The US has played an active role in the Middle East for the past 70 years, with significant investments of military, diplomatic, economic and political capital. It is unsurprising, therefore, for Americans to ask when those investments will deliver returns in line with overall US foreign policy objectives.
Meanwhile the security, political and energy environment in the region has only become more complicated, particularly in the past decade as regional dynamics are increasingly affected by domestic challenges from economic reform to civil-military relations, uprisings and even leadership transitions.
Most Americans are simply exhausted by the region’s intractable conflicts, heightened tensions and complex maze of interconnected interests and rivalries. Additionally, America’s energy independence and intensifying competition with China and Russia have increased domestic pressure for the US to focus its attentions elsewhere.
As powerful as the US military is, it cannot be optimally deployed in three places simultaneously — addressing the separate threats of Iran in the Middle East, China in the Pacific, and Russia in the Atlantic (and increasingly the eastern Mediterranean).
The past four years of virtual US absence have only emboldened Beijing, Moscow and Tehran and allowed all three to gain significant footholds from Syria to Yemen. Even more, should Iran proceed unchecked it will benefit from a nuclear corridor from North Korea through China and Pakistan. North Korea and Iran already cooperate on long-range missile development, with that corridor supporting the transfer of core components. There is little to deter Pyongyang from sharing nuclear secrets with Tehran since both have a mutual adversary in the US and recognize the effectiveness of a nuclear deterrent.
If the Biden administration is to reverse decades of failures and seemingly rudderless policies, what the Middle East needs now is a sustainable, flexible and robust US presence that is as effective as it is persistent in delivering mutually beneficial outcomes.
What would that presence look like?
There is some worry that the new White House and State Department are treading a familiar path of being so laser-focused on dealing with Iran that they shut out allies and divert attention from other regional priorities. That is the path that produced a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran without regional support, and paved the way for the Trump administration to withdraw from it.
Thus, as the Biden team set about the preliminary work to establish a framework for new talks, including discussions with allies and traditional adversaries alike, the new tenor of US foreign policy starts becoming visible. There is a marked return to multilateralism to address global challenges. Whether countering terrorism or weapons proliferation, supporting reforms, restoring stability in conflict zones and even Israeli-Palestinian relations, Middle East dynamics are heavily intertwined. Going too far in one direction risks unearthing new tensions or intensifying old ones.
The same applies when trying to bolster each state's capabilities separately, without a region-wide framework for everything from preserving the integrity of borders, missile defense, counterterrorism, training, and intelligence sharing. The primary objective will be to boost the region’s self-sufficiency and strengthen its capabilities as a bloc in order to deter threats. Of course, interregional competition would make such an ambitious undertaking challenging and force uncomfortable compromises so that US allies benefit equally from re-focusing support to a regional level.
Fortunately, existing intraregional tensions make it easy to convene allies and partners around common objectives. For instance, in the eastern Mediterranean, tensions are about undersea energy resources. In the Gulf itself, the foremost priority remains countering the triple threat posed by Iran’s support of proxies, long-range missiles and its nuclear ambitions.
While Arab governments are quick to point to the fairly short policy priorities of the Biden administration as proof the US is still intent on fashioning an exit from the region, the reality is that the US can no longer simply vanish or even take a back seat. If anything, the vastly changed landscape since 2015 has transformed US Middle East policy from a binary proposition to a more nuanced search for a sustainable presence.
Dealing with Iran is only the start. Washington will soon have to address the gains made by China and Russia in the region. Neither Beijing nor Moscow has any interest in filling a security vacuum in the region, aside from Russia extending its footprints in strategic zones and China pursuing geo-economic dominance via the Belt and Road Initiative. Those priorities still require a secure and stable Middle East, which is a crucial point of common interest, useful to achieving favorable outcomes in future dialogues on countering regional challenges and threats.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident 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, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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