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US leadership wanes in the Middle East

In their drive to insulate themselves against the Washington’s abandonment of the turbulent region, America’s allies cannot be blamed if they look elsewhere for strategic alliances

Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News
Gulf News

In the post Cold War era, the US involvement and presence in the Gulf and the broader Middle East increased exponentially. The US-led war effort to liberate Kuwait in 1991, the signing of security agreements with the GCC states in the aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait, launching a massive war to depose Saddam Hussain in 2003, occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and launching the ongoing war against terrorism, have sank the US in the quicksand of this turbulent region and cemented its footprints in it. The US miscalculations, occupations of Muslim lands, massacres, and violations of human rights caused a lot of consternation and ticked up the anti-US sentiment and hatred in the region.

Today as the debate rages in Washington over the US decline as the only superpower in a world that is — even by the US intelligence community assessment — moving towards a multipolar international system. Clearly, today because of the rising powers of other states and blocs mainly in Asia led by China, the Brics and G20, the US is no longer the omnipotent power that once dominated the international order; or the indispensable nation that it once was. Today, the US is dominant and not predominant as before.

It seems the US is now entertaining a different approach with a light presence in the Middle East and taking a more laidback and hands-off approach after its withdrawal from Iraq and as it prepares to draw down its forces from Afghanistan. The huge toll a decade of wars has taken on the US in terms of manpower and financial bleeding has drained it both economically, emotionally and turned the American public against foreign interventions. Therefore, the US a few years ago started talking with its allies about “burden sharing”.

Today, the US, as I have opined in Gulf News on July 22 in my article titled, ‘The US missing in action in the Middle East’, seems to be disinterested and on its way to abandon the Middle East. The US is nowhere to be seen, as host of crises continues to challenge its leadership role. Few could overlook America’s waning influence and its inability to bring about change to the crises besieging the region, from the US inability to play a leadership role in the Syrian debacle to wavering over Egypt and the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear programme. Its glaring failures can’t be missed.

Furthermore, the US leadership was in short supply with regard to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and at the negotiation table to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I concluded that column by arguing, “It seems that the US for many reasons has either decided to abandon the Middle East or have a lighter footprint, or at best has downgraded the relevance and significance of this once prominent and dominant region in its strategic agenda.”

Even when the US tries to intervene we see it as an individual and personal passion and not a strategic one. Take US Secretary of State John Kerry’s role in finally getting the Palestinians and the Israelis to resume the comatose Middle East peace process after three years of complete freeze, it was more due to his personal leadership, persistence and perseverance and his six visits over the last six months, and not because of anything else. Setting a nine-month deadline to achieve a final and comprehensive peace deal by tackling all the devilish issues seems to be untenable and a tall order. Few believe any breakthrough is possible considering that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet is one of the most hardline cabinets on record.

The wavering over Syria showcases the US lack of leadership and zeal to push the region towards normalcy. The US equivocation over Egypt is the most daunting today. A month after the army carried out a clear coup as many see it in Egypt, the region, some think-tanks, US senators and major US publication, Washington is yet to call a coup a coup. Kerry seems to be siding with the military by stating: “The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of discordance into chaos, into violence ... And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgement — so far. To run the country, there’s a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy.” That remark was startling and raised eyebrows. According to the Washington Post, the “secretary’s statement did not reflect the president’s policy”.

In a scathing comment, the Post chastised Kerry’s remarks on Egypt and added, “Mr Kerry’s remark was careless and dangerous. No doubt, it will be taken as a vote of confidence by Defence Minister General Abdul Fattah Al Sissi and encourage the military to press a campaign of violence and repression against the Muslim Brotherhood.” Al Sissi, the Egypt strongman, who toppled the first democratically-elected Egyptian president, had disparaging words for the US. In an exclusive interview with the Post he sharply criticised the US response, accusing the Obama administration of disregarding Egyptian popular will and of providing insufficient support amid threats of a civil war.“You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that,” said an indignant Al Sissi, speaking of the US government. “Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?”

It is abundantly clear that the US, for many reasons, is treading carefully in the Middle East. Its allies are bewildered and worried about the US downgrading the relevance and significance of their turbulent region. They sense that their foes will read this as a weakness to be taken advantage of, which could undermine their interests and the US’s alike. In their drive to insulate themselves against the US’s abandonment of the region, they may be excused if they look somewhere else for partnership.

After 12 years of the war on terrorism, and two-and-a-half years after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, the US is still haunted by Al Qaida and its affiliates. In early August, the US was forced to issue a worldwide warning and take precautionary measures, shutting down 21 embassies and consulates from Mauritania to Bangladesh including Iraq, Afghanistan and the GCC states, fearing an Al Qaida plot. That was a rude wake-up call for the US, and a reminder that the US can’t afford to abandon this region.

The bigger question is given the dynamics of the region with its crises and many flashpoints, can the US afford to lose sight of its interests and that of its allies in this vital and strategic region, cede it to its foes and hand it over to the other rising powers in Asia and elsewhere?


Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at