“If the US doesn’t come to the Middle East with fair policies, the Middle East will come to the US in ways that jeopardise its interests and global standing.”
This view, which I’ve frequently reiterated in seminars and other forums in which I’ve participated in the US, is based on the history of US relations with this region since WWII.
Beneath the title “The end of America’s exit strategy in the Middle East,” in Foreign Affairs of 10 October, Suzanne Maloney, the vice president of the Brookings Institution and the director of its foreign policy programme, discussed two matters that can be paraphrased as follows.
Firstly, it was clear that the US, following its alarming exit from the Middle East, the most dismal manifestation of which was its departure from Afghanistan, was determined to pivot to Asia to take on China, its main superpower rival, and to take advantage of that continent’s vast reservoirs of economic activity. Secondly, barely had the US begun to implement the attendant policies and alliance-building called for by that pivot, whether with India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, or other countries, than it was summoned back the Middle East by political and military events that Maloney did not dwell on in detail.
These began on 7 October with the strategic shock delivered by Hamas’ brutal incursion into southern Israel, which was followed by the Israeli assault on Gaza, wreaking massive destruction and mass murder of Palestinian civilians, a significant majority of whom were women and children. Washington acted quickly. President Joe Biden flew to Israel where he attended a session of the Israeli war cabinet.
Fearful that the war might spread, the US moved to deter Iran and its allies by sending over two aircraft carrier groups, a nuclear submarine, and around 5,000 US marines. The UK and Germany added a supportive presence of their own. Israeli brutality quickly escalated, prompting Washington to seek a humanitarian pause to give relief agencies the chance to bring food and other emergency supplies into Gaza. It also wanted to encourage efforts to bring a new Palestinian administration into Gaza and then move towards a lasting peace based on the two-state solution.
The foregoing details, with which we supplemented Maloney’s exposition, show that, not only did the US call off its Middle East exit, but it has also re-immersed itself in one of the region’s oldest and most complex crises. Maloney argues that, in the interest of downsizing its presence in the Middle East, Washington attempted to broker a Saudi-Israel normalisation deal. In tandem, it sought to ease tensions with Iran.
To this end, it opted for a “Plan B,” a kind of deal that would rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for modest economic rewards, such as partial lifting of boycotts and a release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for the release of five US citizens detained in Iran. But the Middle East refused to work according to American plans and their swings between going and coming.
History in Palestine did not begin on 7 October, when Hamas waged its offensive. Cumulative developments were changing Israel which was careening further and further to the right and towards indulging its thirst for a new edition of the Palestinian Nakba.
Hamas, for its part, was working out with Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen what the first flank of the geopolitical revolution might achieve. The Middle East did not fall in with the American agenda and electoral cycles.
It had an agenda of its own, one shaped by the accumulation of “geological” layers of political events and their effects over the ages, yielding patterns of interplay, shifting balances of power, and actual or potential repercussions for the security and well-being of the region and its constituent states.
There is nothing inherently evil about the US presence in this region. In earlier times, its power and influence had positive results. For example, in the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt 1956, the US under Dwight Eisenhower, helped compel Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw their forces, ushering in the end of the sway of the former colonial powers in the region. Then, after the 1973 October War, the US under Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford sponsored the Egyptian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli peace processes.
After the end of the Cold War, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the George Bush Sr administration played an instrumental role, in collaboration with the Arab coalition, in the liberation of Kuwait. The Madrid Middle East Peace Conference followed, paving the way to the Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which led to the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty and the establishment of the first Palestinian National Authority on Palestinian land. On all these occasions, the US performed great duties in grappling with major crises, seizing the available opportunities, and transforming a curse to a blessing.
Today, US presence in the region could be an asset in promoting an Arab-Israeli peace, on the one hand, and regional security, on the other. Two main factors will make the crucial difference in ensuring that the American role is effective and takes into account essential Arab interests. The first is the existence of effective Arab political and military capacities and tools. The second is the political will to achieve peace and security in the region.
These factors are present among the Arab reform states, which have their sights set on sustainable development and modernisation and which also seek a peace that gives the Palestinian people their right to a state, as this would be an addition to the Arab region and a strike against the interests of extremist groups.
At the outset of the current crisis, the US seemed entirely biased in favour of Israel. Some progress has since been made towards curbing Israel’s ruthless arrogance. Washington has also said that Israel must not resume the administration of Gaza after a ceasefire, and it called for a comprehensive peace based on the two-state solution. These are beginnings. The Arabs will need considerable patience to take them forward and develop them.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly