At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had military ties with Iraq, Libya, Syria, and South Yemen. President Anwar Sadat expelled thousands of Soviet troops and military advisers from Egypt in 1972 and turned to the United States for a strategic alliance. In 1979, the U.S.-brokered peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed; it marked the first time that an Arab country had recognized Israel. In addition, the United States had a network of security and military ties throughout the Middle East that allowed it to emerge as the peace and power broker in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has maintained its status as the dominant great power.
The Obama administration, however, seeks to reverse decades of U.S. diplomacy and security arrangements in the Middle East by simply withdrawing. In doing so, it is creating a regional power vacuum that Russia appears eager to fill.
During his second month in the Oval Office, President Obama announced that U.S. combat forces would exit Iraq in August 2010 and the remaining forces would be withdrawn by the end of 2011. In June 2011, he declared that 10,000 U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan, with the drawdown continuing until most U.S. forces are out of the country by the end of 2014.
Last month, National Security Adviser Susan Rice discussed the administration’s new Middle East doctrine, which has three main priorities: to achieve tangible results in Israel-Palestinian negotiations; to secure a nuclear-weapons-free Iran; and to reduce the conflict in Syria. This new doctrine holds that military strength will be used only if aggression in the Middle East threatens undefined national interests, and it seemingly downgrades bilateral relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, long-standing pillars of U.S. Middle East policy.1
Thus, it is no surprise that President Vladimir Putin appears eager to rekindle relations with Egypt, a country with which the Soviet Union had close ties in the 1950s and 1960s. While the Obama administration has refused to denounce the Mohammed Morsi-led government, which fell in July, and has frozen part of its military aid to Egypt, Putin has derided Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and has endorsed the rebellion. On October 27, the Sunday Times (London) reported that Putin may visit Egypt.2 Could a deal for Russia’s use of Egypt’s Mediterranean ports be in the making?
Readily accepted by the White House, the removal of chemical weapons initiated by Putin “reinforces the stability of the Assad regime, a key Russian ally, secures Russia’s navy continued access to the port of Tartus, and bolsters Syria’s main regional ally, Iran, which also happens to be an important strategic partner,” notes Ilan Berman, a leading Russia and Middle East specialist.3 It simply doesn’t get any better than this for Russia.
The Geneva talks between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and Iran may have a low probability of producing assurances of a non-nuclear Iran. They are worthwhile, however, because high-level communications with Iran are needed. Diplomatic and military initiatives that thwart the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis of global terrorism ought to be at the forefront of any discussions with Syria or Iran. Here again, the U.S. has abdicated leadership.
The U.S. pullback in the Middle East is as troubling for Saudi Arabia as it is for Egypt. Historically, the Saudis have been a crucial ally for the U.S. despite their history of encouraging U.S. support of jihadists such as the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and calling for support of Syrian rebels, some of whom are anti-Western. Riyadh’s decision to decline membership on the UN Security Council appears to be a reaction to inconsistent U.S. policies toward the Syrian crisis and reflects displeasure with the direction of the P5+1 talks with Iran, its chief regional adversary, on its nuclear capabilities.4 Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, is watching developments in the region with skepticism and confusion about how the U.S. will proceed.
Facilitating negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is a sound idea even though near-term success is unlikely. These talks will be overshadowed, however, not only by immediate military exigencies throughout North Africa and the Middle East but also by America’s retreat from its leadership role.
Russia has a growing problem with active Islamists in its own territory and in its near abroad neighbors, which is exacerbated by its unwillingness to absorb and tolerate its Muslim communities. In the arena of combatting terrorism, the United States and Russia could be natural allies. That possibility may fade, however, if Russia becomes a regional hegemon while Washington turns away from the Middle East.
1.Elliott Abrams, “Obama’s ‘New’ Middle East Policy: ‘Modesty’ or Pullback?” Pressure Points (Council on Foreign Relations), October 27, 2013; Mike Landler, “Rice Offers a More Modest Strategy for Mideast,” New York Times, October 26, 2013; and Tom Porter, “Obama Adopts Pragmatic Strategy in Major Middle East Policy Shift,” International Business Times, October 27, 2013.
2.Uzi Mahnaimi, Toby Harnden, and Bel Trew, “Putin cosies up to Cairo as US cools,” The Sunday Times (London), October 27, 2013.
3.Quoted in Kathryn Jean Lopez, “The End of Russia,” National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/360461/end-russia-interview), October 7, 2013.
4.F. Gregory Gause III, “Will Nuclear Talks With Iran Provoke A Crisis In U.S.-Saudi Ties?” Brookings Institution (http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/iran-at-saban/posts/2013/10/14-saudi-iran-rivalry-nuclear-deal), October 14, 2013.