The Middle East in transition


Criticism of American Middle East policy has been thoroughly hashed out. President George W. Bush employed a highly idealistic policy premised on fighting terrorism, regime change and a democratic domino theory that would, fancifully, remake the region into a stable bastion of democracy. The Obama Administration lacked a policy per se, but reacted to events, including mopping up the mess left by others. Less forceful on democracy, it embraced related concepts, including people power – and in its first term invested heavily in civil society. Much to the chagrin of the GCC, they also engaged Iran – in an attempt to curtail its nuclear program and possibly to normalize relations after decades of antipathy.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy remains vague. The traditional implementers of American foreign policy – the State Department, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency – are working to uphold the status quo in an increasingly complex, evolving region. The White House itself prioritizes defeating “Islamic extremists”, isolating Iran and giving lip service to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This has created opportunities for regional players to strengthen ties to the US Administration. But a clear policy it is not.

For decades, American leadership and guidance helped regulate this restless region by unwritten rules, which above all else promoted stability and worked to prevent large-scale conflicts involving multiple nations. To be certain, there was never a time that could be aptly described as tranquil, but generally, the status quo was recognized by all parties. Red lines were crossed, and leaders, factions and nations constantly worked to better their respective positions. But in the end, American leadership, based on military power, economic influence and diplomatic heft, generally met challenges and ensured a level of predictability and upheld a precarious balance.

Whether one marks the end of that period with September 11 or the ill-fated 2003 US invasion of Iraq, we have now entered a new transitory era. Today we see a Middle East-North African region far less predictable and more dangerous than at any time since the end of World War I. This era, in which the rules remain unclear, is marked by chaos. Power vacuums exist in large swaths of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. By taking advantage of opportunities, Iran has expanded its influence. Domestic political uncertainty is the norm. Regional powers have emerged, or re-emerged, yet haven’t fully determined how they will cooperate or check each other. And the role and extent of influence of outside powers, namely the US and Russia, remains hazy.

But what we are witnessing today is merely a transition. While all nations, to varying degrees, will play a part in determining the coming era, the future of the region will almost certainly be determined by the evolving relations between Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. As always, Iran will remain an 800-pound gorilla, but it will always be an outlier with limited influence. In fact, it can be argued that its regional power is at its zenith only when Arab divisions prevent its isolation. The United Arab Emirates has worked diligently to bend the region, but its relative power is primarily confined to dollar diplomacy. No matter how economically or militarily powerful, Israel will remain an isolated island, which can only enter regional politics as an active participant when the Palestinian question is resolved peacefully. Agile Jordan has long been forced to react to regional events while tending to the homefront. Iraq lacks cohesion.

One should not expect a revival of Washington’s leadership role. Its own miscalculations aside, this is the nature of evolutionary change. Quite simply, while the transition period may be painful and dangerous, change is inevitable. The region’s destiny has long been shaped by outsiders. But as nation-states mature, it is only natural and indeed, in the long run necessary, for the region itself to establish its own rules.

This is why Cairo, Ankara and Riyadh will play such an enormous role in the coming era. Egypt has long been the bellwether of the region’s politics and culture. Yet in the midst of the Nasser years, it fell prey to Cold War rivalries, which led to a relative decline in its heft. But the times are changing, and Cairo’s decision-making today suggests a new course. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Turkey largely removed itself as a Middle East player. But it has reemerged in recent decades, and while it will never recover its former position, it is unlikely to disappear from regional calculations in the coming years. Riyadh has long played a cautious role, providing financial and diplomatic support to others. But its newfound assertiveness suggests it is intent on self-reliance to secure its interests.

How the three work together, and with others, will determine the region’s future. Some Americans will continue to raise alarm bells about how challenges are addressed and problems resolved. Criticism will continue to be leveled. But in the end, Washington has proven incapable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, building democracy, easing sectarian tensions, altering Iranian behavior, ending civil wars or unilaterally defeating terrorism. On all these and other issues, Washington and other members of the international community can play important supporting roles. But ultimately, these and other challenges must be addressed by the region itself, led by its most influential players.

David Dumke is a veteran analyst on US-Arab relations. He teaches political science at the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter @dtdumke