region and illuminated the risks that the large and enduring U.S. presence in the region poses. The irony in the situation is that the United States has had greater influence in Tehran than in Jerusalem. Even leaving aside the question of American power and influence, there is really no power vacuum for Washington to fill. The major states in the region are figuring out, albeit sloppily and improbably, how to manage their problems themselves. It is a self-regulating system. In that light, Washington may be best able to protect its interests in the Middle East from a distance.

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The Middle East Is Still Post-American

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