In February of 2022, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion entitled, “Missing Strategy: US Policy Toward the Middle East in 2022,” featuring Dr. John Calabrese, professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC; Prof. David Des Roches of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University; Dr. Matthew Kroenig, professor of political science at Georgetown University and director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council; and Dr. Anna Borshchevskaya, senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Dale Sprusansky, Managing Editor at the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, moderated the panel discussion. InterRegional researchers in Abu Dhabi were in attendance, and the center’s researchers in Cairo also participated.
The panelists explained that an analysis of the US role in the Middle East must proceed from three main analytical levels.
1. Increasing international complexity: The current international context has created complex conditions for the US administration, which has had many issues imposed on its agenda, such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, the conflict with China, and the Ukrainian-Russian crisis and its repercussions on European security.
2. Increasing regional uncertainty: The Middle East’s state of uncertainty has created major challenges for US decision-makers amid numerous ongoing conflicts. While there are positive signs of détente in the region, these indicators are not sufficient.
3. Growing US domestic pressures: Domestic issues are a priority for the Biden administration, which is being called on to address multiple issues, such as the coronavirus crisis and its effects and the economic problems facing Americans, amid a polarized environment even within President Biden’s own party.
The panelists agreed that the US role in the Middle East will continue, but according to different patterns and forms. This theory is associated with several key dimensions, as follows:
1. Importance of short- and medium-term energy sources: Some panelists noted that the US will be less dependent on Middle East energy sources (oil and gas) in the long term, but that, in the short and medium term, the US will remain interested in regional energy sources for key considerations—primarily the current crisis in Ukraine and its implications for gas supplies to Europe.
2. Prioritizing strategic international shifts: The US policy community is expected to enter a period in which regional developments are seen through the lens of strategic international shifts. In phase 1.0, the US saw developments from a Cold War perspective, while in phase 2.0, Washington interpreted developments through the war on terror. Now, however, we seem to be entering phase 3.0, where American politicians will see the Middle East through the lens of great powers competition.
3. US ability to lead in a pluralistic order: The Biden administration may not have a grand strategy or seek to present top ideas or promises that may not be possible to implement or fulfill, but the American president is an internationalist who believes in multilateralism. He also has a firm belief that the US can and must play a leadership role in international affairs.
4. Development of new patterns for US military presence: It is incorrect that the US will leave the region militarily. Currently, Washington is betting on creating new configurations for military presence in the region that do not involve major troop deployments. Nor can it be said that declining numbers of American forces in the region is proof of a US withdrawal from the Middle East. The US role may be measured with the wrong tools, such as the number of soldiers stationed in a country.
5. Avoiding involvement in protracted regional conflicts: One key point about America’s current role in the region under the Biden administration is that it seeks to avoid involvement in protracted conflicts in the region and prefers to leave the resolution of these conflicts to the countries of the region. The Yemen conflict is an important example of this approach.
The Dilemma of Beijing
The panelists emphasized that Chinese-US competition in the region is escalating and will impact the existing interactions in the region via several key dimensions.
1. Crystallization of a US policy to block Chinese influence: Although the US administration has not yet developed a specific strategy vis-à-vis China, it relies mainly on the concept of democracy versus autocracy. Based on this thinking, the American administration sees China as a threat to the US. The Biden administration has been eager to counter Chinese influence through a number of initiatives, such as the AUKUS pact and the revival of the Quad Alliance, which includes the US, Australia, India, and Japan.
2. Shift of polarization from AUKUS to the Middle East: The issue of competition with China in the Middle East is prompting a major debate within Washington, according to the panelists. One group, the minority, believes that the competition with China is in Asia, while the other group, the majority, believes that the Chinese challenge is global and the US must compete in all directions, including the Middle East. This means that the polarization between the two factions is shifting to the Middle East.
