By Riad Kahwaji and Dr. Theodore Karasik,
Tension is high throughout the Greater Middle East region starting from Mauritania in North Africa all the way to Pakistan with terrorist attacks, uprisings and wars breaking out in various parts. There has never been a period in recent history where this region was so volatile. One might say it is nothing new to the troubled region. However, there are new factors that make this period different than what it was over the past decades. The most important one is the diminished role for the United States.
Looking closely at the situation in this region, starting with North Africa, the U.S. is hardly present in the most important battle on Al-Qaeda in Al-Maghreb with France leading the way in flushing the radical Islamic fighters from Mali. In the Levant, namely in Syria, Washington has rejected all calls for either intervention or assisting the rebels in their fight against an Iranian-backed regime, and has remained idle watching radical Islamic groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda establish a foothold in a highly strategic place like Syria. What is more astonishing to many observers is to see the Russian Navy move in full strength off the Syrian coastline conducting maneuvers and supplying arms to the Syrian regime. Even the Patriot missiles deployed under a NATO umbrella along the Turkish-Syrian borders are mostly supplied by European countries – Germany and the Netherlands. In the Arabian Gulf region the size of the U.S. fleet was reduced with the withdrawal of two aircraft carrier strike forces. Finally in Afghanistan the United States will soon start the drawdown of its forces that will lead for their full withdrawal by end of 2014.
As debate rages in the United States on sequestration – that could lead to $600-billion in defense budget cuts – observers in the Middle East wonder about the possible effect of this on the U.S. footprint in the region. U.S. allies in the region worry further when they hear American officials talk about their new priorities shifting towards Asia and the intention to reduce involvement in the Middle East. Significantly, this will feed into the Iranian propaganda that the United States is a fading power and Tehran will be the new rising dominant power in the region. Overall, Iran is likely to be very happy and deem the Islamic Republic’s multi-year strategy of removing the U.S. from the region as a success, giving Tehran a needed boost as Syria falls into political chaos. For many years, the administration of President Mahmood Ahmadinejad, repeatedly called for the U.S. to leave the region, specifically the Gulf, and allow the countries of the region to guarantee their own security and to create a new Gulf security architecture minus America.
The United States and its allies have been locked in a Cold War with Iran and its axis allies in the Middle East. While Washington’s Arab allies have been waiting to see whether U.S. predictions of the Iranian regime collapsing under the weight of economic sanctions, they are surprised to see the U.S. about to pull out due to economic strains and change in foreign policy priorities. This will be a big shock to a region that only ten years ago had over 200 thousand U.S. soldiers deployed in it, and hardly any presence of Russian or Chinese naval vessels. The situation now can best be described as moving from the extreme interventionist policies of the George W. Bush Administration to the extreme non-interventionist policies of the Barak Obama Administration that has been branded as “leading from behind,” while some regional officials have called it “isolationist” policies. There must be a middle ground where the U.S. could lead collective efforts on the ground rather than intervene unilaterally or exclude itself completely.
There are regional concerns that there appears to be a new school of thought rising in Washington, to fit American foreign policy and military requirements in the second decade of the 21st century, is what some call “Neo-Isolationalism,” which seeks to withdraw America from regional arenas but without a clear plan on who will fill the void. This Neo-Isolationalism school thinks that, over time, the U.S. will not need to be the dominant power in the Gulf region, mainly to protect oil supplies and their transit to customers and allies in the East. The reason behind the strategic shift is not just about money; the abrupt change is the reality that America cannot be everywhere at once, and also that energy resources are closer to home, particularly in extracting energy wealth from shale oil and gas.
Neo-Isolationalism in American foreign policy is also allowing Arab countries to police themselves when it comes to regional upheaval, leaving America happily on the sidelines. The Arab Spring allowed such countries as UAE and Qatar to demonstrate their air power capabilities in a NATO-led coalition against Libya leading to the ouster of Qaddafi. European allies also are increasing their share of responsibility despite economic problems at home. The trend is continuing with Syria, where Arab countries are carrying part of the burden, and Mali, where African troops are becoming more involved, as the Greater Middle East region undergoes tectonic shifts.
The rise of American figures like Senator Ron Paul and the impact of the Tea Party that advocate reducing U.S. involvement in international issues and concentrating instead on domestic issues could be an indication of things to come in Washington that officials in the Middle East should probably be prepared for. Their policies got America’s number one ally in the region, Israel, very concerned. So America’s Arab allies are worrying too. The GCC states are likely to be very unhappy with the U.S. strategic shift. Primarily, the Gulf States’ worst nightmare is coming true: Not only will the U.S. footprint be reduced drastically but also that Iran will likely become a nuclear power and that Washington will be dealing directly with Tehran and bypassing key Gulf allies. The GCC states will be forced to turn to the East for security guarantees and it is likely that India and China will be the benefactors. Russia may not be far behind in the coming years.
Clearly, America is in strategic retreat in the region, and the lack of will for Washington to involve itself in future Greater Middle East contingencies is growing stronger. Sequestration, if fully implemented, will kill America’s key tools for power projection—Air power, navy and special operations—if they are required. And the impact of sequestration will be global, not regional. Providing intelligence to allies and using drones from behind will only weaken America’s voice when Washington needs to be heard during a crisis or a conflict. In the Greater Middle East, Washington will only be interested in keeping mil-mil relations healthy despite reductions, tolerate disruption in pol-pol discussions, and concentrate on developing a ballistic missile shield against Iranian or other missiles. Clearly, technology and robots—from afar– is now America’s weapons of choice.
Consequently, we need to ask ourselves: What will happen to the U.S. military presence in the Middle East if the sequestration is implemented? How much will the effect be on the Arab-Iranian balance of power? What will happen to NATO? How will NATO be perceived in the region taking into consideration that most Arab officials believe the U.S. is NATO? So there are many questions regarding sequestration’s impact on U.S. foreign policy and Washington’s international priorities that need to be addressed by the current Obama Administration. It is true that aggressive and unilateral actions often lead to troubles and wars, but also indifference and over caution sometimes leads to inviting undesired troubles and wars. A middle ground must be sought.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA & Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director, Research and Consultancy, INEGMA