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The Middle East is in strategic retreat
 The Middle East is in strategic retreat
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The Middle East is in strategic retreat

By Farid El Khazen

Since the downfall of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, changes affecting the Middle East have largely originated outside the region.

Only recently did the Arab Spring reverse this pattern.

Momentous developments have reshaped the course of Middle Eastern politics since 2011. The Arab state system is now dysfunctional, as are a number of regimes and countries – Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. The Arab-Israeli conflict has lost its centrality, particularly since the collapse of the last major attempt to bring about a comprehensive settlement to the conflict in 2000. The only course of action gaining momentum involves the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Turkish interventionist politics have also been on the rise, reflecting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions. Iran’s active involvement in regional affairs dates back to the early 1980s, with both it and Turkey resorting to “imperial” impulses in the region.

Amid these changes, U.S. foreign policy has seemed static. This is a cause for concern for Arab leaders, especially in Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Established in 1981 with U.S. encouragement and support in response to Iranian expansionism, the GCC stands on shaky ground today, as the United States and Iran may be on the verge of concluding a nuclear deal.

Reacting to the 9/11 attacks over a decade ago, the George W. Bush administration embarked on hasty wars and made multiple blunders in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. By the time U.S. forces withdrew in 2011, Iraq regressed not only to a country characteristic of the old Middle East, but to its darkest ages. The Obama administration embraced an entirely new approach: no military intervention in the region, irrespective of the costs incurred because of Washington’s inaction toward the region’s fate and that of its people being slaughtered by extremist Islamist groups.

The Arab-Israeli conflict today no longer involves Arabs and Israelis – it mainly involves Palestinians and Israelis. Remnants of the Cold War era are confined to the Syrian crisis. Contrary to the mid-1970s, when Arab countries brandished the “oil weapon,” instigating a global energy crisis which crippled the economies of major industrialized countries, Arab countries today are a spent force. They are capable of doing more harm to each other than to outsiders. As for the “war on terrorism,” Washington can live with terrorism as long as it remains far away from its shores.

Tested in Egypt after 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood in power was in tune with U.S. and even Israeli interests. The authoritarian measures of the Islamist regime were harshest inside Egypt, while the Brotherhood’s foreign policy was highly pragmatic. For Washington, this is what truly mattered.

Arab and American priorities are far apart and disputed issues are no longer clear-cut as they were in previous years. Syria and Iraq are the most obvious examples of the gaping void between Washington’s conflicting agendas and those of state and nonstate actors engaged in armed conflicts. The complexity is amplified by the fact that the deepest divide in the region is not over well-defined political issues but is being driven by sectarianism. The rift between Arab states, notably in the Arab East and the Gulf, seems beyond repair.

In addition, the traditional dual pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East – secure access to oil resources and Israel’s security – have changed. Oil has lost its strategic significance in comparative terms with the discovery of new alternative energy sources. U.S. dependency on Middle East oil is at its lowest level since the mid-1970s.

As for Israel, it is safe and strong, surrounded by crumbling Arab states. If in the past concern for Israel’s “right to exist” had any significance, today it is the survival of Israel’s neighbors that is at stake, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumes the right to dictate policy in Washington. Moreover, Iran may be changing status, from foe to friend, or at least from evil to a lesser evil. The U.S. may not win Iran to its side but nor will it lose Iran’s Arab neighbors, who do not have many alternatives to maintaining good relations with Washington.

Since World War II, U.S. presidential doctrines, from the Truman to the Reagan Doctrine, have focused on the protection of Middle Eastern allies, in line with the objective of containing the Soviet Union. By contrast, the Obama Doctrine, outlined in a recent New York Times interview, highlighted the responsibility of Gulf states to attend to their domestic problems and shoulder the burden of facing terrorist groups. Yet the U.S. will continue to honor commitments to defend its allies when necessary, as confirmed by Obama in a recent Camp David meeting with Gulf leaders.

This is not sufficiently reassuring to Gulf leaders when Obama seems convinced of the merits of normalizing relations with Iran. The nuclear issue on its own is less significant for Gulf leaders than Iran’s growing influence throughout the Middle East, which is being pursued through “conventional,” not nuclear, means.

Arab leaders have yet to adapt to the changing nature of Middle Eastern politics in an age of internally generated Arab upheavals, which many seem to regret. They must also adapt to the reality of the declining vital interests of major powers in a Middle East that is losing its strategic importance both as a regional order and in its capacity for mischief.

Farid El Khazen is a member of the Lebanese Parliament and a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. He is the author of several books on Lebanese and Arab politics.

He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.



Copyrights 2015, The Daily Star - All Rights Reserved


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