Washington's Fantasies of Middle Eastern Order
Why the US keeps failing at ordering the region by banking on autocrats
There was something deeply depressing about President Biden’s trip to the Middle East - not just its execution, but its conception. I found it difficult to write about it much, beyond a few despondent tweets which went viral for some reason. I mean, I followed all the commentary about the trip’s planning, the expectations raised, and what Biden got and gave his various interlocutors. But what really was there to say? What was really the point of it all?
At some level, analysts were talking past each other. Critics of the trip pointed out, quite correctly, how little Saudi Arabia (in particular) delivered on any of Biden’s priorities — no announcement of major oil production increases, no major new advances towards normalization with Israel, no big new security agreement — and the glaring absence of any attention to human rights concerns or political prisoners. How could it be that Mohammad bin Salman, of all people, got in the best line of the visit when he challenged Biden’s tepid comments on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by observing that the U.S. had done nothing about the Israeli military’s murder of Shirene Abu Akleh. Don’t you hate it when the worst person in the room has a point?
More sympathetic observers argued that those deliverables weren’t really the point. The trip succeeded in that it reset the broken relationship with Saudi Arabia, with relationship management being its own reward as the United States looks to deal with the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the impending demise of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and Chinese advances in the region. It was an exercise in both Realism (“you deal with the leaders you have) and in the multilateralism that the Biden administration wants to make the centerpiece of its foreign policy.
In my new article in Foreign Affairs, I wanted to go deeper than the immediate scorecard around the visit. I’m deep into the process of putting together an edited volume on the question of Middle Eastern regional order (more on that soon), and that seemed like the right place to start. I agree with the defenders of the trip that there was a deeper purpose than just gas prices. I think at base, the administration hopes to restore a Middle Eastern regional order uniting its Arab allies and Israel under Washington’s leadership against the threat posed by a post-JCPOA Iran. (Or, if you prefer Iyad Baghdadi’s pungent phrasing, “a marriage of apartheid and autocracy”). As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a real world test of IR theories: realism would applaud the Abraham Accords model of strategic cooperation against Iran without addressing the Palestine issue, while constructivists would expect the popular hostility to Israel’s occupation to continue to matter.
But set that aside for a moment. This is an extremely conventional American objective in the region. The idea that the US should lead such a regional order is as deeply problematic in its realities as it is utterly uncontroversial in most Washington policy discourse. I wanted to write not about the minutiae of the visit but rather about why that concept of regional order would be deeply flawed — even if it succeeded. The Middle East, I argue, is not looking to be ordered by the United States. The U.S. has neither the will nor the means to underwrite such an order anyway.
Regional leaders are happy to take Washington’s support for their own goals, which include both containing Iran and preserving their own regime survival against any form of domestic or democratic challenge. But they will play the field in what they see as a multipolar global system - as we saw in their reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - as they try to extract as much from the U.S. as possible without changing their own policies in return. Ignoring and underwriting their repression will, inevitably, fuel exactly the eruptions of mass protest and regime instability which they fear. The same is true with Israel, as impunity for its occupation and creeping annexation encourages behavior which will likely trigger the next crisis. The U.S. has been trying and failing to oversee regional order for decades now, and as long as the policies remain the same that’s unlikely to change.
Anyway, without further ado, check out my new article in Foreign Affairs. There’s a lot more in the piece, including an extended reflection on why Washington’s ideal regional order during the unipolar 1990s wasn’t actually all that orderly, what with the sanctions and frequent crises on Iraq, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, the snuffing out of the wave of democratic openings in a number of Arab countries which began 1989 in the name of promoting order, and the incubation of al-Qaeda. I hope you find it all of interest. Read a teaser here and the whole essay at Foreign Affairs.
The New Old Middle Eastern Order
U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East ended not with a bang but a whimper. The rewards for his fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, proved paltry. Saudi Arabia did not commit to increasing oil production. No dissidents were released. Human rights only came up when MBS dismissed criticism of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, which was carried out under his orders, by pointing to American silence over Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist who was killed in May in the West Bank by the Israeli military. Saudi Arabia did not announce major moves toward normalization with Israel, and no new security alliance emerged.
Yet the Biden administration had broader ambitions for the trip that aren’t fully captured by the scorecard of short-term deliverables. The administration believed that it needed to reset relations with Saudi Arabia and other regional allies, working on the relationships for their own sake to better deal with a range of issues. The likely impending demise of negotiations for a revived nuclear agreement with Iran, as well as the rippling shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, added some urgency. While media rumors ahead of the visit about the creation of a formal military alliance with the Arab states and Israel proved premature, the intent of the trip was to push the region toward a new regional order based on Israeli-Arab cooperation against Iran under American guidance.
The trip did make some small steps in that direction—but not in ways that are likely to increase regional stability. The security architecture envisioned by the administration would not be novel. Israel’s alignment with Arab states against Iran has been growing for decades. The Abraham Accords, first brokered under the administration of President Donald Trump, made cooperation formal and public and explicitly removed the questions of Palestine and human rights from the equation. The United States is gambling on the ability of autocratic Arab states to embrace a regional order that includes Israel without concern for how these policies are received by their publics back home. But taking that risk at a time of escalating economic, political, and social crisis across much of the region is likely to backfire—as it has in the past.
Orchestrating a U.S.-led Middle Eastern regional order has been a U.S. pastime since at least 1991, when the United States successfully led a military operation to drive Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait. But today’s Middle East is in no condition to be ordered by Washington. Middle Eastern leaders prefer to hedge their bets within what they see as an increasingly multipolar world, as could be clearly seen in their refusal to take the side of the United States and Europe against Russia. Were Biden to succeed on his own terms by bringing Israel and the Arab autocracies into a formal regional alliance against Iran, it would only repeat the mistakes of the past. This would accelerate the next collapse of regional order by reversing progress toward de-escalation, encouraging domestic repression, and paving the way to the next round of popular uprisings.
Read the rest at Foreign Affairs
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