US’ policy towards the turmoil in the Middle East, or the lack of it, is shaped by three factors: traditional ties and alliances that continue in the post-Cold War era; the complex regional environment that has emerged after the so-called “Arab Spring;” and the events of 9/11 and Iraq that have forged American opinion on the subject. Yet none of these factors are any help in resolving the current political turmoil in the Middle East.
The US’ traditional ties in the Middle East have been with conservative Arab regimes, particularly in the Gulf, and with the state of Israel. Neither set of ties has changed much in the 21st century and if anything the ties with Israel have become even stronger since 9/11. International observers now, in fact, complain of an American media bias towards Israel in the current Gaza conflict that is much more marked than in past Arab-Israeli conflicts. The US is unlikely to change this relationship given the impact of the other two factors mentioned above.
The Arab Spring was a bombshell that policymakers, academics, and the American media were not expecting and a coherent American policy took some time to develop. What eventually emerged was a policy that supported a democratic transition with a preference for moderate political forces having their hands on the wheel. In none of the Arab countries did events play out the way policymakers expected. In Egypt, the military dismissed the legally elected president and was able to get its own candidate elected in a new election. In Tunisia, the nation which has seen the best potential transition to democracy, a conservative Islamic party came to power and has subsequently called for parliamentary and presidential elections in October/November 2014. In Libya, Colonel Gadhafi was removed from power but the country is now headed into a civil war and Western embassies, aid workers, and journalists are leaving the country en masse. In Bahrain, the fledgling movement for democracy was crushed by the authorities while in Yemen cosmetic changes were made to the regime. Iraq and Syria are engulfed in civil war and have seen the rise of ISIS - a group so brutal that even al Qaeda has had to disown them.
As for the Palestinians, the rise of Hamas was viewed with disquiet by Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation on the West Bank, and by the conservative Arab states and even the new government in Egypt. The Arab countries’ governments have remained by and large silent over the events in Gaza because of the turn the Arab Spring took. The elites and the middle class were stunned by the rise of extremist elements and voted instead for stability which in actual terms meant withdrawing support from the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Paradoxically, it is the non-Arab states - Turkey and Iran - that have been the most vocal supporters of Palestinian nationhood. Add to these concerns the fact that in the post-9/11 world the West is worried by the rise of radical groups in the Middle East, all these events only works to strengthen the relationship with Israel which is seen as a loyal ally. What then is the likely endgame for the US, if any, in the region?
Given the US’ economic concerns, the bill for the Afghan and Iraq wars, and war fatigue in the general population, long-term military intervention will be difficult to achieve. At the same time, the chaos in the Middle East makes it likely that the global powers are going to have to adopt a wait-and-see approach on what type of political formations emerge from this volatile situation. The one threat which might prompt US-led intervention is if oil supplies from the Gulf were threatened especially from Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states - although these states are as of now peaceful and in the case of the UAE and Qatar booming economically. Even in Iraq, despite the success of ISIS, oil exports continue since the insurgents are not targeting what could eventually be their cash cow - although this may lead to hard choices if ISIS continues to take over oil fields and thus impact on the international petroleum market. So wait-and-see becomes the narrative.
Israel-Palestine is more problematic since given Israeli domestic politics and security concerns, Palestinian political cleavages, and the fact that the US can do little to really pressure either side, it is likely that there will simply be more of the same. At some point of time both the Palestinians and the Israelis will agree to a ceasefire and it will be back to business as usual. Having said that, there are no realistic expectations of a political breakthrough in the near to medium-term. John Kerry, who has racked up more frequent flyer miles than Hillary Clinton, is seeing his carefully crafted peace solution crumble in the dust of Israeli air strikes and Palestinian missiles.
In conclusion, one should raise the point that in the digital age it is hard for the general public to focus on anything and, therefore, a consistent well-thought out American foreign policy becomes difficult. In this year American attention has wandered from the crisis in Crimea to Boko Haram kidnapping 300 schoolgirls to ISIS in Iraq to the Gaza strip. And there are still five months left in this year. Given this public attention deficit, expecting a long-term focus on any region is just not possible.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.