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US Hegemony In The Middle East: Before And Under Trump Era – Analysis



Hegemony is an idea that argues for the indispensable role of a hegemon to sustain an international liberal order (ILO), and the most standard way of locating this role is within the context of the Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST). The HST refers to a cluster of approaches interested in the role of dominant power in global politics. The underlying claim of these approaches is that the international political and economic system is at its most stable when it is under the control of a single state or ‘hegemon.’ The hegemons usually fall one of the three categories by their behavior. First is a benign hegemon’, which provides global leadership and absorbs the cost of sustaining the order. Second is a ‘coercive hegemon, which forces other states to pay for its hegemony. Lastly, third is a ‘transactional hegemon,’ which recovers the cost without coercion simply by reaping the benefits of its global position. 


Meanwhile, America has been the hegemonic state since 1945. It has shaped the contemporary global liberal international order. It provided some of the public goods, for instance, supported the post-Second World War Europe (Marshall Plan) recovery of Europe, and provided the Breton woods system of institutions to provide global financial order, and ensured the security and stability to the global oil market, by extending security cover to the Gulf oil-exporting states and security to sea-lanes of communication in the global commons. The US supported stability over its values and worked with the existing non-democratic ruling regimes in the Middle East. The precedence of realism over idealism paid the US dividends, as it was successful in forming a large coalition of the states that shared threat from the Soviet Union and communism. 

The second face of the US hegemony became evident in its approach to the Arab-Israel conflict. The US provided unparalleled economic, military and diplomatic backing to Israel. That many ways represent the US domestic choice and civilizational connection with the land of Israel. Its strategy was to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over other regional powers; this successfully avoided the need for the American directly arms confrontation the Arabs. However, by the time the Cold came to an end, the US establishment had developed a position that the Middle East a dividing gap, which either failed or was reluctant to integrate into the American sphere of influence. Its discourse on the danger to the American way of life was linked with Iran, Iraq, and terrorism. It used the opportunity provided by Saddam Hussian’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 to warn the Arab world that the territorial status quo is a permanent position of the American hegemony. Thereby the US legitimized the application of the pre-emptive strike strategy, setting up more military bases and perceiving a policy of regime change in the Gulf region. Thus, a close link was developed between the American heavy military presences in this part of Asia with the survival of the American Empire. 

While the third face of the US hegemony was evident from the historic meeting between the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Saudi King Abdulaziz, in 1945, and culminated into the 1974 agreement, in which the kingdom agreed to sell its all oil resources in the US dollar denominations. By taking into a swing global oil export on broad, the US cemented the American dollar hegemony over the global oil market. 

Still, to a large extent, the US image in the Middle East had been benign, except Iran and later Iraq, majority ruling regimes in the region had multifaceted ties with the US. The Clinton administration adopted to dual containment policy to isolate both these Gulf States regional and compel them to give up the quest for minimum military deterrence against the US by acquiring nuclear weapons. Despite the US maximum pressure strategy on Iran, the later has gained progress in the domestic defense industry and received Russian and Chinese support. Iran’s regional rise received new imputes after the US removed two anti-Iran regimes (Taliban and Saddam Hussain) from power.  This in turn, affected the US hegemonic role and relations with the other regional powers of the Middle East.

Offshore balancing in the Middle East

After the global financial crisis of 2008, the US also felt the Chinese geopolitical weightage in the Indo-Pacific region had witnessed the expansion, and there was limited US resistance to it. It in this context, Barak Obama became the first American president that called for Asia pivot or balancing strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region. While in the Middle East, the US wields significant military influence and long-exist security alliance structure, but in other areas, like, trade, oil, finance, and technology, most of the region’s demands have been satisfied by the emerging global powers.


The shift in the US strategic focus even overshadowed the US military role In the Middle East. When the Arab Uprising erupted, President Obama withdrew backing to the Egyptian military regime and in other places engaged with a light military footprint. The Obama strategy was to externalize the strategic and operational burden of war to human and technological surrogates. Despite pressure from the allies and growing human rights violations scale, Obama approached the Libya crisis and the Syrian civil war with prudence and declined military commitment. Instead, the US joined the other global powers and signed with Iran the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015 and allowed Russia to fight rebellions and terrorist outfits in Syria. 

Donald Trump Era 

President Trump’s foreign policy was disruptive because it seeks to revise this ILO with which American hegemony was associated since 1945 as it has, in his worldview, given America a raw deal. Consider his inauguration speech in 2017, where he vehemently argued that “we have enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry. Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We have defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.” Or that, “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into despair and decay.

To correct these imbalances President Trump has resorted to transactional bilateralism or transactional hegemony. He put the ‘America First’ strategy for defining bilateral engagements and gave up multilateralism. Thus, Trump’s rise represents a revolt against American international liberalism. He echoes the apprehension of White middle classes that have witnessed their economic prosperity dwindled and believed that the US policy of acting global policeman had not benefited its interests. 

