America Can't Abandon the Middle East
You can pivot any time you like, but you can never leave.
The United States has confirmed its intention to direct increased attention—to “pivot”—toward Asia. “We will of necessity,” a 2012 Department of Defense report states, “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” Pronouncements of this kind are often accompanied by theories concerning the expected shift in resources—in this case from the Middle East—and this was no exception. How will the “pivot” impact this region?
Consider the factors that have affected U.S. standing in the region has been challenged in recent years: Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, the erosion of U.S. influence in Iraq, the difficulty in impacting events in Syria, the Arab monarchs’ doubts about U.S. reliability and questions regarding the future of relations with Egypt. To some, these difficulties and the announced shift toward Asia indicate that the United States is increasingly hard pressed to advance its policy in the Middle East and is looking elsewhere.
Despite the drive to allocate resources and attention to the Pacific and domestic economic constraints, a U.S. abandonment or significantly decreased presence in the Middle East is unlikely. Not only is Washington capable looking toward Asia and remaining in the Middle East—walking and chewing gum at the same time—but even if the administration wished to withdraw from the region, it is conceivable that circumstances would prevent it. Many U.S. interests and concerns remain centered there and point to a willingness to intervene when necessary, suggesting that the United States will continue to play a sizeable role in regional security for at least the foreseeable future.
Aside from public statements referring to a change in U.S. policy, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s description of the next decade as the “Asian decade,”concerns about a diminishing relevance for the Middle East are rooted in several issues. This includes increased U.S. domestic energy production and the likelihood that Washington will wean itself from Middle East energy in the future; public claims regarding a reduced threat from al-Qaeda; and the notion that United States should devote its resources and attention elsewhere—to the challenges of Asia or even domestic considerations.
Yet, energy independence does not translate into withdrawal from the global market. Al-Qaeda affiliates and sympathizers in Yemen, Mali, Syria, Libya and Algeria do not appear to be going anywhere. And devoting attention to another region does not necessarily signify abandonment of another.
President Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia in November 2012, during which he was forced to respond to the unfolding conflict between Israel and Hamas, is a prime example. Long-term considerations must sometimes take a backseat to short term crises. Despite a desire to focus on Asia, events in the Middle East may not oblige.
This is not a zero-sum game, and the United States is capable of maintaining involvement in two regions—if not more—at the same time. In other words, a shift to Asia does not necessitate an abandonment of the Middle East. Indeed, U.S. concerns and interests suggest the opposite.
The Energy Market
U.S. oil production rose by 25 percent in the past four years, and the country is expected to supply all of its energy needs by the end of the next decade. But it would be wrong to assume that eliminating domestic dependence on Middle Eastern oil will remove any reliance on these oil-producing states. The United States would need to continue to ensure access to Persian Gulf oil in order to maintain the stability of the global energy market. This was illustrated in early 2012 when, in contrast to its stance on the Iranian nuclear issue, Washington asserted that freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz was a “red line.”
Obama’s goal of promoting global disarmament has encountered significant setbacks, most notably in Iran’s aim to become a nuclear power. If Iran succeeds, it could cause a domino effect of regional proliferation. The United States was, and remains, the largest external power present in the region and the only one capable of serving as a counterweight to Iran’s power and attempting to prevent further proliferation, as well as safeguarding Pakistan’s arsenal. For these reasons, the U.S. connection with and presence in the greater Middle East remains essential.
The Peace Process
Despite Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy forty-eight hours after being sworn into office in January 2009, and despite him calling the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a “national security priority,” U.S. efforts in this area have not borne fruit. But the argument that progress toward a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will make it easier to implement struggling U.S. initiatives in the Arab world in general, and toward Iran in particular, still bears much weight in the United States. Obama’s intended visit to Israel on March 20—his first as President—may indicate a new attempt to advance this process in his second term.
U.S. relations with Israel are traditionally defined in terms of moral obligation, common cultural and political values, and joint strategic interests. Nevertheless, there are some in the United States who no longer perceive Israel as an asset and various critics have gone so far as to depict it as a burden. However, Israel remains an important strategic partner for the United States—the militaries of the two countries share intelligence and combat doctrines, for example—and joint development efforts contribute to U.S. defense industries. Furthermore, despite some criticism, support of Israel remains popular among a large portion of the American public—and abandonment of the Middle East would likely be perceived by this population as an abandonment of Israel. Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel is perhaps intended to reassure constituents and Israel of a continuing U.S. commitment.
The Terror Threat
In the United States the terror threat is considered lower than it was after 9/11. Yet it appears that anti-American Islamic fundamentalists are seeking to enter the vacuum created by instability and the collapse of old Arab regimes. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s expansion of operations in Yemen, al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in Syria and the hostage situation at the Algerian gas facility (for which Moktar Belkmoktar’s al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, claimed responsibility) are a few examples. They illustrate the extent to which the post-revolutionary transition period has increased the threat posed by al-Qaeda, its affiliates and supporters. U.S. withdrawal from the region would make little sense in this regard—it would neither reduce this threat in general nor remove America as a target.
The scope of U.S. weapons sales in recent years, directed primarily to the Gulf states, is unprecedented. From 2008-11, agreements with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates totaled $70 billion. In addition, in November 2012, the agency overseeing foreign arms sales formally notified Congress that it had approved the possible sales of sophisticated aerial-defense systems. Such sales are blatant attempts to reassure and strengthen its U.S. allies in the region. Moreover, the value of the sales and the potential for future ones are important considerations, particularly in light of the slow U.S. economic recovery.
The Next Move
U.S. strategy in the Middle East is shaped by many factors: tense relations with new regimes and skepticism from old ones, increased multilateral action, little effort put into the peace process, withdrawal from Iraq—and soon Afghanistan—the increasing likelihood of U.S. independence from Middle Eastern oil and public statements regarding a shift toward Asia. All these considerations suggest that U.S. influence and interest in the region may be diminishing. To some, this is evidence that the Middle East is no longer at the top of its priority list.
But even if it wants to leave, U.S. interests and short-term crises will likely prevent such a move. Nevertheless, Washington may need to reconsider its current strategy—and adjust policy accordingly—so that it reflects its primary interests. It cannot continue down a path that seems only to convince others of its waning influence and desire to leave.
Yoel Guzansky is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University and former Iran coordinator at Israel’s National Security Council. Miriam Goldman is an intern at the INSS and MA student at Tel Aviv University.