When It Comes to U.S. Relationships in the Middle East, Expect a Lot More Change in Coming Years and Decades.
By Brian E. Frydenborg, originally published January 5th, 2015
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2014 has certainly been a year of change. While an ostensible explanation for this would be the Arab Spring, in a larger sense, America is like a developmentally disabled child who has struggled to take in information and use it to adjust to what is happening who finally, though quite belatedly, is beginning to see the obvious need to modify his own behavior.
Americans are still struggling to come to terms with the overall tragic results of the the (W) Bush Administration’s foreign policy in the region. But one thing Bush deserves credit for is realizing that after 9/11, the status quo in the Middle East was noxiously unsustainable.
Unfortunately, his solution—top-down democracy installation via military invasion—was incredibly naïve, and the crucial early years of his execution, clothed in hubris, incompetence, and a libertarian approach to nation-building, left even more to be desired. And while he may have realized this, the American people more than anything else turned away from the region in disgust after his these experiences, unwilling/unable to look at the damage done by an administration that they had empowered, our partial love affair with the subsequent Arab Spring ending quickly just the Spring stalled and we were ending our military deployment in Iraq.
With the region experiencing the most tumult since WWI, what will America do now?
Going forward, here’s what we can expect:
1.) America will try very hard to distance itself from the Gulf.
It’s amazing that it’s taken us so long to realize how much our money going into Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states comes back to haunt us: though Joe Biden recently got in trouble for saying so, support for ISIS and other Islamic extremists and terrorists from very wealthy individuals motivated by the Saudi state-sponsored and ever-present-throughout-the-Gulf religious cult of Wahhabism/Salafism streams out of the Gulf like an oil spill, polluting the entire region.
Recent American increases in oil production, the whole Keystone pipeline initiative, and efforts to get “green energy” projects off the ground are all designed, in no small part, to allow us to limit/lessen our relationship with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf countries financing violent extremists and generally exporting negativity. The idea is that we can limit/reduce the amount of American cash flowing into these places, helping to take the steam out of their radical, violent agenda.
The U.S. will soon overtake (or possibly even already has overtaken) Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest liquid petroleum producer, in 2015 is supposed to become the top overall oil producer, and could become “energy independent” by 2035. In a sign of the times, the Rockefeller clan, famous as the dynasty of Standard Oil (which, when broken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, spawned Conoco, Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil), is even divesting out of fossil fuels—including oil—in favor of “green energy.”
This will all have a profound impact on the myriad of American industries and business operating in and investing in the region.
2.) America’s involvement in the Arab Spring will likely remain limited.
Even in situations like in Egypt, for many years one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid, Obama and Americans, as was/is the case in Syria and Iraq, seems to prefer a “don’t do stupid shit” (to quote the president) approach.
Obama has—correctly—realized that it is immoral, ineffective, counterproductive, and far costlier for the U.S. to default to forcing our will in the region (see Iraq: 2003-2011). Instead, far better and more cost-effective to assist natural, native movements where our interests coincide and the time seems right in a limited way (see Libya: 2011; current problems still beat a civil war). Even our current military intervention in Syria is targeting specific groups, avoiding picking an overall-rebels-or-regime side. Don’t expect heavy U.S. involvement, private sector engagement, or investment in specific countries until they settle down.
3.) Things may go downhill with Israel and Turkey.
Well, with Turkey, President Erdoğan is pulling a bit of a Putin: manipulating the system to ensure he will be in power for a very, very long time and pushing for backwards-looking social, media, political, and foreign policies that will only drive Turkey away from the West, not closer. Erdoğan seems to long for the glory days of the Ottoman Empire and to relish in telling women to take a back seat, while at the same time embracing a restrictive form of Islamism and supporting both Islamists and jihadists.
Once regarded as the model for secularism in the Muslim world, Turkey seems headed for a long-term course driving it away from Western values and norms, though not without major opposition within Turkey. Still, closer ties and more Western business/investment in Turkey seem unlikely, and may decrease over time as these trends increase.
As for Israel, I’ve noted before that a number of factors relating to oppressive Israeli policies towards Palestinians are changing America’s perception of Israel significantly among the young, within the Democratic Party, and even with American Jews, groups which all lean heavily left. Of course, America overall, especially American politicians and Republicans, still strongly support Israel, but both Israel’s increasingly right-wing people and its political leaders seem unable and unwilling to seriously entertain a long-term solution that would give Palestinians real sovereignty over themselves and end Israeli de-facto sovereignty over them in both Gaza and the West Bank.
This all means that we can expect continued decades of a severe occupation/siege of the Palestinians and only more violence and instability from Palestinians as Palestinian non-violence continues to not be rewarded by Israel and no progress towards achieving Palestinian freedom, dignity, and statehood is made. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions movements are only growing in the U.S. and especially in the EU, and an increasingly brown America with more and more people from backgrounds of the colonized, rather than the colonizers, will eventually necessitate a change in American policy as Israel refuses to change its policies and boxes itself into being an apartheid-like political pariah within the Western world.
4.) There’s a good chance for a thaw/deal with Iran in the near future.
More than any president since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Obama has shown an energy and a willingness to move past long-failed non-engagement, as has Iran’s President Rouhani. Normalization is a very real possibility. Not only was non-engagement unhelpful and severely limiting our influence with Iran (see our Cuba embargo, a policy that Obama has recently clearly signalled that he would like to move past), it actually encouraged more hostility from Iran towards American interests.
Much like the effects of Nixon’s reaching out to China, any agreement with Iran is likely to set the stage for loads of future business and investment, moderation of Iranian behavior, and a future characterized by a combination of significant amounts of both cooperation and rivalry, not just rivalry.