The United States has been attempting to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than ten years, lessen its military presence in the Middle East, and refocus limited resources on Asia. The United States’ determination to downgrade the importance of the Middle East in its overall strategy was strengthened by regional and global events, and the military “pivot” is already well under way. In a period of austerity and severe power rivalry, both in the region and globally, the problem for American policy is how to maintain its surviving and very significant interests in that region. The new Biden government shouldn’t squander the chance for a fresh start.
As a result of lower energy prices and the global recession brought on by COVID-19, Gulf Arab partners are more amenable to peaceful resolution of the proxy conflicts they have been waging around the area. However, their relative poverty will also limit their capacity to make investments in the stabilization of weaker neighbors, such as important nations like Jordan and Egypt. The Islamic Republic of Iran, meanwhile, is heavily sanctioned and skilled at cheaply influencing the region. Once a result, as the virus starts to fade, the balance of power in the region may even benefit the Iranians. The Biden team must abandon the ineffective “maximum pressure” of the Trump administration in favor of a combination of intelligence cooperation, diplomacy, financial, and military tools that can successfully thwart or deter subversive Iranian activity while motivating Tehran to return to the nuclear negotiating table. And the Pentagon must undertake a zero-based evaluation of its force posture in the Persian Gulf region to ensure it is both efficient and effective in executing its key missions there.
In order to further conflict resolution, diplomacy has historically been the United States’ most successful tactic in the Middle East. There may now be opportunities to establish power-sharing governments that advance stability and restrict the freedom of action of Islamist terrorist movements in Yemen and Libya. Washington cannot allow Israelis and Palestinians to continue their deadlocked conflict; however, rather than attempting to restart negotiations, it should adopt a long-term strategy to rebuild the foundations for compromise between the two societies while demanding that they both refrain from destabilizing unilateral actions and work to enhance freedom, security, and prosperity for those who live with the conflict on a daily basis.
The Biden administration must also reestablish boundaries in relationships that have been seriously out of balance as a result of President Donald Trump’s irresponsible behavior. The United States’ security promises to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are all questioned, and all three countries wish to maintain a tight relationship with the United States. Washington may engage these important allies in discussions about where American interests begin and end and where partners’ own preferences and behaviors offer significant barriers to deeper collaboration while pursuing the essential de-escalation and nuclear diplomacy with Iran. As in any healthy partnerships, maintaining respect and harmony requires open communication and well defined limits.
CHALLENGES FOR USA
In a period of austerity and severe power rivalry, both in the region and globally, the problem for American policy is how to maintain its surviving and very significant interests in that region. It’s time for a fresh strategy to the Middle East, and the upcoming Biden administration shouldn’t lose this opportunity. The region will appear quite different as the pandemic wave recedes, and in this new environment, there will be both opportunities and risks for the United States. The decisions that President Joe Biden must make are neither straightforward nor inexpensive, but this essay will offer a suggested course of action that identifies crucial relationships and sets forward clear goals.
The United States needs to step up its diplomacy to quell other regional disputes that provide troublemakers like Iran and Russia opportunity to expand their influence, even as it strives to lessen the overwhelming military focus of its regional policy. There may be a silver lining in that regard: the Gulf states’ current penchant toward regional adventurism may be lessened as a result of their financial hardship. In order to fight their regional rivals for control of the future regional order, Gulf states have supported armed groups in Syria, Yemen, and Libya with money, supplies, and political influence since 2011. The majority of Gulf assistance to Syrian insurgents stopped years ago, but its effects may still be seen in the dispersed nature of the opposition. But in Libya, Turkey and Qatar supported one side while the UAE, Egypt, and Russia financed, armed, and supported General Khalifa Hifter’s brutal assault on Tripoli – all in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Of course, two Gulf powers have actively fought in Yemen. Trump administration policy has been erratic and unclear on all three of these deadly civil wars, allowing regional actors to advance their own agendas without being restricted by any American red lines. However, Gulf states’ assertive behavior has not led to improved security or more American engagement; instead, it has raised bipartisan concerns in Congress about the future of U.S. arms sales to these states.
Maybe their improved financial situation will now motivate them to give peace a chance. In instances where achieving leverage in previous years would have required a considerable commitment of resources, a relative drop in both resources and commitment by some very hardheaded actors may give the United States more clout. While Libyan groups have achieved a provisional deal on new elections and are debating a procedure for power-sharing, the UAE has already withdrew militarily from Yemen.
The United States has the most opportunities to provide a route toward conflict resolution during the Yemeni crisis. The leaderships of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have started to realise the increasing and unsustainable cost of their engagement in the fight. They have not only fallen short of their objectives, but they have also seriously harmed the stability of Yemen and the surrounding area, which has benefited Iran and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. To further advance the peace process, the maritime coalition’s objective to stop the shipment of weapons to the Houthis has shown promise. The Houthis might commit heinous acts to invade Saudi territory, target Saudi infrastructure, or inflict heavy losses on Saudi citizens. But in the absence of such escalation, the United States might constructively use some diplomatic efforts to persuade outside parties to lessen their engagement in the conflict, to support the U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations, and to discourage unhelpful behavior on the part of its regional allies. The reckless designation of the Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist group by the Trump administration in January 2021 greatly complicates such an endeavor.
Many in U.S. policy circles find it difficult to accept the reality of lower priority, diminishing interests, and consequently limited influence in a region where the country has long held hegemonic power, as Mara Karlin and I described in late 2018. But the policy instruments that have given the United States its biggest strategic gains in this region can be learned from history. In addition, it was diplomacy, along with the outstanding U.S. military effort, that brought together a historic 38-nation coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and pave the way for the Madrid Peace Conference. Diplomacy was also responsible for Egypt’s exit from the Soviet orbit and entry into a negotiated peace with Israel. The dynamics of the Middle East have changed as a result of COVID-19, among other things, and the United States now has options to advance toward a more stable area without making costly or lengthy commitments. Washington should be able to do less and not have its regional hegemony threatened by concentrating on limiting geopolitical rivalry inside the area, challenging Iranian behaviour more effectively, and using diplomacy to resolve issues when practicable. American interests are still at risk, and the virus serves as a reminder of how precarious social services and government are in far too many areas of the Middle East, posing a long-term threat to stability and security. It’s possible that the United States has found a way out of hell, but it’s not yet apparent whether that path leads upward or downward.