Engaging the Middle East Still Necessary in the Post-Pax Americana

By Karim Elkady

As the TrumpBiden competition heats up in the final stretch of the 2020 presidential race, both contenders emphasize policies that seek full or partial disengagement from the Middle East. While the current administration has recently secured a diplomatic breakthrough with the signing of the Abraham Accords among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, this achievement could be understood as part of an emerging trend of decreasing American security commitments toward the region. The United States is instead encouraging regional partners to make their own security arrangements. Because of the human and financial costs of two endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—major distractions from other strategic priorities—Washington has developed Middle East fatigue. A recent sign of this was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s threat to close the embassy in Baghdad if Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, fails to prevent Shia militias from targeting the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Iraq.

Since the Obama administration, the United States has shifted considerable attention away from the region toward more pressing strategic priorities, such as the rise of China and growing Russian assertiveness. As the United States becomes more energy-secure due to its own shale gas and oil production, disengagement becomes more appealing. But limiting America’s focus on the Middle East to counterterrorism and containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be a miscalculation. The United States would abandon the strategic leverage it still holds in the region over its two main competitors: China and Russia. This leverage rests on the alliances the United States built over the years with pivotal regional states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf States, as well as its military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the region. Turning away from the Middle East would give away decades of American strategic investment in a region that was, and will remain, part of future great power competition.

China and Russia in the Middle East

Since China became the world’s largest net importer of crude oil—of which 44 percent flows from the Middle East—Beijing has established strategic economic ties with all oil producing states in the region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has also become the largest investor and trading partner with Middle East states, securing contracts worth billions of dollars in construction investments and trade with countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Israel. To defend its growing regional interests, including the security of its expatriate population and the passage of trade with Europe and Africa (60 percent of China’s total trade) through the Middle East, China has already built its first naval base in the region, in Djibouti.

After being absent for decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has also returned to the regional scene, gaining military footholds in its traditional areas of operation in Syria and Libya. As such, Moscow has become an influential player in the Eastern Mediterranean, creating direct implications for Europe’s southern borders and NATO’s theater of operations. Moreover, Putin has been able to cement new strategic ties with America’s traditional regional partners in Egypt and Israel.

China and Russia are coordinating their regional efforts, as their votes regarding Syria and Iran in the UN Security Council suggest. Also, each power coordinates independently with other regional players. The China–Iran strategic agreement reflects a growing trend in this direction. The Russian–Turkish understanding over Libya reflects Russia’s attempt to bring Turkey—a NATO member—into its orbit, disturbing NATO’s internal cohesion and triggering disagreements with other alliance members. Chinese and Russian activities indicate that the Middle East still matters and allow both countries a strategic opportunity to shape the region in their favor.

Since U.S. participation in World War II battles in North Africa, the United States has been directly involved in Middle Eastern politics. The interests that kept the United States in the region after the war were similar to the interests that motivate China today: energy security and denying other majors powers leverage. When Obama articulated the pivot to the Indo-Pacific away from the Middle East, his arguments rested on the flawed assumption that Saudi Arabia and Iran would learn to coexist and share the region together. However, his assumption never materialized due to the absence of a concerted diplomatic effort to achieve it during the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal and after the agreement was finalized in 2015. Thus, China and Russia were left free to meddle in the region, filling the vacuum and shaping the emerging new security order.

America’s Middle East Opportunity

The United States still enjoys the infrastructure of a regional security guarantor. It deploys the largest foreign military footprint (somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 troops) and maintains air and naval bases in Arab Gulf states to secure the flow of oil and conduct its counterterrorism campaign against militants in Syria and Iraq. As the United States emerges from the COVID health crisis, it needs to formulate a smart strategy that engages the Middle East and makes use of America’s full spectrum of power: diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic. Working closely through and with its regional partners would improve America’s global posture, particularly if this strategy avoids unilateral action and military adventurism. The key is to devise a comprehensive strategy that takes into consideration America’s broader strategic interests in the region and integrates it into Washington’s policies toward China and Russia.

Over the past 75 years, the United States has adopted various strategies to engage the region as part of its containment of the Soviet Union. Some were successful, while others were counterproductive. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations partnered with Great Britain in promoting security and regional stability after World War II. Later, the Nixon administration adopted the twin-pillared strategy of working with the Saudi and Iranian monarchies to thwart Soviet influence and schemes around the Gulf. Even the Carter doctrine of 1980, which reflected an emerging trend of American unilateralism, had a strong coordination component with regional states, including Egypt, which had just switched to a strategic partnership with the United States.

The problem with current American engagement stems from Washington’s lack of interest in articulating a broader regional strategy. Current engagement is highly militaristic in focus and ignores other significant instruments of power that can be used in favor of its global strategy. America’s regional partners value their strategic relationship with the United States, but it is these partners that China and Russia are reaching out to with investments in infrastructure, nuclear technology, trade, and arms sales. The leverage the United States still enjoys in the Middle East is an asset for America’s global position that should be wisely defended against Washington’s competitors. It shouldn’t be abandoned.

Karim Elkady is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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