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Wednesday, March 20, 2013
America Can't Abandon the Middle East
Yoel Guzansky, Miriam Goldman
The United States has confirmed its intention to direct increased
attention—to “pivot”—toward Asia. “We will of necessity,” a 2012
Department of Defense report states,
“rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” Pronouncements of this kind
are often accompanied by theories concerning the expected shift in
resources—in this case from the Middle East—and this was no exception.
How will the “pivot” impact this region?
the factors that have affected U.S. standing in the region has been
challenged in recent years: Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, the
erosion of U.S. influence in Iraq, the difficulty in impacting events
in Syria, the Arab monarchs’ doubts about U.S. reliability and questions
regarding the future of relations with Egypt. To some, these
difficulties and the announced shift toward Asia indicate that the
United States is increasingly hard pressed to advance its policy in the
Middle East and is looking elsewhere.
the drive to allocate resources and attention to the Pacific and
domestic economic constraints, a U.S. abandonment or significantly
decreased presence in the Middle East is unlikely. Not only is
Washington capable looking toward Asia and remaining in the Middle
East—walking and chewing gum at the same time—but even if the
administration wished to withdraw from the region, it is conceivable
that circumstances would prevent it. Many U.S. interests and concerns
remain centered there and point to a willingness to intervene when
necessary, suggesting that the United States will continue to play a
sizeable role in regional security for at least the foreseeable future.
from public statements referring to a change in U.S. policy, including
former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s description of the next
decade as the “Asian decade,”concerns
about a diminishing relevance for the Middle East are rooted in several
issues. This includes increased U.S. domestic energy production and the
likelihood that Washington will wean itself from Middle East energy in
the future; public claims regarding a reduced threat from al-Qaeda; and
the notion that United States should devote its resources and attention
elsewhere—to the challenges of Asia or even domestic considerations.
energy independence does not translate into withdrawal from the global
market. Al-Qaeda affiliates and sympathizers in Yemen, Mali, Syria,
Libya and Algeria do not appear to be going anywhere. And devoting
attention to another region does not necessarily signify abandonment of
President Obama’s visit to
Southeast Asia in November 2012, during which he was forced to respond
to the unfolding conflict between Israel and Hamas, is a prime example.
Long-term considerations must sometimes take a backseat to short term
crises. Despite a desire to focus on Asia, events in the Middle East may
is not a zero-sum game, and the United States is capable of maintaining
involvement in two regions—if not more—at the same time. In other
words, a shift to Asia does not necessitate an abandonment of the Middle
East. Indeed, U.S. concerns and interests suggest the opposite.
The Energy Market
oil production rose by 25 percent in the past four years, and the
country is expected to supply all of its energy needs by the end of the
next decade. But it would be wrong to assume that eliminating domestic
dependence on Middle Eastern oil will remove any reliance on these
oil-producing states. The United States would need to continue to ensure
access to Persian Gulf oil in order to maintain the stability of the
global energy market. This was illustrated in early 2012 when, in
contrast to its stance on the Iranian nuclear issue, Washington asserted
that freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz was a “red line.”
goal of promoting global disarmament has encountered significant
setbacks, most notably in Iran’s aim to become a nuclear power. If Iran
succeeds, it could cause a domino effect of regional proliferation. The
United States was, and remains, the largest external power present in
the region and the only one capable of serving as a counterweight to
Iran’s power and attempting to prevent further proliferation, as well as
safeguarding Pakistan’s arsenal. For these reasons, the U.S. connection
with and presence in the greater Middle East remains essential.
The Peace Process
Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy
forty-eight hours after being sworn into office in January 2009, and
despite him calling the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a “national security priority,”
U.S. efforts in this area have not borne fruit. But the argument that
progress toward a political settlement between Israel and the
Palestinians will make it easier to implement struggling U.S.
initiatives in the Arab world in general, and toward Iran in particular,
still bears much weight in the United States. Obama’s intended visitto Israel on March 20—his first as President—may indicate a new attempt to advance this process in his second term.
relations with Israel are traditionally defined in terms of moral
obligation, common cultural and political values, and joint strategic
interests. Nevertheless, there are some in the United States who no
longer perceive Israel as an asset and various critics have gone so far
as to depict it as a burden. However, Israel remains an important
strategic partner for the United States—the militaries of the two
countries share intelligence and combat doctrines, for example—and joint
development efforts contribute to U.S. defense industries. Furthermore,
despite some criticism, support of Israel remains popular among a large
portion of the American public—and abandonment of the Middle East would
likely be perceived by this population as an abandonment of Israel.
Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel is perhaps intended to reassure
constituents and Israel of a continuing U.S. commitment.
The Terror Threat
the United States the terror threat is considered lower than it was
after 9/11. Yet it appears that anti-American Islamic fundamentalists
are seeking to enter the vacuum created by instability and the collapse
of old Arab regimes. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s expansion of
operations in Yemen, al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in Syria and the hostage situation at the Algerian gas facility (for
which Moktar Belkmoktar’s al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the
Signed-in-Blood Battalion, claimed responsibility) are a few examples.
They illustrate the extent to which the post-revolutionary transition
period has increased the threat posed by al-Qaeda, its affiliates and
supporters. U.S. withdrawal from the region would make little sense in
this regard—it would neither reduce this threat in general nor remove
America as a target.
scope of U.S. weapons sales in recent years, directed primarily to the
Gulf states, is unprecedented. From 2008-11, agreements with Saudi
Arabia and the United Arab Emirates totaled $70 billion. In addition, in
November 2012, the agency overseeing foreign arms sales formally notified Congress that
it had approved the possible sales of sophisticated aerial-defense
systems. Such sales are blatant attempts to reassure and strengthen its
U.S. allies in the region. Moreover, the value of the sales and the
potential for future ones are important considerations, particularly in
light of the slow U.S. economic recovery.
The Next Move
strategy in the Middle East is shaped by many factors: tense relations
with new regimes and skepticism from old ones, increased multilateral
action, little effort put into the peace process, withdrawal from
Iraq—and soon Afghanistan—the increasing likelihood of U.S. independence
from Middle Eastern oil and public statements regarding a shift toward
Asia. All these considerations suggest that U.S. influence and interest
in the region may be diminishing. To some, this is evidence that the
Middle East is no longer at the top of its priority list.
even if it wants to leave, U.S. interests and short-term crises will
likely prevent such a move. Nevertheless, Washington may need to
reconsider its current strategy—and adjust policy accordingly—so that it
reflects its primary interests. It cannot continue down a path that
seems only to convince others of its waning influence and desire to
Guzansky is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security
Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University and former Iran coordinator at
Israel’s National Security Council. Miriam Goldman is an intern at the
INSS and MA student at Tel Aviv University.
Source: http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/america-cant-abandon-the-middle-east-8232 Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.