Today, America finds itself in roughly the same waters that drowned British ambitions in the Middle East between 1946–1969. In less than two decades, Washington has vacillated from direct intervention to calls to “share the region,” which have now been supplanted by the “America First” diplomacy of bold declarations that favor smaller, “face-saving” compromises. To the region, and the rest of the world, it looks as though Washington has lost all interest and is seeking ways to quietly exit the region.
To add to this, failed nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) failure to address Iran’s regional importance, and the current administration’s unilateralism have dismayed regional allies and U.S.-backed forces engaged in regional conflicts. At one point, there were calls for supporting human rights, freedoms, and democracy, but these have been replaced by a Washington prepared to turn a blind eye to authoritarian excesses and growing Russian influence. At one point, Iran was cooperating with P5+1 and was close to being free of successive sanctions. That too has been replaced by a “maximum pressure” campaign that has some sounding the alarm of yet another Middle East war that threatens to swallow the Gulf and send shock waves across the globe.
It is no surprise that in the absence of consistent Washington policy, regional activism is increasing. A Saudi Arabia/UAE coalition is now embroiled in Yemen, trying to contain Iranian-backed Houthi expansion into a territory that dominates the strategically vital Bab el-Mandeb Strait. This choke point controls access to and from the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean. This collation, fearful of Islamist contagion, is also now embroiled at lower intensity in Libya, and much of North Africa
If provoked, Iran could potentially halt maritime traffic with devastating consequences for the global economy. Fortunately, cash-strapped Tehran is heavily reliant on hard currency from petroleum sales to East Asia. Cutting off maritime traffic (and 25% of the world’s oil flow) would upset Beijing and Washington equally. Yet, the threat of it is much more potent should Tehran-backed Houthis manage to exhaust or drive off the Washington-backed Saudi-Emirati coalition.
In response to what is perceived as an existential threat, Iran has ramped up its regional activism with “forward defense” principles, a ballistic missile program and nuclear ambitions. Increased calls from Washington to pressure Iran have only emboldened hardliners in the Ayatollah’s ranks. There is little incentive for Iran to de-escalate its regional operations.
On the periphery but still important, Turkey is a puzzling entrant into the current Middle East and North Africa conundrum. As a NATO ally, Ankara seemingly should follow Washington’s lead and even aid local actors in pursuing American interests. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to secure Turkish military independence in the wake of conflicting U.S. policy positions and reclaim Turkey’s historic role as a major regional power. Despite being allies for roughly six decades, America opted to support Kurdish militia activity in Syria, which Ankara vowed to eradicate. Erdoğan has repeatedly cited that Washington’s refusal to sell Turkey the Patriot Missile Defense System leaves Ankara vulnerable to missile threats from Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
Other concerns stem from a Turkish desire to become a defense producer rather than consumer, pitting Ankara against traditional arms sellers like Europe, the United States, Russia, and China. Turkey also backed Qatar in a 2017 diplomatic crisis that saw Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and others sever relations and ban Qatari ships and aircraft from utilizing sea and air routes. Turkey maintains a military presence in Qatar, which it has refused to shut down despite demands from the Saudi-led coalition. When Saudi Arabia closed the only land-border into and out of Qatar, Turkey quickly pledged food and water to the embattled nation.
Meanwhile Russia has emerged as the go-to broker for the region. Moscow’s involvement in Syria was initially met with skepticism, but over time, President Putin has assumed a new position in Middle Eastern dynamics, allowing him to deal with any head of state he chooses. Whether it’s cozying up to Israel to manage tensions in Syria and Libya or playing the erudite statesmen to Saudi Arabia and fellow OPEC nations or meeting with Turkey to discuss post-civil war Syria, Russia has deftly supplanted America as crisis manager and conflict arbiter.
Going forward, it is essential for U.S. policymakers to clearly outline America’s long-term goals in a region that has risen to prominence thanks to Washington’s varying degrees of involvement. At the most basic level, there are two roles that America must play: First, underwriting the region’s long-term prosperity borne from its oil wealth and second, maintaining the regional stability necessary to transform wealth into economic growth and diversification that can address the growing pressures from a youth bulge that has so far had its economic interests frustrated leading many of the youth of the region to join radical groups or become the fuel of regional revolts and revolutions.
The current shift towards East Asia has grown beyond exporting Gulf, Iraqi, and Iranian crude. East Asian countries are engaged in a number of strategic energy cooperation ventures in the Middle East and Africa via capital-intensive investments in infrastructure. Elsewhere, currency swaps, swelling expatriate communities, lucrative contracts, and real estate purchases will further entrench East Asian interests in the region at the expense of European, American, and even other regional interests.
These developments may be welcome in the region’s capitals, but for an over-extended Washington seeking to free itself from the quagmire of regional conflict, China is getting a free ride. The U.S. has also overtaken the region’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, and Russia and is on track to become a net exporter of crude and petroleum derivatives by the fourth quarter 2019. This leaves little incentive or justification for a protracted U.S. military presence in the region. Even if the aim is to police sea lanes to ensure allies like India, Japan, and South Korea benefit from stable, moderate oil prices, competitors still benefit.
In fact, despite the lack of Chinese security cooperation agreements, military bases, or any Beijing-sponsored interventions in the region, China is the Middle East’s largest trading partner and investor. If U.S. stability initiatives, bases, naval patrols, and influence were absent, the resulting instability may have encouraged China to maintain a substantially smaller footprint in the region. However, if precedence is anything to go by, China’s preference for total dominance , as seen in Tibet and South China Sea disputes, rules out any medium-term security cooperation commitments that would require working alongside the U.S.
Washington can potentially share the role of “guarding the wealth” with allies and trading partners in East Asia, given that India, China, South Korea, and Japan are already the largest contributors to the region’s wealth. In terms of “guarding the peace,” there is some merit to the current administration’s Middle East Strategic Alliance. Washington could lean more on regional allies by increasing military aid and offering incentives that would incrementally reduce American responsibilities in the region. Unfortunately, for a world and region accustomed to decades of American-led interventions and security, delegating roles to competing regional interests will likely meet more opposition than cooperation. There is a good chance that where America opts for less regional cooperation and withdraws, Russia, China, and wayward regional powers will step up to expand their hegemonies, thereby worsening existing rivalries.
The most dangerous trend in the region however, remains the real and still growing trend of expanding non-state actors and radical groups that flourish wherever chaos and instability exists. Indeed, the very notion of the nation-state seems to be coming apart at the seams in the whole region, opening doors for a more uncertain future and most likely further fragmentation.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, and a former adviser to the board of directors at the World Bank Group.