Recently US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tried to assure America’s regional allies that Washington is not pulling out of the Middle East and that it will stand up to Iran. A decade ago no senior US official would have had to reiterate America’s commitment to the region and its allies.
Speaking at the Manama Dialogue, Austin said this; “Let’s be clear. America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure.”
But the message from Washington was already resonating across the hall of the regional security conference. The so-called “pivot to Asia”, first mentioned by the Obama administration and later adopted by President Donald Trump who claimed that the US was no longer dependent on the region’s oil, appeared to be the mantra of the Biden White House as well. The challenge to America’s global supremacy was in Asia — China specifically — and not in the Middle East.
New geopolitical reality
From Ankara to Cairo and from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi and from Tel Aviv to Moscow, the US pull out from Afghanistan last August had underlined that new geopolitical reality. America’s regional allies would be naive to believe that the departure from Afghanistan, after two decades of costly intervention, was a single act and was not related to Washington’s new perception of where its interests lie today and in the future.
America’s track record in the region is mixed at best. The intervention in Afghanistan came as a necessity and was not part of the original plan adopted by the neocons, especially Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, among other key officials in the George Bush Jr. administration. Was it not for the 9/11 attacks and the emergence of Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda as a direct threat to the US, both at home and in the region, Afghanistan and the ruthless rule of the Taliban would have been off the US radar.
The neocons wanted to topple Saddam Hussein, with a focus on Central Asia’s new republics emerging from the ruins of the rump Soviet Union. And yes they wanted to create regimes in America’s image, making sure that the US remains the world’s only superpower under a new world order.
In the Middle East they had friends and allies. Iran was a threat but it was embroiled in internal struggle between the so-called moderates and the extremists. Like his predecessors, President Bush attempted to find a solution towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That goal was never achieved.
America’s military intervention
But it was America’s military intervention in the region that had upset decades of constant geopolitical realities and recognised fault lines. The regional status quo ended and America found itself entangled in a never-ending war against the Taliban and a shaky attempt at nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Its Iraq gambit went seriously wrong and an ethno-sectarian political system had pushed the country into civil war while handing Iran a key role in determining the country’s ambiguous future.
The same myopic approach to a region that the US should have known very well by now led to failures in Libya, Yemen and Syria. There were no strategic gains made between 2001 and 2021. In the meantime, China was catching on as the new economic powerhouse while Russia was extending its influence across central Asia and flexing its economic muscles in Europe by becoming a major natural gas supplier.
Less reliance on the US
Fast forward to the recent assurances by Secretary Austin. The US is now looking at a new nuclear deal with Iran so that it can organise its withdrawal from the region in an orderly manner. Perhaps this is the reason why we now see nations that were at odds with each other now trying to patch things up without relying on the US.
Turkey and Egypt are talking to each other again. The GCC crisis appears to be over. Arab capitals are engaging with the once shunned Damascus regime and Russia and China are making military and economic breakthroughs in the region.
Israel is building a new alliance with Arab capitals. The region is waking up to the fact that with a decreasing US role, leaders must now take the initiative to protect their national interests.
A new regional order is being set up with little US interference. If and when a deal is struck between the West and Iran, the US will have little interest in staying on. That leaves the Europeans, our closest neighbours, to rewrite a new strategy in dealing directly with the region. And perhaps that is a good thing!
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman