The recurrent theme at the Sir Bani Yas Forum, hosted by the UAE and Chatham House recently, was, ‘Where is the United States’?
As the conference opened, Israel had just begun launching strikes on Gaza in response to the missile attacks from Hamas; Syria’s civil war raged with no end in sight; answers to the growing challenge of Iran remained elusive and the course of Egypt’s political evolution had many concerned. No one was suggesting the US could or ought to have all the answers, but among this gathering of Arab, North African, South Asian and European diplomats and international civil servants, the overwhelming consensus was that the superpower is “AWOL” (absence without official leave). The only question was whether the absence is temporary or permanent?
It was impressive to see how much desire there is for a more active US role in the Middle East. There was little talk here of America’s decline as the world’s preeminent power. No one is preparing for a Chinese, Indian or Turkish ascendancy. Not even the Europeans claim that the European Union (EU) has the will or capacity to take on a bigger role in the region. The US remains, by far, the most important player. What has people concerned and despairing is not American decline, but America’s declining interest — the sense that the Barack Obama administration, and the American people, have about washed their hands of the Middle East.
President Obama was setting off on the first trip after his reelection and it was to Southeast Asia, a fitting symbol of his proclaimed “pivot.” No one begrudges the US paying more attention to Asia, but in the Middle East, the “pivot” is seen as an attempt to turn away from this region’s difficult problems.
People here believe Obama got burned on the Middle East peace process three years ago and is reluctant to engage again. They see how reticent the US is to do anything in Syria. Veteran America-watchers complain that neither the White House nor the State Department has a Middle East hand with real clout focusing full-time on the region. And it’s hard to deny. Many in the US, not just inside the Obama administration, seem to think American policy needs to be “rebalanced.” The strategic importance of the Middle East is declining, they argue, as the US grows independent of the region’s oil supply. Obama does little to push back against a growing public perception that there is nothing but trouble for the US brewing in the Middle East.
When the Arab revolutions first erupted, the Obama White House promised to focus great attention and resources on these world-transforming events. That enthusiasm faded long ago. The administration used to trumpet its success in Libya. However, lack of attention and follow-through has damaged even that once-bright spot. The Obama campaign boasted of getting US troops out of Iraq. Beyond that, however, administration officials have little to say about one of the most important nations in the Middle East, still engaged in a historic struggle for democratic change. The irony, of course, is that every time the Obama administration tries to turn towards Asia, the Middle East drags it back — literally, in the case of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
It’s an illusion to think America will not continue to be drawn into Middle East affairs. The world is no longer neatly divided by distinct regions, if it ever was. Events in the Middle East affect the world, just as events in Asia do. Wherever the US gets its oil, global energy prices are affected by whether oil flows freely from the Middle East. And US allies in Europe and Asia still depend on that as the main source. If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, it will affect not just the Middle East, but the global non-proliferation regime. The success or failure of the experiment to marry Islamism and democracy that is playing out in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere will affect politics across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan to Southeast Asia as well as in Europe. And if Syria collapses, the chances are high that well-armed terrorist groups will gain a foothold in a nation with the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles.
The present world order is seamless and so is the global strategy necessary to sustain it. As one prominent statesman expressed the general puzzlement here: “Can’t the United States walk and chew gum at the same time?” For decades, the US has been able to provide security and remain engaged in three major theatres at once: Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Today those theatres are more interconnected, economically and strategically, than ever. So let America, by all means, give Asia the attention it deserves, but the world will not afford America the luxury of downgrading the importance of the other two regions. That’s what it means to be a global superpower: The US can pivot, but it can’t leave.
Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a monthly columnist for The Washington Post, is most recently the author of “The World America Made.”