When this article appears, Americans will have cast their votes, whether by reporting to the polls or through mail-in ballots. Judging by the number of the latter, voter turnout is already high. It has been a long time since the get-out-to-vote appeals have been so strident. This is a natural product of a polarisation so intense that it appears to threaten US national unity. Conjuring up memories of the post-Civil War period a century and a half ago, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said that, if he wins, he will make the return to unity the highest priority for his administration.
This climate is not the making of the Donald Trump era alone. During his last year in office, president Barack Obama was aware that some of the most crucial setbacks for his administration were due to the inability to bridge the deep chasm between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, which increasingly forced him to resort to executive orders which can only be overridden by a two-thirds congressional majority. If division has deepened, the period following the announcement of the results, which could take some time given the more than 60 million mail-in ballots that will have to be counted, will reveal how much further it will deepen, especially given expectations that the results will be heatedly contested. However, what concerns us here is the impact of the US elections on the Middle East, and the Arab region in particular.
As divided as the US is at present, between right and left and Republicans and Democrats, Washington’s general foreign policy trends are indicative of a determination to pull out of the Middle East. This inclination had already begun to show during Obama’s second term, by which time it was clear that his administration’s policies towards the “Arab Spring” and in support of the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood as the engine that would ostensibly steer the Arab and Islamic worlds to a blissful democratic paradise, had collapsed utterly. On top of its newfound disappointment in existing regimes, Washington watched as the spring breezes shifted to hot gusts of civil discord and strife aggravated by the widespread incompetence of post-revolutionary, post-jubilation political elites.
The net result of the policy was a series of civil wars, massive bloodshed and destruction, and deeply divided states, all of which prepared the perfect soil for the spread of religious extremism and terrorism. Donald Trump, in his first term, said he wanted to get the US out of the “endless wars” and to shed allies who cost the US so much without giving anything in return. He felt it was safe to withdraw from the region because the interests closest to heart, such as oil and Israel, were no longer in danger. The US was self-sufficient in oil and now that it had become a major producer again, rising oil prices no longer bothered it at all. As for Israel, it was now wealthy, technologically equipped and militarily superior. Also, Trump had dedicated a good amount of his first term to girding Israel with a “deal” that would give it a better chance to make peace with its neighbours.
But despite the Democrats’ and Republicans’ common desire to withdraw from the Middle East, the US is still here in the region and it is impossible to predict what the next president will do, whether he is Trump for another four years or Biden for his first four. US strategic thought on this region is in a muddle. The articles and studies on the directions, US policy towards the Middle East should take in general, or towards specific issues and countries, are sharply divergent and conflicting. The titles alone tell us this. Kenneth Pollack sees only two mutually exclusive alternatives: “Fight or Flight: America’s Choice in the Middle East,” whereas Tamara Cofman Wittes and Mara Karlin frame the problem as “How to Do More With Less in the Middle East: American Policy in the Wake of the Pandemic.”
Martin Indyk strikes a contrast with a pessimistic take: “Disaster in the Desert: Why Trump’s Middle East Plan Can’t Work”, while Steven Cook chips in with a fatalistic sounding “No Exit: Why the Middle East Still Matters to America.” Such outlooks reflect a considerable degree of bewilderment and dismay at being caught in this dilemma of withdrawal versus involvement. It is a dilemma that largely functions in ideological frameworks that are generally aloof to strategic substance such as regional or ideological balances or other more concrete factors weighed by military analysts who see the region more in terms of maritime outlets or of the size and locations of the spheres of influence of rival world powers such as China, Russia or even Europe.
Of course, there are other perspectives on this region such as that which believes that the US has an inescapable role to play here after terrorists from this part of the world reached the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. The Covid-19 pandemic may be the first global disaster in decades not to have triggered an accusing finger directed at the Middle East. On this occasion, fingers turned to China and Asia which, ironically, were once the horizons towards which Obama and then Trump thought the US should set its sails.
Yet, perhaps, the main problem of the Middle East is not how baffled the US gets when it looks at it, but how this region perceives itself. For some time, the mirror was shaped by the long-lasting Arab-Israeli conflict. At other times, an Arab nationalist lens determined what was and was not authentic in it. There were also times, occasioned by both calls to revolution and calls to moderation, when little distinction was made between this region and the Islamic world.
Today, a new phenomenon is in progress, one that might dispel Washington’s confusion and give regional authenticity a fresh boost. It is the crystallisation of the nation state in the sense of a geopolitical entity with borders, a distinct identity that sets it apart from other states, and particular interests and concerns that make friends and enemies easier to identify than ever before. In this framework, “regional security” is contingent on the security of its component states, which entails neutralising existing or potentially hostile acts or threats against them. This can be achieved through the implementation of policies that aim to strengthen the autonomous power of the state and through regional alliances that work to safeguard the state and deter threats.
The consolidation of the nation state that we see in progress in this region helps explain the intense and diverse activity in deals between countries of this region not just with the US, but also with China, Russia and Europe, with each country acting in accordance with its perception of its interests whether in the acquisition of arms or in trade deals, setting oil prices or welcoming tourists.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly