US Vision for a Transformed Middle East Is in Shambles

Since the most recent wave of the of Israeli-Palestinian clashes, the U.S. has attracted widespread global attention for its role as tThe United States has drawn global attention for its role as the leading enduring and outside factor in the most recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Despite diplomatic efforts by Joe Biden’s administration, Middle Eastern nations have postponed high-level meetings with U.S. officials because of the United States’ blind loyalty to Israel. The recent outbreak clearly caught an embarrassed U.S. by complete surprise, leaving the Biden administration’s Middle East policy struggling to stay afloat.

Although the basic causes of this round of clashes are admittedly complex, America’s Palestinian policy has suffered a serious setback given that is bent on promoting the Abraham Accords to normalize Arab-Israeli relations while it abandoned the two-state solution (during the Trump administration). The persistent neglect of this core of Middle Eastern issue was undoubtedly an important outside factor in the recent outbreak and escalation in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Since fighting broke out, there has been no shortage of dissenting views on Washington’s Middle East policy, expressed both within the U.S. and abroad. The French newspaper Le Monde recently published an online article noting that in recent years, America has focused on normalizing Israeli-Arab relations while giving short shrift to the Palestinian issue. The recent tragedy shattered any illusions about how viable America’s New Middle East policies are. Renowned American scholar Stephen M. Walt sharply disapproved of U.S. foreign policy here saying “this latest tragedy confirms the bankruptcy of U.S. policy toward the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Biden administrations have all shared strategic contraction from the Middle East as a long-term objective. However, U.S. Middle East policy began to seriously deteriorate under the Trump administration, highlighted by the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and encouragement of the region to confront Iran; strengthening alliances with Israel and promoting the “deal of the century” to normalize relations between Israel and “moderate Arab countries”; keeping the U.S.-Saudi partnership intact while building a coalition centered around Saudi Arabia to confront Iran, effectively forming an Arab version of NATO; and promoting military deterrence by launching limited military strikes on Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite some incremental progress, there has been no significant improvement in Middle East policy under the Biden administration. America’s policy has become increasingly focused on its own strategic interests, fundamentally serving U.S. strategy in competing with the [other] great powers. Upon taking office, besides the Biden administration’s reckless withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, it deescalated involvement on hot issues such as the civil war in Yemen, reduced military support to allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, reiterated support for the two-state solution, and engaged in talks in Vienna to return to the Iran nuclear agreement. However, the Middle East has undergone rapidly accelerating change, and the region has become more strategically important in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, making America’s reduced investment in the Middle East more apparent. Washington’s strategic contraction has prevented it from realizing its objectives as its policy grows increasingly fragmented and is passively implemented.

After the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, United States policy of pushing the increasingly autonomous Middle East to condemn and sanction Russia and coordinate oil production went up in smoke. It is important to highlight that during President Biden’s symbolic trip to the Palestinian territory, aside from the resumption of aid, the U.S. did not propose actively advancing Middle East peace negotiations and there is no real intention or ability to implement the two-state solution. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is dedicated to promoting the Abraham Accords, building upon the normalization of relations with Bahrain, the UAE and Israel that occurred during the Trump administration by normalizing relations among Morocco, Sudan and Israel.

To retain its influential position in the Middle East while cutting back on its investment there, the U.S. made significant efforts to obstruct China’s engagement with the region, but these efforts have proved unsuccessful. The Middle East readily welcomed the collaborative implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. China has been warmly received for its significant and constructive contribution to regional reconciliation. In contrast, the United States’ proposed Quartet on the Middle East (the U.S., the UAE, Israel and India) and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor has made it more difficult to provide sustained, effective regional security and development due to how exclusive the proposals are, how they focus on profit, and their limited and unfocused nature.

In the future the limitations of U.S. Middle East policy will become even more salient. First, it is impossible to reduce strategic investment while maintaining regional hegemony. Second, the once proactive Washington has pulled back, leaving a void filled with reactive, disjointed responses. Third, the U.S. is more interested in transactions that advance its own interests. Fourth, America’s constructive role in the Middle East continues to shrink, while its destructive role remains prominent. Finally, the policies are simply unsustainable.

In short, the shortcomings of American Middle East policy are becoming increasingly obvious because the U.S. has lost its authoritative, leading role in the region. In the recent outbreak between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. has failed to be a systematic or constructive mediator. The U.S. mainly voices support for Israel and contributes to increasing Israel’s military strength to establish deterrence. As the situation evolves, the United States’ strategic vision for a “New Middle East” is in shambles.

The author is a professor at the Middle East Institute of Shanghai International Studies University

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