While the other regions seem to able and capable of sustaining the American disengagements in various areas, the Middle East especially seems to witness greater regional divided and intervention of other global powers. For instance, after the US came out of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it did not result in the end of the process; rather, it propelled other regional actors to come together and transform it into Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).  Although Japan has retained its cautious and critical views toward China’s global and regional economic initiatives, this did not prevent Japan from working with China to build a regional economic order as a way of reducing negative impacts of American high tariff policy on its trade and investment. 

Likewise, Trump’s repeated questioning of NATO’s relevance forced the Europeans to embrace the old idea of defense of Europe. The European Commission (EC) wrote in June 2017, “we have moved more in the last 2 years than in the last 60.” It has made entry into the defense area with the launch of the European Defence Action Plan (EDAP) in November 2016 and a proposal for the European Defence Fund (EDF) in June 2017. The EC will also have a new Directorate General for Defense Industry and Space that will be tasked to build an open and competitive European defense market.

All those policy initiatives aim at achieving strategic autonomy of the EU through industrial dimension, by establishing a defense industry that can single-handedly produce the equipment and the capabilities that European countries require to defend their territory and their interests. Although those developments batter indicates the EU attempt to create a degree of hedge against the US uncertainties, it does not mean divorce in the trans-Atlantic alliance. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of NATO in London, there emerged a new consensus among allies to take more action to balance Beijing’s growing power. 

Middle East Policy

When President Trump came into office, by the time, the traditional US-Saudi strategic alliance based on oil and security was no longer a defining link. The shale revolution in the American oil industry made the US world’s largest oil producer. Now the US oil industry was a competitive player in the global oil market and domestically linked with the livelihood of the millions of American citizens. The US demand to the kingdom became cooperation and reciprocity. This became evident when global oil prices meltdown and the US shale industry was losing market. Then, many in the US called the Saudi oil strategy harmful to American oil interests.

It was in this context; President Trump stated that “I will do whatever I have to do… to protect… tens of thousands of energy workers and our great companies,” and added that plans to impose tariffs on Saudi Arabia’s oil exports into the U.S. were “certainly a tool in the toolbox.” Later, when sensed a lack of understanding on the part of Saudi Arabia that the ruling regime would not last in power for two weeks without the backing of the US military. The US lawmakers expressed similar sentiments, as Senators Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Dan Sullivan of Arkansas introduced the Strained Partnership Act calling for the removal of US troops and military equipment from Saudi Arabia unless it slashed output. Earlier, Trump advocated arms diplomacy when he picked Saudi Arabia his first foreign official destination. At the concluded his of his trip, the US signed arms deal of worth US $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and later multi-billion arms deals were signed with other Arab Gulf states.

Further, when the US signed the JCPOA, then Iran had favorable geopolitical status in the region. The Iran-backed regional proxies were dominating scenes in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon Gaza Strip, and Yemen. The Obama era strategy of allowing the regional balance of power to flourish was criticized by pro-Zionist and Iran havoc establishment. After taking office, President Trump decertified the JCPOA and also termed the Iranian regime as a rogue in his new strategy on Iran. It re-activated its sanctions on Iran on November 4, 2018. Yet the US withdrawal did not address belligerent geopolitical and sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel is still concerned with Iran’s nuclear program and its growing military capabilities.

And by singling out Iran as the only source of regional instability, the Trump Administration, the US further complicated the regional order. Iran has further deepened regional alliances to hedge against the US aggressive behavior and has extended military ties with Russia and Iran. The Iran-Russia intervention into Syria successfully saved the falling Assad regime. The efficacious Russian military intervention and China’s geo-economic embedded Silk Road diplomacy attracted and modified other regional actors of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and thereafter, they intensify cooperation with both emerging global powers. 

Similarly, the US settled its long-held reserved political decisions on the Israel-Palestine conflict in favor of Israel. President Trump sided with the Israel and put forward a plan that further disintegrates Palestinians. As the US unilaterally recognized Israeli sovereignty over occupied Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. In return, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decided to cut off ties with the Trump administration in December 2017. To force the Palestinian side to bow before its decisions, the US closed down the PLO office in Washington, discontinue its US $200 million assistance for Palestinian Authority, and eliminated its contribution to the zero levels to UN Relief and Work Agency.

When Trump unveiled the Middle East Peace deal on January 28, 2020, the Palestinian leadership rejected it. The deal also was rejected by the European Union, Arab League, African Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The proposed vision called for setting up the Palestinian state within four years but, the plan barely has a vision for contiguous geography for Palestinians and falls short of giving Palestinians a sovereign state. 

Thus, the US Middle East policy under Trump has continued the Obama era diplomacy of minimizing the costs of its hegemonic presence in the region but followed a different strategy. He emphasized transitional bilateralism while exercised maximum pressure on Iran and Palestinian leadership and concurrently demanded greater coordination of its Arab allies and Israel to counter Iranian influence in the region. Consequently, the US is maintaining its military hegemony over a region that is divided both ideologically and in threat perception and wrecked by wars, civil wars, and non-democratic regimes. The contemporary state of affairs has alleviated strategic anxieties among regional actors and has intensified crisis between the US and Iran. 

*About the author:  Mumtaz Ahmad Shah is a Ph. D. research scholar in the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, India. ([email protected])

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