I do not know whether the decline of Washington’s interest in the Arab world and its problems will be a curse or a blessing. Only time will tell, but it is a fact that we are looking at the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf moving down the Biden administration’s list of priorities. The “special” relationship between the two sides is changing; this could be the end of America’s love affair with the region.
There are several reasons for this new reality. Some are linked to the Arab countries, while others have no relation to the Arabs and do not affect them directly.
America’s interest in the region began in the first half of the 20th century, but was really established post-Second World War in connection with two things: oil and Israel. US interest increased in the latter part of the century with the emergence of other, no less important, variables: Iran and its military and strategic ambitions; political Islam and its influence on the streets; and some elements of the latter turning to violence and cross-border terrorism.
Saudi Arabia has been the main US focus for oil in order to keep production and prices under control. Meanwhile, Israel’s technical and military hegemony in the region has been ensured, no matter what the cost.
Things generally went to plan with Saudi Arabia and Israel, but there were one or two surprises along the way, such as the 1973 October War between the occupation state and Egypt, and the resultant geographic and strategic changes, as well as the oil crisis that followed.
Ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, it has been clear that conflict with the US is inevitable. It is true that there has been no direct war between the two protagonists, but the threat is ever-present. In the meantime, regional proxy conflicts exhaust them both.
Washington’s relationship with political Islam has passed through two stages. The first saw the Americans using young Arabs and Muslims as cannon fodder in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The second was more of a hostile connection, beginning with the end of the Soviet occupation and the presence of thousands of Muslim fighters in Afghanistan with nobody to fight. They had no good reason to stay there other than that their own governments did not want them back. Some did, however, return to their homelands, while others roamed across the region and beyond. Yet others aimed their guns towards the US, their one-time sponsor.
As the new millennium approached, new variables were imposed on everyone. Interests changed, as well as animosities and alliances. Oil has declined in importance and value as wells are depleted and Western economies have developed less expensive alternative energy sources.
Israel is now on the way to becoming an accepted neighbour in the region. We can expect it to become an essential part of its political and strategic fabric, and soon. America’s success in convincing the Arabs that Iran is their true enemy has led to an unprecedented wave of normalisation with the occupation state that will have major regional repercussions.
The “normalisation alliance” is working to neutralise Iran and bring the country to its knees. The process is dependent on how Tehran manages its affairs with others. The hostile force in this case is not the Arabs but Israel, which will remain a thorn in Iran’s side, inflicting harm whenever and wherever it can.
The US has also succeeded in turning political Islam into a local issue for every country. Washington is keen to provide logistical assistance, expertise and advice, with remote supervision as long as “Islamic terrorism” remains local and its victims are not American citizens. However, the fear of “home-grown terrorists” in the US is palpable, even as Middle East-inspired violence wreaks havoc in Europe but has largely failed to cross the Atlantic.
As the Middle East star wanes in American eyes, other parts of the world have risen to prominence on the US radar. Russia and Asia, especially China and the Korean Peninsula, have become a headache for military and political officials in Washington.
The problem with America’s new “enemies”, with the exception of North Korea, is that they are threatening its interests far from their own territories, echoing US conflicts overseas for more than six decades. What’s more, their weapons match and even exceed the capabilities of America’s.
The stage for Washington’s issues with China is almost the whole world, even the US itself, but not the Chinese mainland. The same is true with Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has gained the upper hand in its relationship with the US. Moscow even stands accused of interfering in the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections.
The style, size and complexity of the US conflicts with China and Russia make the Middle East’s autocrats look like inexperienced amateurs with no weapons at their disposal other than money and oil. On their own, they are simply not enough.
The belief in Washington is that Asia is both the problem and the solution. It is good if things settle down and head towards coexistence, but is bad if hostility grows. The Middle East, meanwhile, has become less important, less dangerous and less enticing for the Americans.
This has nothing to do with President Biden or whoever else sits in the White House, which is why it is a mistake to think that his administration will annul the diplomatic legacy left behind by his predecessor. Apart from globalised issues such as trade with Europe and climate change, there is no serious difference between Donald Trump and Biden in their respective perception of China, North Korea and Israel, except in terms of style and form. Trump was motivated by his inflated ego and made everything personal; Biden is calmer, more sober and more inclined to operate within the traditional institutional machine.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 25 January 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.