Flight from the Middle East

The US’ withdrawal from the Middle Eastern theatre is not just linked to oil. Economic and political reasons explain this change in approach.

There was a time when the Middle East was at the top of the US agenda. Since 2008, however, this has no longer been the case, and the effects have begun to show. American disengagement is contributing to the deepening polarization between Sunni and Shia, while the destabilization of the region has almost passed beyond the point of no return. Washington has become bogged down in a scenario with many uncertainties. Moreover, in the short term, the US cannot extricate itself without enormous sacrifices.

President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, a historic event due to its content and openness, is now a distant memory. That was 4 June 2009, back when America was mired in the consequences of the collapse of its fourth-largest bank, Lehman Brothers, which had gone bankrupt in September 2008. Obama did not mince his words and openly stated his willingness to dialogue with Islam. “I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles – principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”, he said at the University of Cairo. Today, these words have been forgotten. The world has become more divided and geopolitically unstable, a process that is not solely due to the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed Morsi.

In order to better understand Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East, we must consider two key factors. First, there is the US sub-prime mortgage crisis that led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. By committing to the bailout of almost the entire domestic financial system, Washington was obliged to reduce spending on foreign policy interventions and peacekeeping. The key consequence of this was that the US had to cut its defence budget. Congress estimates that the US spent around 800 billion dollars on the war in Iraq. While according to the Financial Times in December 2014 the war in Afghanistan had cost just over 1,000 billion dollars, or around $3,000 per US citizen. This was too much for Obama, too much to justify to the taxpayer, too much to explain to Congress and too much for the federal budget. The solution was to employ the less conventional approach of using drones which, for a number of reasons, continue to appeal more to US citizens and their ruling class.

The second factor that led to the Obama administration’s disengagement can be seen as a strategic error, based on the desire to present a clear change of direction from that of former President George W. Bush. The withdrawal from Iraq and then Afghanistan were decisions largely based on Obama’s electoral promises. Once in power, he had to proceed with these commitments. Failure to do so would have severely undermined approval for the Obama presidency. But US withdrawal from Iraq arguably contributed to the polarization of the secular conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The current problem is that religious radicalisation is shifting elsewhere.

As has been noted by the Combating Terrorism Center of the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, power vacuums in the area have allowed Islamic State (IS) a foothold in the Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya and Uzbekistan. It is possible that IS reach could extend even further, thanks in part to the complex and murky games being played by Russia and Turkey.

The “pivot to Asia” refers to the shift in US foreign policy away from Europe and the Middle East and towards East Asia. Introduced by Hilary Clinton when she was the secretary of state, this policy has not diminished. On the contrary, the more the Chinese economy slows down and the more Beijing’s financial turbulence grows, the more the US is encouraged to deal with this region. Another reason that Washington is less eager to be involved in the Middle East now is that the US has achieved substantial energy independence, including through innovations in the extraction of shale gas. The priority, post Lehman, is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asia and negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. In the meantime, events in the Levant and the Middle East have taken a back seat. Beyond attempts to reduce terrorism, the US has little reason for involvement in the area, especially if we consider the successful nuclear agreement with Iran, a White House priority since 2008.

Intelligence analysts do not expect a significant change in the near future. The soft power that was largely destroyed by Bush junior has never been fully restored by Obama. According to the Pew Research Center, the international influence of the US has not increased during Obama’s two terms. Together with the “pivot to Asia”, this failure in foreign relations will be the most negative legacy of this administration. It is unlikely that the next president will be able bring Washington back to the centre of the international stage. And there is little popular will in the US to do so unless external events were to draw attention back to the problem.

Right or wrong, only time will tell. In the short term, US disengagement in the Middle East is the source of some perplexity. Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State continue an unprecedented fight for the political and economic management of the Levant, a conflict that also involves the West in so far as it is considered by these groups as both a symbolic target and one that is functional to the acquisition of power in the territories of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In the medium term, if it is possible to counter the advance of what we can consider ‘functional terror’, the White House will have to make a clear decision: focus foreign policy on the Middle East once again or maintain the current arrangement. In the first case, it will be crucial to make some radical choices, in diplomatic terms, such as whether to openly support Iran or Saudi Arabia. In the latter case, Washington will have to manage the effects of the instability that they themselves will be creating. In all probability, this would mean a new diplomatic, financial and perhaps military commitment. These are the difficult decisions that will face the new inhabitant of the White House and John Kerry’s successor as secretary of state. 

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