Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is testing the health and strength of America’s alliance system. In Europe and Asia, American allies like Germany and Japan have rallied to defend an order that guarantees their security. In the Middle East, not so much.
When asked to increase energy production to help offset the consequences of sanctions against Russia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told French President Emmanuel Macron that Saudi Arabia preferred to stick to its production agreements with Moscow. The United Arab Emirates, another longtime US ally in the Biden administration’s niche, was equally cool, abstaining from the UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s aggression before backing a less substantial resolution at the General Assembly. Israel, which must coordinate its anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran military activities in Syria with Russian military authorities and which has deep ties to Russia and Ukraine, seeks to avoid alienating the United States or Russia as he navigates the chaotic interface between them.
The Obama administration has been a disaster for the network of American alliances in the Middle East. The premature withdrawal from Iraq; the failure to develop a constructive policy towards the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt; the sad consequences of the intervention in Libya; and the serial miscalculations in Syria that ended up putting Russia and Iran in the driving seat at the cost of a brutal civil war and the collapse of Lebanon created a deep impression of incompetence and unreliability of the United States in the region. President Obama’s frantic race, from the perspective of regional powers, for a nuclear deal with Iran that would sacrifice the core security interests of longtime US allies to facilitate America’s exit from a region that ‘She no longer wished to defend deepened the feeling of despair.
While US policy was superficially more favorable to our Middle Eastern partners during the Trump era, few in the region were impressed with President Trump’s competence or confident in his grip on power. Across the region today, good relations with Russia and China are seen as necessary complements to a waning US alliance of dubious value. If America is to prevent further gains for Russia and China and restore our central position in the Middle East, our policies will have to change.
The Ukraine shock may force a reset in Washington, but so far the Biden administration has shared both the Obama administration’s skepticism about the value of our alliance network in the Middle East and his blindness to the danger of weakening ties. The fundamental problem is the inability to understand how much Middle Eastern energy still matters both to the global economy and to American power.
Many policymakers and commentators radically underestimate the value of the Middle East relationship slowly built over decades. This is partly due to green fantasies about the speed of the energy transition, partly due to increased US and Canadian fossil fuel production which until recently had weakened the grip of the Organization of Exporting Countries. of oil on global energy prices, and in part to a failure to grasp the importance of deep political and commercial ties with the Middle East to key American industries ranging from technology to weapons.
It is important to the liberal world order that abundant supplies of oil and natural gas flow steadily from the Middle East at affordable prices. It matters that major oil producers like Saudi Arabia balance their desire for higher prices with a long-term concern for the health of the global economy — and that U.S. officials are able to influence their deliberations. It matters that oil-rich but geopolitically insecure oil states look first and foremost to the United States for high-end weapons systems, bolstering the American arms industry and reducing the cost of defense for American taxpayers. It is important for China to understand that the United States’ deep ties to oil-producing countries mean that its energy supply would be crippled in the event of a confrontation with the United States. Taiwan. It is important that the United States enjoy a privileged partnership with Israel’s dynamic and defense-oriented technology sector. And it matters that Turkey sells drones to Ukraine.
While US “soft power” goals in the region (the spread of democracy, the establishment of a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state) may be out of reach even with intense US engagement, our most important have never been so easy to reach. . For decades, Arab-Israeli tensions have complicated the path of American regional diplomacy. Today, most Gulf states are strategically aligned with Israel. Thanks to Russia’s assertiveness in Ukraine, Syria and the Caucasus, Turkey seems open to a new type of relationship with Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh. Properly managed, a powerful network of alliances in the Middle East will strengthen America’s overall peace strategy at a reasonable cost.
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Appeared in the March 4, 2022 print edition as “The Cost of Middle East Neglect”.