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The constants and the variables in US foreign policy in the Middle East

December 3, 2020 at 3:23 pm

US soldiers can be seen during a security patrol in Syria on 26 June 2018 [US Army – Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster]

If we go beyond the general readings of US foreign policy focused on higher national interests and the requirements of national security — which are constant principles in the foreign policy of almost every country in the world — and seek out instead more specific features of the policy in the region (with reservations about the term “Middle East”), there are five key constants in the modern era. Regardless of whether the president is Republican or Democrat, these features remain the same.

For a start, Israel is at the core of US Middle East policy. Preserving its security and qualitative military edge as a major regional power is a fundamental component of US strategy. Any other policy must be compatible with this principle, which is the overriding benchmark. It requires the US to provide military and financial support for Israel; diplomatic and political cover for its occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, as well as the siege of the Gaza Strip; and the Judaisation of the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. In addition, it means blocking any international measures against Israel, consecrating the latter as “a state above international law”, by vetoing any binding measures against Israel agreed at the UN Security Council.

This, however, does not mean that there is full convergence between Tel Aviv and Washington, or that US policy is always subordinate to Israeli desires. US administrations sometimes struggle to deal with the “spoilt child” and go against some of its goals, especially when they conflict with higher American interests, or with how best to serve Israeli interests and stability in the region, especially when the US vision for this contradicts that of the ruling coalitions in the occupation state.

There is also a need to maintain America’s overall domination of the region in the context of the struggle for global supremacy with rival major powers. However, this aspect of foreign policy has faced many challenges, with Russia breaching US influence on occasion in countries like Syria, Iraq, South Yemen and Libya. Some countries in the region have also escaped Washington’s embrace, notably Iran. And despite its membership of NATO and the adoption of free market economics, Turkey has also followed independent policies with some degree of success over the past two decades. Undermining US and Western influence, it has developed its own economic and military capabilities as well as international relations, emerging as a key regional player able to preserve its interests and alliances.

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It should be noted that in the past decade, US policy has shifted its priorities towards countering the rise of China, especially in the Pacific. This may have weakened Washington’s focus on the Middle East, but it has not affected the foundation of its foreign policy per se.

Moreover, US foreign policy is built around the need to maintain US control over oil-rich regions, especially the Gulf, to secure America’s oil supplies and those of its European allies, Japan and others at “reasonable” prices, using this dominance as leverage against rival powers. Although America’s need to import oil has decreased over the past few years, the essence of this US policy remains extant and constant.

America needs to maintain control over international trade routes across and through the region, and secure their continued accessibility commensurate with the interests of the US and its allies. No regional or international power must be allowed to block them, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal.

The Suez Canal [file photo]

The Suez Canal [file photo]

The final constant in US foreign policy for the Middle East is the need to secure support, protection and political cover for regimes allied to Washington, and to coerce or change regimes that diverge from US diktats.

The variables of US policy include the policies, measures and instruments that Washington uses to preserve its interests and implement the constants noted above. A number of factors are of relevance here, linked to the political, religious and cultural inclinations of the US president of the day and his team; global and US economic conditions; external threats to the US, perceived or otherwise; and competition with international rivals and major powers, and their political, military and economic behaviour that could affect or rival American interests in areas of US influence.

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There is no space in this article to tackle the theories that have sought to interpret US foreign policy and the directions that have shaped it. However, for the sake of brevity and simplification, it is worth mentioning that there are two main trends in US foreign policy.

The first is a conservative trend that assigns more value to US might and its strategic military, economic and political power. This trend springs from a supremacist viewpoint, claiming to represent the “Free World” and its religions, cultural heritage and values.

In this category we find the representatives of right-wing, racist and ultra-conservative religious forces, who find the Republican Party to be their natural home. When this trend takes control of the White House, US support for Israel takes on an overt intensity. Such administrations also rush to use economic sanctions and coercion; step up support for dictators; ignore repression and election rigging in allied countries; and resort to military intervention in contravention of international laws and norms.

Recent examples include the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, whose tenures presided over the 1991 Gulf War, the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Trump’s attempt to impose the “deal of the century” in Palestine as well as his transactional approach to Gulf rulers and other Arab countries.

The other trend, meanwhile, seeks to serve US interests by using the “soft” power of indirect and less crude methods. This trend deploys pretexts and instruments linked to the values of “freedom” more than those linked to the values of “might” and “power”, although it resorts to force when it is deemed necessary.

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The natural incubator of this trend is the Democratic Party, and it tends to show more understanding of ethnic, religious and cultural differences and diversity; invoke development and human rights (from within the US hegemonic perspective); use financial aid for political objectives; and invoke international “legitimacy”, UN platforms and the UN Security Council to punish dissenting regimes, before resorting to “hard” power. This trend usually seeks to reduce defence spending overseas, and exhaust all means available before resorting to military intervention. It also seeks to build international alliances and relations, and reach accords with international powers to manage shared interests and tensions, while preserving US supremacy, all in a way that avoids antagonising rival and emerging powers, and preserving relations with allied and friendly countries. Recent examples include the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and most likely, the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Consequently, the margin for change in US policy in the Middle East is limited, in terms of its fixed elements, tactics and lack of flexibility. No matter which trend is pulling the strings, US foreign policy will not side with the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation; will not side with peoples seeking to change corrupt and tyrannical regimes that serve US interests; and will not allow the resistance and “political Islam” forces, who have a project for independent civilisational change and revival, to assume leadership positions in their own countries.

However, the US may adopt a degree of pragmatism and realism when peoples succeed in imposing their will, or events go in a direction that do not suit US interests. Yet even then, Washington will seek to reconfigure itself to serve the imposition of its interests, by supporting its local “proxies” or “allies”, or using various means of obstruction and frustration to co-opt political regimes.

In conclusion, it should be noted that US policy is not a foregone conclusion or inescapable destiny. It is subject to change as history and human experience have shown. When people resolve to fulfil their legitimate right to independence, they will be able to impose their will and bring about their revival, whether Washington likes it or not.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.