Biden’s iteration and USA’s weakness in Middle East

Despite its power and preponderance, the US lost credibility in the Middle East; it is not a dependable friend for the Arabs, especially the Gulf monarchies.

Published: 09th August 2022 01:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th August 2022 06:20 AM   |  A+A-

Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha

Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha

“Between friends, frequent reproofs make the friendship distant,” says the venerable Confucius. This is appropriate to describe the American policy toward the Middle East under President Joe Biden. Speaking to the leaders of the Gulf Arab countries in Jeddah last month, the American President declared: “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.” While the statement might sound reassuring, one must consider the reasons. Why say the obvious? The credibility gap is neither recent nor sudden. 

The September 11 attacks severely upset the American strategic worldview. The Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’ was a kneejerk reaction; in terms of the targets and strategy, Afghanistan and Iraq proved worse than Vietnam. True, the US had something to show in Iraq; transition to democracy, an inclusive constitution, greater rights and political space for Kurds and other minorities, and political culture of leadership transition through ballots and not bullets. For example, the parliamentary elections were held last October, and more than ten months later, Iraqi leaders are still struggling to form a new government. These are remarkable achievements. 

However, the costly, ill-conceived and politicised ‘War on Terror’ brought down the American preponderance. Only a few months before the September 11 attacks, many were basking in the rise of the American century and ‘unipolar’ world. Untangling the costly military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan became the priority of the post-Bush administration. In the process, President Barack Obama started the decline of the American preponderance in the Middle East, a position it enjoyed since the late 1960s when Britain left the region. 

For all practical purposes, the US has been a Gulf power, shored by strategic partnership and military presence. The belligerent policies of the bigger powers vis-à-vis their neighbours (Iran and Iraq), insecurity of the Arab regimes (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), and the traditional pro-western orientation of ruling regimes (Bahrain and Oman) ensured and consolidated the American presence in the Gulf. These were further cemented by the bipartisan American commitments to the security and wellbeing of Israel. 

However, for the past two decades, the American policies in the Middle East, especially the energy-rich Gulf, have been in shambles. The pivot to Asia—later Indo-Pacific—made the Middle East less attractive. As the popular protests were spreading in the Arab world, the Obama administration took time to respond. Still, when it did, it disappointed both the protesting masses and the beleaguered Arab rulers. The belated American response disappointed the former, and the latter felt let down despite their prolonged support for and service to American interests. Hosni Mubarak became a new addition to the list of ‘friends’ abandoned by Washington in the hour of their need. 

This was in contrast to the Russian support for Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Despite its power and preponderance, the US lost credibility in the Middle East; Washington is not a dependable friend for the Arabs, especially the Gulf monarchies. 

President Biden added new lows. Growing American sanctions and hostilities are bringing Iran, China and Russia closer than before. While these countries have been cooperating for some time, the Biden administration has provided a strategic purpose to their policies. 

These countries are moving away from petrodollars and trading oil in non-US currencies towards weakening the American stronghold over their economy. For some time, China has been using barter trade both to weaken the US factor and increase its leverage vis-à-vis Iran. Thus, the effectiveness of American sanctions vis-à-vis these three countries will be less effective. 
The Ukraine crisis also undermined the Israeli-Russia relations manifested through various unfriendly public statements by Russian leaders and the fears over the future of the Jewish Agency office in Moscow. In addition, growing tension between the two would limit Israeli military operations against Iranian groups and Hezbollah in Syria. The crisis also resulted in Moscow, a traditional arms supplier, becoming the recipient of Iranian drones, a sign of Russian vulnerability and technological expertise. 

Under President Putin, Russia has been engaging with conflicting players in the region; Israel and Palestinians; Fatah and Hamas; Syria and Türkiye; Iran and Saudi Arabia; and Egypt and Türkiye. Though the political outcomes of these engagements were limited, the weakening of American influence has resulted in several regional countries reacting favourably to Russian overtures. The survival of the Assad regime was a major incentive for them to view Moscow favourably. Until now, President Putin lacked an overarching strategy to capitalise on these engagements, but President Biden’s policy on Ukraine galvanised Moscow to strategise its relations with the Middle East.

President Biden broke the ice through his belated engagements with Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman during his recent Middle Eastern visit, but resuming the heydays of the pre-Khashoggi bonhomie with Riyadh will be arduous. While Russia, China and Iran may not fill the ‘vacuum’, they will severely limit the US from regaining its hegemony in the Gulf.

P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there


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