3. Rising US concern over China’s reach in the region: Several of the panelists explained that there are many concerning signs for Washington regarding China’s presence in the Middle East. China has an increasing presence and influence in the region: 50% of China’s gas imports are from the Middle East, and China is the top trading partner for 11 countries in the region—and these numbers are increasing over time. China has also begun to supply weapons to the region, and the Iranian-Chinese relationship is a major source of concern for the US.
4. Increasing potential for tension between Washington and its allies: The Chinese presence in the Middle East may raise issues and tensions in Washington’s relationships with its allies, with the US fearing the position of its partners and allies because many of its traditional partners are strengthening their cooperation with China. The situation may seem logical, as partnership with China provides major economic advantages.
5. Washington defines the limits of its partners’ relationships with China: Washington may resort to contacting its partners in the region in order to define the permitted scope of relations with China. This could be done through several means, including emphasizing the importance of economic independence from China for the countries of the region, Washington placing restrictions on the use of Chinese technology, using a selective approach to the region’s dealings with China, and offering incentives to avoid cooperation with China.
The Russian Challenge
The panelists explained that Russia’s rising presence has affected the US role in the region, noting that an analysis of Russian policy in the region identifies several key dimensions.
1. Russia’s use of the Syrian crisis in foreign policy: Despite Moscow’s small diplomatic and commercial steps in the region before the military intervention in Syria, the Syrian crisis is what officially and clearly brought Moscow back to the Middle East. Syria represented an entry point for certain issues and concerns important to Russia in the region.
2. Washington’s loss of control over Russian moves: Russia’s policy in the Middle East raises questions about the degree to which Washington is able to control Moscow and its actions. It appears that Washington is having difficulty exerting full control over Moscow as evidenced by the current Ukraine crisis. Likewise, Washington lacks a clear strategy vis-à-vis Russia or its intervention in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
3. Russia’s establishment of a regional axis hostile to the US: The Iranian-Russian rapprochement is likely to continue in the coming period. Putin’s approach is based on establishing relations with all the players, but his closest relationships are with actors hostile to Washington, such as Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime, and Hezbollah.
4. Concern over the Russian-Chinese alliance in the region: There is concern over the creation of an alliance between Russia and China in the region, especially since the two countries already have a strategic partnership and do not need a formal agreement to do many things that harm the interests of the US. There also seems to be a division of labor somehow between Beijing and Moscow, with Russia seen as strong militarily, while China is considered strong economically.
At the end of the discussion, the main speakers on the panel drew several main conclusions:
1. The end of America’s role in the region was ruled out: It is unlikely that America’s role in the region will end; rather, the US will remain the most influential international player in the region, at least for the foreseeable future. In this framework, the main problem may be the prevailing perceptions in the region that the US has withdrawn from the Middle East. These perceptions need to be addressed because the US is remaining in the region.
2. Vital US interests in the region remain stable: The Biden administration is tied to the region across a set of vital interests, primarily the continued importance of energy sources in the region in the short and medium term for several reasons, notably the current crisis in Ukraine and its effect on gas supplies to Europe. Moreover, Washington places several issues within its vital interests and priorities in the region, such as maintaining safe passage for oil and avoiding the presence of a hostile power in the region.
3. New patterns for US military presence are developing: The Biden administration is working to develop new patterns of presence in the region, especially from the military perspective. Washington seems to be betting on finding new patterns for military presence in the region that do not involve major troop deployments. For example, the new US policy focuses on developing infrastructure, logistical transportation networks, and ports with countries in the region.
4. There will be pressure on regional countries to curb cooperation with China: The developing relationships between China and several of Washington’s regional partners are likely to prompt the US to contact its partners in order to halt the development of their relationships with Beijing and to define the prohibited and permitted spheres for dealing with China.
In conclusion, the workshop participants stressed that the US will focus mainly on confronting the threats posed by the Russian and Chinese presence in the Middle East, especially since both countries view the US as their adversary and are developing a good relationship with Iran with the goal of establishing an anti-American axis in the region. Russia and China also both aspire to limit the global influence of the US and to participate in leading the world order.