What a Diminished U.S. Role in the Middle East Looks Like
A cursory glance at the map of the Middle East is sobering. Bashar al Assad remains in control of Syria, and Arab states are normalizing relations with his criminal regime. Iran’s proxies in Yemen are on the verge of winning the war in one of the region’s most vital chokepoints.Lebanon is for all intents and purposes a failed state, with an economy in free-fall, a dysfunctional government, and a ruthless terrorist organization as the country’s pre-eminent power broker. Iran has made significant strides in advancing its nuclear program; its client militias tried to assassinate the Prime Minister of Iraq; and capitals from Baghdad to Beirut to Damascus do its bidding.
Meanwhile, a growing number of increasingly capable and assertive foreign powers are expanding their military presence and economic influence in the region. Sizable contingents of Russian and Turkish forces occupy Syrian and Libyan territory. The United Arab Emirates has carved out its own stronghold in southern Yemen. China is leveraging its economic power as an effective tool of diplomacy.
The United States has aided and abetted this dangerous deterioration of stability in the Middle East. The diplomatic overtures to Iran by the Obama and Biden administrations have shaken our Arab allies to their core, leading them to question America’s commitment to their security and compelling them to act on their own in defense of their interests, e.g., Yemen. The decisions of Obama, Trump and Biden to abandon Syria and to cut and run in Afghanistan have only served to reinforce these fears and to open the way to greater intervention by opportunistic state and non-state adversaries.
Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, stated earlier this month that the current administration will use “a combination of deterrence, diplomacy and de-escalation to bring greater stability, and less chaos and crisis across the broader Middle East region.” I doubt that they will be successful, and I say this for several reasons. Diplomacy unsupported by the credible threat to use force will not serve as an effective deterrent. The sad fact of the matter is that the American public and its elected leadership simply lack the stomach for a fight that they’re not sure they can win. While it’s accepted doctrine that the United States possesses the capability to prevail against any adversary, the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have left us with two confounding questions: what does victory look like, and how much will it cost? Our inability to satisfactorily answer the first and tolerate the second has dealt a crippling blow to the exercise of American power. In this climate, it is difficult to imagine any White House being able to forge the political consensus required for meaningful and sustainable action to counter Iran, turn things around in Yemen or respond to the imminent collapse of the Lebanese state, for example.
The current age of hybrid warfare further complicates the calculus of American policymakers. Adversaries such as Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and ISIS have become adept at using conventional and irregular military forces in conjunction with psychological, economic, political, and cyber assaults, thus making defeat of the enemy enormously more complex, expensive and elusive.
A skeptical public makes muscular diplomacy supported by effective deterrence even more difficult. The U.S. government’s failure to substantiate Iraq’s WMD program, which was the pretext for our invasion of that country in 2003, has created a trust deficit among the American electorate that causes them to question its leadership’s threat assessments. The incessant assurances of three presidential administrations that transformative progress was being made in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to see those two countries greatly disappoint expectations, has further undermined public confidence in the trustworthiness of official pronouncements.
Coalition building is another sine qua non of successful diplomacy. Here again, America is not the country it once was. The United Nations has ceased to serve as an effective guarantor of international peace and security. Divisions within the Security Council and the open flaunting of its resolutions have produced a lowest common denominator approach that renders it functionally impotent.
Assembling “coalitions of the willing” as an alternative to the UN has proved increasingly problematic. To varying degrees, America’s traditional allies, like our own public, have doubts about U.S. staying power, question the strategic rationale underlying intervention, or fear the political cost with their domestic constituencies. Regional stalwarts like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates find themselves forced to hedge their bets by exploring avenues of accommodation with antagonistic powers like Turkey, Russia and even Iran.
For all these reasons, the United States will remain a consequential power in the Middle East, but it will no longer represent the region’s dominant force. Instead, we will see an increasingly fragmented and disruptive balance of power that allows state and non-state actors to shape localized conflict to their advantage. Washington will be reduced to a role of damage control, rather than positively and proactively shaping events. The end result will be less stability and more chaos and crisis in the Middle East. More By the Author
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