Should U.S. Policy in the Middle East continue to be based on a Pax Americana or must the U.S. reduce the level of its involvement in the region?

BY KNARIK GASPARYAN 

The Cold War era in the Middle East was marked by a subtle power contest between the USSR and the US. Driven by the need to contain the Soviet expansionism and influence as well as insure the free flow of oil to the west, the United States implemented policies which favored the ruling elites, mainly authoritarian, over the revolutionary movements, which could have overthrown these governments and, thus, play into the hands of the USSR. Interestingly, the Middle Eastern countries were expertly maneuvering both superpowers and using this power struggle to further their own interests. Alliances of critical importance were forged during this period and became the pillars on which, first, the anti-soviet policy, and later the agenda of Pax Americana came to rest. From both economic and strategic points of view, alliances with Saudi Arabia and with Shah’s Iran as well as with Israel and Turkey were highly important and valued. They furthered the interests of the U.S. in the Gulf, insured that the oil resources from the Middle East would continue to fuel the development of the western economies and militaries in the face of the Soviet threat, and created a greater presence of the U.S. in the region as opposed to relatively insubstantial Soviet power projection until 1970s.

The situation changed radically after the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the United States as a world hegemon. The U.S. adjusted to the new geopolitical realities by taking the torch of the superpower left by the British in the Middle East and implementing its agenda of Pax Americana, as a logical continuation of Pax Britannica or Pax Romana. The US direct involvement is considered to be one of the main stabilizing forces in the region. However, as conflict resolution processes and proposals come to deadlocks one after the other (e.g. Israel- Palestine), as it becomes too costly to maintain constant military presence and keep diplomatic influence in the face of such unexpected events as the Arab uprisings, and as challenges from new international players and disapproval from domestic audience become a reality, it is argued that the US foreign policy must switch its course from that of Pax Americana, towards adopting a more passive posture in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, this is a simplistic way to view the situation, as, even without the Soviet threat, the U.S. interests are too strongly engaged in the region. The Pax Americana should be preserved as it sustains economic and military cooperation between the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and smaller Gulf states. Moreover, it is of vital importance for continued strategic containment of such rivals as Iran and Syria, and such threats as Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. The post cold war realities opened a rare window for the US to act on its military supremacy to further its political and economic goals in the Middle East. The alliance with Turkey was first based on the shared goal of USSR containment and shared desire to protect the disputed areas of Ardahan and Kars from USSR designs. Later, the cooperation became more economically and militarily based and was conducted in the framework of NATO. As the only successful democracy in the Middle East for a Muslim country, Turkey is an interesting example that the US would want fledgling democracies of the ME to emulate. Turkish policies were always in accord with that of the US, a happy situation, which was challenged when moderately Islamist AKP Party came to power. As an important democratic political system which was coming to realize its own potential as a bridge between the East and the West, Turkey aspires now to achieve regional hegemony.

This political strategy was masterfully devised by Davutoglu and Erdogan and, meanwhile, is not entirely in Washington’s taste. Furthermore, when taking into account the recent rift between Israel and Turkey, the US does not have the luxury to withdraw its direct involvement in the region at the current time or to trust allies, such as Turkey, to protect its interests. Another similar process of estrangement can be observed between Saudi Arabia and the US. The post 9/11 period as well as war in Iraq revealed the strong anti-american sentiments in Saudi Arabia. With one of the cheapest costs of production per barrel and with easy access to sea for shipment, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most critical actors in the oil market, and thus, an extremely valuable ally. Unfortunately, the US –Israeli relations complicate the relationship with Saudis, as does the undemocratic and repressive regime in place. Here an important component of the US policy in Middle East can be observed: the tension between its democratic ideologies advocating political freedom and its realpolitik strategic considerations. The realist view works best however, and, if moral principles and democratic ideas undermine regional stability and the U.S. strategic interests, then, however lamentable it may be, the goal of spreading democracy should be subordinated. Some may bring the case of Iraq as an example for an unsuccessful attempt to impose western styled democracy and political system in a Middle Eastern country. Nevertheless, from strategic point of view, invading Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussain’s oppressive regime was logical and necessary. It insured that a US friendly regime will come to power, that military basis will be created on the ground which will be available for US operations, and it insured the existence of a new source for oil if Saudi Arabia switches camps or gets too unfriendly. Moreover, Iraq, with its close proximity to Iran, is the perfect force to contain or counter the threat imposed by the letter. This brings us to another set of factors which clearly pinpoint the necessity to preserve Pax Americana. The most obvious of these factors is the threat posed by Iran, the hostile Islamic republic which was created in the wake of extremely anti-American 1979 Iranian Revolution. Iran is another rising hegemon in the region, and its strong anti-western and anti-Israeli sentiments, combined with its ongoing nuclear development program, escalate the level of tensions with the US. The strangely enduring alliance between Syria and Iran, by which the countries cooperate on economic, military as well as strategic levels, is yet another thorn on the US’ side. The product of this cooperation, a militant, and, arguably, terrorist organization Hezbollah, which has a monopoly of power over southern Lebanon and is strongly anti-Israeli and anti-American in nature, presents another threat. While not cooperating with Al-Qaeda, currently the main terrorist threat to the US, Hezbollah has the potential to become exceedingly dangerous, as it wealds strong influence, and creates a sense of fascination throughout the Muslim world. Pax Americana must be preserved as the United States has vital interests engaged in the Middle East. It is currently the only superpower with military capability to keep stability in the region meanwhile advancing its own national interests. While alliances with countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel are exceptionally useful and further the US strategic, economic and political goals in the region, without the U.S. direct involvement, this may not necessarily be the case.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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