This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power—examining the forces shaping the country’s global standing, from the rise of China to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Read more here.
THE END OF America’s “unipolar moment” was bound to come sooner or later. As its time as the sole superpower concludes, its influence in the Middle East is inevitably waning. But the process is being hastened by rapid change in what have long been the three pillars of American policy in the region: stability, Israel and oil.
Begin with stability. The Pax Americana has not worked. America has tired of enforcing it, and Arab countries are tired of having it imposed on them to their detriment. More than two decades of failed Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, a disastrous war in Iraq and America’s preference for a nuclear deal with Iran over the interests of Arab states have left the United States and its Arab partners further apart than ever.
The invasion of Iraq was an especially grievous blunder. The American public was promised a short and cost-free war, financed by Gulf countries, that would take supposed weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of a tyrant and, in the words of President George W. Bush, “build a lasting democracy that is peaceful and prosperous, and an example for the broader Middle East”. These fanciful promises, based on faulty intelligence and overconfident bluster, met with a cold reality. They cost America trillions of taxpayers’ dollars and thousands of slain soldiers. The ripple effects of the failures in Iraq (and Afghanistan) left Americans even more sceptical of military adventurism overseas, and of global engagement in general.
To most Arabs, the invasion of Iraq was serious interference in their affairs—a violation of their sovereignty, if not their dignity. They regarded Saddam Hussein not as the brutal dictator that he was, but as someone who wanted to restore pride to the Arab world; an objective cut loose by an American war designed, in their view, never to let an Arab country assume any considerable power.
The sweeping protests of the Arab Spring in 2011 proved to all, America included, that the objective of maintaining regional stability by the time-tested strategy of supporting oppressive autocrats friendly to the West (unlike Saddam) had ceased being viable. More limited interventions in Libya and Syria, seeking to work mostly through local proxies, also proved hopeless in creating order.
Faced with these many failures, the United States threw up its hands. As then-President Barack Obama put it in an interview with the Atlantic in 2016, “We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.” His successors—both Donald Trump and Joe Biden—have been animated by similar desires to get out.
Their main disagreement is on how to handle Iran. Mr Trump abandoned Mr Obama’s nuclear deal of 2015, and favoured a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran; Mr Biden is seeking to revive the deal. Many Gulf countries feel that, in order to reach an agreement, America is ignoring Iran’s continued interference in the security and stability of the region.
No American president, it seems, is prepared to entertain an alternative policy: a complex effort to support a serious process of reform in the Arab world. Worse, in the past 20 years America has been prone to a policy of “unfinished business”. It starts interventions, fails to achieve its objectives, hastily departs—and leaves a mess behind for the people of the Middle East to try to fix, or live with. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a case in point. The Afghans, including those who sided with the United States, are left to live under the Taliban.
• Kori Schake on why America should keep faith in the rules-based order
• Henry Kissinger on why America failed in Afghanistan
• Anne-Marie Slaughter on why America’s diversity is its strength
Unfinished business is true not only of interventions, but also of the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians. America’s oversight of the negotiations has failed to end Israel’s occupation. Worse, it has given Israel the cover to entrench the occupation and establish a form of apartheid—two separate and unequal legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians. Mr Trump’s “deal of the century”—whereby he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, in effect blessing Israel’s annexation of the city, and set out a peace plan that denied Palestinians their dream of independence—was further proof to the Arab public that the United States not only neglects their interests, but works directly to undermine them.
And yet America’s alliance with Israel, the second of the three pillars, is changing rapidly. By embracing Mr Trump, the long-serving former Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, accelerated the polarisation of Americans’ views of Israel. What was once an issue of easy bipartisan agreement has become a contentious front in America’s culture wars. Mr Trump’s ham-fisted peace plan was intended to appeal to his evangelical supporters, some of whom believe that giving the land God promised to the Israelites will hasten the end of the world. On the left, meanwhile, Israel’s enduring occupation has caused a new generation of Americans to question the iron-clad commitment to Israel. The centre is shifting, too. A poll in 2018 for the University of Maryland found that if a two-state solution were to prove impossible, 64% of Americans would choose full equality for Palestinians over Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state.
This American re-alignment is spurred by a third factor: growing energy independence. The United States’ net energy imports peaked in 2005 at about 30% of total consumption. But thanks to the development of fracking, which increased gas- and oil-extraction capacity, America became a net energy exporter in 2019. It still imports some crude oil, but the share from the OPEC cartel (dominated by Arab countries) has fallen from 85% to 14%. America has all but freed itself from the need to secure and protect supplies from Middle Eastern producers. Granted, many of its allies are still dependent on them, even in a world that is turning away from fossil fuels, but whatever leverage oil-producing Arab countries could once exert on America is weakening.
Blunders, failures and changing energy-market conditions, coupled with disillusionment with America’s policies by Arab people and governments alike, have meant that other countries are starting to fill the vacuum. Russia, Turkey and Iran have stepped in, particularly in Syria, but also elsewhere. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, implicitly, Saudi Arabia have forged closer ties with Israel to counterbalance Iran. China has decided to flex its power through economic means, pouring significant funds into the region for all willing to accept, no questions asked.
America’s declining influence does not make the road to stability and prosperity any easier. Though it may not have had much success in the Middle East, it is even less likely that those now vying for greater influence will do better, or even try to help at all.
The changes wrought by the oil markets, the Arab Spring and the widespread use of social media mean that Arab states’ old tools for keeping social peace—hard security, subsidies and public-sector jobs—are weakening. They seek to survive by leaning on ugly, repressive tactics. That hardly engenders warm feelings among potential supporters or partners in the West. Russia, China and Turkey all have authoritarian tendencies, and can scarcely be expected to seek to open Arab systems politically, socially or economically.
And yet achieving stability in the Arab world requires precisely that. Rulers need new tools: inclusion, equal citizenship and merit-based economic systems that promise social peace and a better quality of life. Such change cannot come from re-alignment with China, relying on Russia or an alliance with Israel. It can only be achieved through a serious and gradual homegrown reform process. With the withdrawal of America from the Middle East, that task must henceforth fall more than ever on Arab countries themselves. Arab rulers need to understand that reform is essential for their survival, and Arab populations need to employ peaceful means to stand up for their rights more assertively.
Marwan Muasher is the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. He was Jordan’s foreign minister in 2002-04 and deputy prime minister in 2004-05. He is the author of “The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation” (Yale University Press, 2008) and “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism” (Yale, 2014).