What will the post-America Middle East look like?


In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Martin Kramer makes the argument frequently made here that American dominance in the Middle East is rapidly waning. 

But Kramer believes that this is on purpose:

The United States, after a wildly erratic spree of misadventures, is backing out of the region. It is cutting its exposure to a Middle East that has consistently defied American expecta­tions and denied successive American presidents the “mission accomplished” moments they crave. The disengage­ment began before Obama entered the White House, but he has accelerated it, coming to see the Middle East as a region to be avoided because it “could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.” (This was the bottom-line impression of the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to whom Obama granted his legacy interview on foreign policy.)

If history is precedent, this is more than a pivot. Over the last century, the Turks, the British, the French, and the Russians each had their moment in the Middle East, but prolonging it proved costly as their power ebbed. They gave up the pursuit of dominance and settled for influence. A decade ago, in the pages of this magazine, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that the United States had reached just this point: “The American era in the Middle East,” he announced, “. . . has ended.” He went on: “The United States will continue to enjoy more influence in the region than any other outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was.” That was a debatable proposition in 2006; now in 2016, Obama has made it indisputable.

The question to ask, then, is what’s next? Kramer doesn’t believe the US will be replaced by any single outside power. Rather, numerous powers will have greater or lesser influence. 

He’s right. The trend in the Middle East will continue to be that which has prevailed over the last decade. The Status Quo Bloc (i.e. with dictatorial and Sunni (though non-Islamist) leadership) and the Resistance Bloc (i.e. led by the Shi’ite Islamist Iran) will continue to compete through proxy conflicts (e.g. Yemen and Syria) and terrorism sponsorship. 

The third main influence (which almost, but never quite congealed into a bloc), the Sunni Islamist continuum, will continue to mount considerable challenges through war and terrorism (e.g. Islamic State et al), and non-violent movements (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood). Turkey, the only Sunni Islamist country, will continue to be frustrated by the fact the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs are more powerful than it and the various Sunni Islamist non-state actors reject Turkey’s leadership pretentious. 

An outcome of the US shift from the Middle East is the increasing cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc—both have realised that they need each other in the face of less American support and a resurgent Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Nothing is overly public, of course, but few are denying it. 

The more important consideration is how outside players act. 

Barring a turn-around in US policies after the January inauguration of a new president (some adjustment will happen, but the US public doesn’t have the will to stomach what would be necessary to repair US fortunes in the region), the US will continue supporting, through arms sales and soaring rhetoric, Israel and the Status Quo Bloc. However, it will largely allow the region’s players to fight it out themselves. 

This allows Russia, in particular, to increase its influence in the region. Russia is a country that ruthlessly backs its friends, and isn’t put off by their sloppy human rights records. It also acts only according to what it perceives as its own interests. It backs Syria, not because of an ideological commitment to the Resistance Bloc, but because it has extensive Russian naval infrastructure in Syria, and because Russia does not like the principle of a government being overthrown by its people (given how unpopular rule-from-Moscow is in many of Russia’s far-flung, Muslim-majority areas). While Russia finds itself on the same side as Iran over Syria, this doesn’t mean Russia is wedded to the Islamic Republic. Israeli officials have visited Moscow on multiple occasions over the last little while, as have Egyptian officials—proof that Russia is enjoying the perceived lessening of American skin in the game. Still, despite warming ties, Russia and the Status Quo Bloc are wary of each other, due to the latter’s still-close ties to America, Russia’s ties to Iran, and the financial support of Islamist groups in Russia’s Muslim-majority border regions.

China has been taking an increasing interest in the Middle East, as it seeks to expand its economic empire and sources of oil. It has developed good ties with Israel, the Status Quo a Bloc and the Resistance Bloc, and is unlikely to take sides. Still, its huge reserves of money buy it influence, and it’s a cheaper market for offensive and defensive weapons than the Americans. This recent article about China’s Middle East interests is worth a read.

India has recently become close to Israel, on account of Israel’s impressive defence export potential, its willing to trade in nuclear technology with India, and that both countries face a determined Islamist terrorist threat. It is this fear of Islamism which sees India in favour of supporting the secular dictatorships / monarchies in the Arab world, as it (correctly) fears that greater democratisation in the Middle East will lead to increased instability and the rise of Islamist governments or terrorist movements. And it’s distrust of Pakistan is shared by Iran, which helps the India–Iran relationship. Like China (and the entire world economy), India wants stability in the Persian Gulf, to allow the continued and reliable flow of oil; Indian policies will, more than any other priority, reflect that one.

So, what’s the answer? The Middle East dynamic will continue to be shaped by the Status Quo–Resistance–Sunni Islamist dynamic, with each looking for supporters outside, and outsiders wary, though willing to use their influence. 

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