Is America No Longer the Middle East's Greatest Power?
Russia’s intervention in Syria has won Putin a measure of grudging respect from regional leaders.
WHILE RUSSIA and China are likely to be the non-U.S. powers most active in the Middle East over the coming years, India, Japan and Europe have also stepped up their involvement in important ways.
India’s sense of itself as a great power has grown in recent years, and it accordingly seeks greater weight in the Middle East, a region Indian bureaucrats still refer to as “West Asia.” Several million Indian workers live in the Middle East, and the Gulf Cooperation Council is India’s largest trading partner. India has increasingly purchased energy from the Middle East and even adopted a rupee-based payment mechanism in order to skirt sanctions that prohibited purchases of Iranian oil made in dollars. In 2015, President Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian head of state to travel to Israel, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who has already traveled to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates—could become the first Indian PM to visit Israel later this year.
Indian interests are dominated by economic and security concerns, but also by geopolitics. Pakistan blocks Indian access to Central Asia, and Sino-Pakistani economic cooperation, including the development of a major Chinese-operated port at Gwadar, is seen as a threat. New Delhi has responded by seeking closer ties with Tehran, whose Chabahar port is a short distance down the coast from Gwadar and which has already received significant Indian investment. Chabahar also offers an embarkation point for a land route to Afghanistan, allowing India to bypass Pakistan and China entirely.
Economics has been the key driver of Tokyo’s increased interest in the region. The March 2011 tsunami devastated Japan’s nuclear industry, which generated a full quarter of the country’s energy needs. Following the disaster, Japan has emerged as the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas, and Saudi Arabia alone now supplies more than 30 percent of Japan’s oil imports. Postsanctions Iran, with the world’s largest or second-largest gas reserves, has prompted significant Japanese interest, and this year Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make the first trip to Tehran by a Japanese leader in thirty-nine years.
Abe wishes Japan to become a more serious global geopolitical player, and the Middle East fits into his government’s agenda. Under a revised interpretation of constitutional restrictions, Japanese Self-Defense Forces can now join peacekeeping operations and engage in collective security, and Abe has boosted defense spending to match the growing will to act. Tokyo has pledged billions of dollars in assistance to the region and committed funding to the anti-ISIS fight as well. In addition, Tokyo is using trade and diplomacy to demonstrate that Japan makes for a better partner than China—one that is more trustworthy and more supportive of regional order.
Finally, Europe’s major powers—primarily Britain, France and Germany—have stepped up their regional involvement in the face of refugee flows, terrorist attacks traced back to Syria and concern over humanitarian conditions in key countries. The United Kingdom and France led the charge for Western intervention in Libya, and France was widely reputed to be the hardest-nosed of the Western parties to the P5+1 talks on Iran, with the former foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, threatening on more than one occasion to scuttle the entire process over concerns about the weakness of U.S. negotiating positions.
Both France and Britain have embarked on new military deployments in Iraq, Syria and the Gulf, and both inaugurated new Gulf military facilities, marking a return of sorts to the region after more than half a century’s absence. Even Germany, the most hesitant of the major European powers to engage in overseas military ventures, has in recent years participated in anti-ISIS support missions in Iraq and Syria as well as a military advisory mission in Iraqi Kurdistan, which, while modest, nevertheless represent a milestone in the country’s postwar foreign policy.
AMERICAN OFFICIALS might be tempted to view increased Russian and Chinese involvement in the Middle East with optimism—if they wish to take on greater burdens in this most intractable region, after all, why not simply let them? Such a perspective, however, overlooks the way in which the Middle East is increasingly a commons for their competition with the United States.
Russia’s intervention in Syria, for instance, aimed to prop up the beleaguered Assad, whom President Obama had insisted must step aside, and directly targeted groups receiving material support from the United States. Russian air defenses in Syria, and the missiles and air sorties it has directed from Iran and the Mediterranean toward Syria, constrained the U.S. military’s freedom of action.
Acting together to circumscribe American power, Russia and China collaborated to prevent the passage of UN Security Council resolutions that would have increased the pressure on Assad, and literally joined forces to conduct naval exercises in the Mediterranean—widely viewed as a message to the United States and the West about their ability to project power. Moscow and Beijing, despite broadly cooperating with the United States during the Iran nuclear talks, also used their presence in the P5+1 to dilute and delay UN resolutions targeting Tehran.
Great-power activity in the Middle East is not only focused on the United States. India’s presence in the region is prompted at least in part by Delhi’s concern at being outflanked by China in Pakistan, and Japan and other Asian states that depend on Middle Eastern oil imports view warily China’s growing naval presence in the region. China and Russia, despite working together at times to balance the United States, are strategic competitors in Central Asia and may find themselves similarly competing for influence in Iran and elsewhere across the Middle East.
During the Obama administration, U.S. policy neither adapted to the resurgence of great-power politics in the Middle East nor reflected the reality that no return to the regional status quo ante was on offer. The key features of that order—a succession of relatively stable autocrats stretching from Morocco to Iran; American preeminence driven by interests in oil, counterterrorism and Israel; quiescent external powers hunting commercial deals if anything at all—have been transformed, likely irreversibly. Any sustainable regional security order that emerges from the ashes of its predecessor will need to feature a restored leadership role for the United States, but it will also have to factor in the increasing role of external actors.
The new administration will need a Middle East policy that aims to retain U.S. primacy and freedom of action in the region, forges great-power cooperation where possible, and prevents or mitigates damaging competition where necessary. A regional strategy with this objective should include four lines of action.
FIRST, THE United States should seek to deter Russian and Chinese actions that challenge American interests in the region. For example, Moscow’s presence in Syria has not merely hindered a resolution to the conflict there. It represents a broader strategic threat by empowering Iran and Hezbollah and posing a serious potential risk to U.S. forces based nearby. More vigorous U.S. pushback against Iranian forces and their proxies can drive home to Moscow the risks and limits of this alliance and widen any gap between Russian and Iranian interests, while minimizing the risk of a direct confrontation with Moscow.
More broadly, the best way to address such conflicts with other great powers is to prevent them in the first place. The lesson that American policymakers should draw from Syria is less that Russia is eager to confront the United States in the Middle East than that other forces will inevitably move to fill the vacuums created by absent American leadership. Washington should minimize the opportunities for further Russian and Chinese inroads by shoring up its own relationships with allies like Egypt, Turkey, Israel and the Gulf states. The United States retains a significant advantage over other external actors in capabilities, capacity and willingness to assist, and has broad potential influence across the region. The appetite for greater American engagement among most Middle East countries is high, and Washington has both plenty to offer, and real leverage over, regional partners.
Second, Washington should begin establishing a formal, multilateral regional security architecture for the Middle East. Such a structure could help set the regional agenda, deter misbehavior by both regional actors and external powers, broker differences among American allies, promote intraregional economic ties and provide outside actors an “address” for constructive multilateral engagement in the region. An effort to build such a structure would benefit from the newfound interest in multilateralism evident among the region’s key players and could leverage Europe’s experience with such groupings. Crucially, networking American alliances in this manner would magnify their value and diminish regional partners’ incentives to “shop around” in Russia and China for a better security arrangement.
Third, even as Washington seeks to manage its relationships with Russia and China in the region, the United States should actively promote the involvement of India, Japan and the major European powers (as well as allies like Australia and others) in regional diplomatic, economic and security affairs. This means encouraging such partners to increase their contributions to the financial and military costs of stability, security and development in the region, in return for a greater say in regional diplomacy.