Analysis - Political Transformations

New Realities

Changing the nature of US involvement in the Middle East

Monday، June 23، 2014
New Realities

Since 1944, when the State Department referred to Middle Eastern oil as "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history," the Middle East became an important pillar for United States foreign policy. To a large extent, US interests in the region, remained more or less the same;  backing Israel, maintaining stability in the region and insuring uninterrupted flow of oil.  

In order to advance these goals, the US established long-term relationships with key allies such as Jordan, Egypt and the States of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). These alliances proved resilient to time, and served the interests of all sides involved.

Starting the change

GCC States looked to the United States to provide security guarantees including military supply and expertise. Between 2008 and 2011 alone, GCC nations received $9.4 billion in American-made weapons. On the other hand, increase energy use in advanced economies of North America, Europe and Asia, continue to underpin  the importance of Middle Eastern energy resources to global stability and economic recovery.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson recently emphasized the importance of her country's strategic cooperation with GCC States. "The US-GCC defense cooperation is stronger than ever." Mrs. Patterson's statement is frequently echoed by US presidents and  top policy makers. Yet these statements are often followed by other statements and actions that appear contradictory. US diplomatic and military maneuvers suggest the US has in fact planned to scale down on its commitment to the region.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a GCC ministerial conference in May, “Bilateral ties with the United States and American military presence are not enough to guarantee regional security. America’s engagement with Gulf nations is intended to support and facilitate, not replace, stronger multilateral ties within the GCC.” Mr. Hagel is sending a clear message that the United States no longer views the region as a top priority. But that doesn't mean the US is prepared to relinquish its position as the region's protector and mediator to its revivals, be China or Russia.

Three Affecting factors

The change in US policy is driven by three factors. The first is a change in the supply-side that is already transforming energy production and consumption in the US. Second, is a refocusing of US foreign policy away from the Middle East and towards Asia. The third is a  strategic military shift in how the US intends to fight wars in the future.

Global demand for oil and gas is increasingly driven by an emergent Asia rather than America and Europe. For the first time, China has overtaken the US as the world’s largest net importer of oil.  China’s rising dependency on oil is coinciding with America’s employment of new technology to produce more energy. The US is importing less, and producing more, a process that is driven by the breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing. According to the Wall Street Journal, the US has already become the world’ largest liquid-fuel producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia. 

The  "Defense Strategy Guidelines" issued by the US Department of Defense outlining its goals for 2020, made it clear that Asia-pacific is to become the focus of US foreign policy. Underlining the report, is a view of Asia is a threat to the US hegemonic power. Although the report does not elaborate on the nature of the threat that Asia poses, it is clear that the US doesn't actually view Asia as a serious military threat.

According to the "Power Index" a report by Global Fire Power, the United States military surpasses by far, every nation and on all levels. The US has the manpower, the land systems, air power, naval power, resources, logistics and finances. Despite increase military spending, China is ranked third following US and Russia. In fact, when it comes to military spending, the US far surpasses China's spending, in 2013, the US military spending reached a staggering $640 billion, comparing to $188 billion spent by China.

Asia is indeed not a political or diplomatic threat to the US. It is not even an economic threat as things stand today, but could potentially be in the future. Form Washington's perspective, Asia must therefore be contained because it can become a serious challenger to US economic interests if left unchecked.

The core of US power today lays in its economic superiority and advanced military and technology. In order to fend off competition from Asia, it is important for the US to preserve its economic domination. Understanding this, puts US actions in the Middle East into perspective, and provides a good indicator of its future maneuvers. Washington is not prepared to let go of its influence. The strategic partnership of US and regional allies are repeatedly emphasized, and despite rocky periods, and clear disagreements on US policy following the Arab Spring, the US continues and will continue to play a crucial role in region.

Change the nature of involvement

What will change is the nature of this involvement in the region. From front and center, such Operation Desert Storm and the 1993 US invasion of Iraq, to a much more underplayed role.

As the national security strategy outlines, the US doesn’t plan on carrying out its goals by waging large scale missions. Rather, it will press its allies to do so on its behalf while it takes the back-seat. In a way, this strategy has already been implemented, in Libya, where European and Arab allies took the lead. The inactive role of the US in Syria is another example of the US pursuit of this strategy.  At the same time, US defense companies are securing themselves lucrative business deals. By taking a step back from the Middle East, the US is prepared to let competition between countries in the region happen naturally. It is this precise competition that creates balance of power, that is most important to American interests.

The US is not only planning to scale back on direct military intervention, it is also developing new technologies to better fit the new landscape. For example, the US defense ministry is pouring money into anti-access/area denial operations (A2/AD), cyber security research, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. At the same time, the new US military strategy is  geared towards reduction of nuclear arsenal, and a major scaling back on operations, focusing instead on operation of a smaller, leaner force that is easily restarted and mobilized.

The future of warfare will be a lot less grand and intrusive than it has been in the past, but not necessary any less destructive. The GCC states must carefully monitor these changes in order to insure that the military powers they are investing in, are in part with new changes. At the same time, GCC countries are best served by shifting their focus on the region, establishing new alliances and strengthening existing ones. Mending forces with regional powers, will also help to preserve their interests and coup with changing realities.

Keywords: middle eastForeign PolicyUSA