The Biden administration released its National Security Strategy for 2022 on 12 October. Introducing it, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it “lays out a vision for a free, open, secure, and prosperous world and a comprehensive plan to realise it.”
He added that the US through its diplomacy “will continue to leverage [America’s] unrivalled networks of allies and partners to build the strongest and broadest possible coalition of nations.” Its mission would be “to advance and defend” the “vision” laid out in the strategy when “revisionist, authoritarian powers” are posing a threat to international peace and stability.
The National Security Strategy is 48 pages long and divided into five parts. It has an introduction signed by US President Joe Biden and a conclusion. One chapter divides the world into geographic regions by order of strategic importance from the standpoint of US National Security interests.
The first region, and this will come as no surprise to those who have followed the strategy of the Biden administration from its first day in office back in January 2021, is the Indo-Pacific. The second region in order of importance is Europe, followed by the Western Hemisphere more generally. The Middle East comes, unsurprisingly, in fourth place, and then comes Africa, the Arctic, and finally Space, the Sky, and the Sea.
Another no less important chapter deals with the strategic priorities of the US over the next five years, the most significant one being to out-compete China as well as “constrain” Russia. In this article, I will deal with the section of the strategy concerning the Middle East. In a future article I will discuss the overall strategic priorities spelled out in the document.
The section on the Middle East begins with an implicit criticism of US involvement in the region, an involvement that has relied on military force and regime change. It is clear from the National Security Strategy that the Biden administration has eschewed the use of force and instead intends to work with the allies and partners of the US to “de-escalate and integrate” in the region.
In other words, it intends to work with partners to achieve peace and stability across the Middle East and simultaneously push for more regional integration across the board. In this respect, the strategy calls for broadening what are termed the “Abraham Accords” – the normalisation agreements between Israel and four Arab countries, namely the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
The strategy sets out five principles that underpin the framework of US strategy in the region. These include US support for partnerships with those countries that subscribe to the “rules-based international order” as well as defending freedom of navigation through Middle East waterways, in particular the Bab Al-Mandab and Hormuz straits. They include the US determination to thwart efforts by any country to dominate others or the region through military buildups, incursions, or threats.
The US will promote regional integration through political, economic, and security connections between and among its partners, the strategy says, including through “integrated air and maritime defence structures,” while respecting the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries in choosing the best way for this to be done.
The strategy promises to enhance the capabilities of the allies and partners of the US in the region in order “to deter and counter” Iran’s destabilising activities. The US will work through diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and in case this does not lead to meaningful results it will not hesitate to resort to other means to achieve them – in other words the use of force.
In a nod to the Palestinians and the Arab countries, the strategy reaffirms the US intention – or is it only that of the Biden administration? – to promote the two-state solution in Palestine and promises to continue working for the promotion of a “viable two-state solution” that will preserve “Israel’s future as a Jewish state” while responding to the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a “secure and viable state” of their own.
It is noteworthy that the strategy is specific as to the future borders of the promised Palestinian state. It refers to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps of lands as the best way to achieve an “equal measure of security, prosperity, freedom and democracy” for the Palestinians and the Israelis.
However, the strategy is short on the details in carrying out such promises, and it does not call on the Palestinians and the Israelis to resume peace negotiations that have been stalled since April 2014.
The fifth principle in the US approach to the Middle East is the promotion of human rights and the “values of the United Nations Charter.”
The strategy marks the end of an era in US foreign policy in the Middle East, an era when the US, through cooperation and coordination with some Middle Eastern powers, including some Arab countries, used military force to achieve its foreign policy goals, foremost amongst them to change certain Arab regimes. The consequences of such ill considered policies were seen in the failed and destabilising decade of the so-called “Arab Spring.”
It remains to be seen how the new principles that provide a framework for the new US approach to the Middle East will play out in the context of two parameters, first the growing polarisation in a changing international order, and second the new realities in the Middle East, whether in inter-Arab relations or in inter-regional relations among the Arab and regional powers.
The strategy makes official the US disengagement from the Middle East, but disengagement should not be synonymous with non-involvement. The US involvement in the region has thus been outsourced under a comprehensive US strategic approach to world affairs and one that demands in-depth analysis by the Arab states on how to navigate among the great powers.
In introducing the new strategy, Biden writes that “around the world, the need for American leadership is as great as it has ever been. We are in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order.”
It is up to the Arab governments to decide how to respond to the changes in the evolving international order and where they stand in the dawning struggle for power in the international system. It is to be hoped that they will decide to opt for principled non-alignment.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.