By Paul EvancoeThe Middle East has been undergoing a profound realignment over the last decade, but in view of the vacillating and inconsistent U.S. Foreign Policy in that region, 2013 ended with some emerging patterns that are very disturbing.
The US?s performance dealing with Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iran last year, reflects it has no clear direction or actionable foreign policy when dealing with post-Arab Spring politics. Neither does it have a clear path for what it wants the Middle East to look like. The U.S. has shunned Israel, its staunchest ally in the region, as it has openly conceded its opposition to Iran?s nuclear weapon program, angering both the Israelis and Saudis. This flip flop was not based on what the U.S. administration necessarily wanted, but rather on what it didn?t want, and that was further war in the region. This in turn, contributed to a Middle Eastern regional power struggle based upon superpower realignment, and the rekindling and reemergence of Cold War-like surrogate country opposition struggles.
Further, after drawing a line in the sand after the Assad regime?s use of chemical weapons against his own people, the Obama administration accepted Russia?s Putin-brokered lifeline for avoiding war in Syria. The Russians can also be directly credited as providing the push for a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear program. How curious we must appear to most of the world during these times.
The primary consequence of this U.S. lackluster Middle East foreign policy leaves Saudi Arabia looking isolated and vulnerable. In truth, Saudi Arabia is as much threatened by a radical fundamentalist Iran as it is by one that possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal along with the delivery systems necessary to annihilate its neighbors. Easily tripling Saudi Arabia?s population of 26.5 million, Iran?s population currently exceeds 79 million, with the goal of expanding to 150 million by the end of this decade. That?s a lot of mouths to feed, but it?s also a source of warm bodies for the Muslim Brotherhood, ensuring expansion of Ayatollah Khamenei?s brand of Islamic Fundamentalism throughout the region.
Through its staunch support for the Arab world?s minority Shia, Iran is able to exert its influence in broken neighboring states like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, while at the same time exercise a destabilizing influence in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Its quest to develop nuclear weapons has only emboldened Iran?s post-revolutionary Islamic Fundamentalist leadership, making Iran even more dangerous. Iran must therefore be contained.
The Obama Administration?s attempt at reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran has left both Israel and Saudi Arabia out of the conversation. It is clear to Tel Aviv and Riyadh that Washington has a blurred foreign policy with numerous competing strategic interests to balance. One of the Administration?s stated goals is the pivot to Asia and that cannot be achieved unless further military conflict is avoided. While it may be radical, the Iranian regime is not stupid and they not only understand the nuances of this, but use it to their advantage.
There are additional dynamics that factor into the equation. There has long been an underlying anti-Saudi sentiment stemming from both the right and the left side of the U.S. policymaking elite, and it is gaining traction. The left relished the Arab Spring while the right embellished declining U.S. dependency on imported Mideast oil. An enthusiastic media gave the Administration a free pass instead of reporting that the Administration has no intention of protecting the status quo in Israel and Saudi Arabia along with the negative ramifications of not doing so. This damaged the U.S. relationship with these two key allies to the point of non-repair.
A combination of changing U.S. priorities that include the pivot to Asia, declining oil dependency, and war weariness, along with a latent streak of strong anti-Saudi sentiment on both the left and right of American politics, has led to U.S. concessions with Iran. As a result Russia has gained immense stature as the only adult in the game.
What might the future hold for the Middle East?Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan all recognize the necessity to shore up the new/old Egyptian regime and establish a solid moderate conservative alliance encompassing Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Jordan. Because of the nature of those involved, this alliance will, in varying degrees, oppose Iranian-backed Shia advancement, secular liberalism and most importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood. Following the ousting of Egypt?s President Morsi, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE pledged an Egypt aid package totaling more than $12 billion dollars in loans, grants, and petroleum product shipments. In fact, during a visit to the UAE last October, Egypt?s interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi provided insight into Egypt?s self-image by describing Gulf security as ?indivisible from Egypt?s own security.?
When looking at what?s next for the Middle East, the path forward isn?t as simple as it may seem. Egypt, with a population of 80.7 million, is the Arab world?s most-populous state, and it has clear ambitions to dominant regional Arab leadership. The problem is that it lacks the means to support its ambitions. For Egypt, a vulnerable, but still rich Saudi Arabia could be viewed as an unlimited source of funding for its ambitions, and that is a thorn in the side of the Arab alliance.
This brings us to Israel and the apparent inability for U.S. policy makers to adequately understand the dynamics involved and appropriately deal with them. Underreported by the U.S. media for apparent reasons of political correctness, is the fact that Saudi Arabia is a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause; first, for reasons of Arab-Muslim solidarity, and secondly, because of the need to keep the Palestinians focused westward towards the West Bank and Jerusalem and not eastward towards the vulnerable Hashemite monarchy of Jordan.
Israel also performs two important strategic functions for Saudi Arabia. Being a nuclear power itself, Israel provides the ultimate nuclear deterrent against Iranian aggression regardless of its vacillating relationship with Washington. If Iran attacks Israel with nuclear weapons there can be no doubt that Israel will respond with a nuclear counterattack and turn Iran into something that more closely resembles the face of the moon. Secondly, and far less understood by Washington policy makers, Israel provides an important physical barrier between people-rich, resource-poor Egypt and people-poor, resource-rich Saudi Arabia. It is an abstract barrier that Saudi Arabia values even if it is not acknowledged, and it is a powerful arrow in the quiver of Israeli regional policy.
When it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel is an unsigned ally of Saudi Arabia ? yes, strange bedfellows they are indeed. Had the Arab Spring succeeded, it would have very likely secured Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy across North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, rivaling or surpassing any other state-backed threats to Israel?s existence. Obviously, this was a threat of immeasurable proportion to Israel?s existence, as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, resulting in their behind-the-scenes symbiotic relationship. This relationship, built on alignment of interests to prevent Iran?s nuclear weapon program from succeeding and the desire to contain Egypt?s ambition to rule the Arab world, will continue not out of love for one another, but out of mutual understanding that neither can prevent catastrophe without the other.
To be sure, Washington is no longer a relevant player. Mr. Putin and Russian diplomacy have filled the diplomacy vacuum and they have reasserted themselves as the Super-power lead. We shall see what?s next for the Middle East as each plays their hand.
**Paul Evancoe is a novelist and freelance writer. His action novels ?Own the Night,? ?Violent Peace? and ?Poison Promise? deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and are available at AmazonBooks.com