For various reasons, the Middle East has been one of the key strategic areas for American policymakers for a very long time.
It may sound like an exaggeration but after the end of the Cold War, the Middle East represented the central plank of the global plan of the United States to manage the unipolar power equation for at least two decades. With time and because of the emerging geopolitical compulsions, the Middle East has gradually slipped down some notches on the priority list of the American agenda, even so, it has been allocated hefty space in the new National Security Strategy (NSS) document.
“It is time to eschew grand designs in favor of more practical steps that can advance U.S. interests and help regional partners lay the foundation for greater stability, prosperity and opportunity for the people of the Middle East and for the American people,” is how the NSS tries to present the “theoretical outline” of its intention to have a more pragmatic and practical approach on the Middle East.
The landscape of the Middle East is inundated with many hot spots of various intensities, and the United States cannot afford to be “casual” toward this region despite the fact it does not pose an imminent threat to American security interests from any global or regional power – not even from Iran – at the moment. While scanning the paragraphs on the Middle East in the U.S. national security strategy document, this thinking is further reinforced.
Interestingly, the U.S. has defined five principles that govern its strategic vision and action plan for the Middle East: first, assurance of security to all countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order; second, the commitment that the U.S. would not tolerate any attempt to impede or disrupt the navigation through the Middle East’s crucial waterways – the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab and it won’t allow any country to dominate other neighbors through military power or intrusion; third, diplomacy is the preferred route for de-escalation and conflict resolution; fourth, regional security and political integration are to be facilitated through enhanced political, economic and security connections between the U.S. and its regional partners and last, human rights and values enshrined in the U.N. charter are to be promoted.
All five principles are described as the basis of the U.S.-sponsored framework to facilitate cohesion among the regional partners. Ironically, unlike the central theme of the NSS that revolves around China as the main threat to U.S. global security and stability, the Middle East chapter completely ignores China. Instead, Iran is mentioned as the destabilizing force in the region. By completely ignoring China, while describing the U.S. strategy on the Middle East, the NSS has given two clear indications: One, the Americans are overly confident about their grip on the Middle East theater and don’t expect that China could pose any counter-balance in the region. And two, the U.S. doesn’t perceive any kind of military threat from China in the Middle East. However, the U.S. is quite apprehensive about China’s intentions to use its economic clout to challenge American interests in the Middle East.
Unlike the Indo-Pacific region, which has become the hotbed of tense economic and military hostilities between the U.S. and China, the policymakers at the White House seriously believe that Beijing has no interest in being militarily involved in the Middle East soon and Beijing wants to limit its engagement in the economic domain only.
That’s why the NSS has completely discounted China in the discussion on the Middle East. Interestingly, of late, China has amplified its economic and diplomatic engagement with the Middle East.
Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, which also included a Gulf-China summit and an Arab-Chinese summit. It provided an opportunity for Xi to hold bilateral meetings with almost 20 Arab leaders. Besides signing an elaborate Chinese–Saudi partnership pact – guaranteeing cooperation in a broad spectrum of fields ranging from technology and finance to culture – President Xi also signed similarly haughty agreements at both summits, signifying China’s intention to increase its influence by offering economic incentives to its Middle Eastern partners. Such a massive diplomatic intrusion by China in the Middle East did not attract any reaction from Washington, which apparently is eager to muffle Chinese activism in specific domains only, for example in regional telecommunications infrastructure and control of ports in strategic waterways. But beyond that, Washington does not categorize China as any major security threat in the Middle East.
The NSS has paid more attention to the Iran threat, using quite harsh words: “We will continue to work with allies and partners to enhance their capabilities to deter and counter Iran’s destabilizing activities … Iran’s threats against U.S. personnel as well as current and former U.S. officials will not be tolerated.”
So, the NSS also makes it clear to the regional partners that, regardless of the fate of the nuclear deal, Iran is being singled out as the only U.S. “adversary” in the Middle East. At the same time, come what may, Washington will not let Iran go nuclear. Too much focus on Iran in the NSS is not surprising for Middle East watchers. Washington wants to keep using the Iran card to shepherd its Middle Eastern partners to nurture their buying needs for the U.S. weapon industry.
Palestine deliberately abjured
As always, special relations with Israel are proudly projected as the hallmark of the U.S. strategy toward the Middle East. Ironically, the NSS deliberately abjured the word “Palestine or Palestinians.” Though the two-state solution is mentioned passingly, the American disdain for Palestine is very much evident by the deliberate exclusion of Palestine while discussing the security and peace framework for the Middle East. This dichotomy in U.S. policy has been further exposed by the text of the NSS. Propagating the Abraham Accords at the expense of Palestinian and Arab political and human rights is a dilemma for the U.S.
A two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine debate is no more than a theory and the same lip service is given to this proposal in the NSS. The American policymakers are well aware of the fact that such a sequel is not achievable without directly challenging decision-makers in Israel or the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington – an unthinkable probability at the moment.
Less interest in Syria crisis
Similarly, the Syria imbroglio is also allocated only one sentence and that too with the reference to mass migration only. Though U.S. President Joe Biden and his associates have been propagating and trying to reassure regional partners that the U.S. is not planning to abandon or deprioritize the region, the main theme of the NSS transcript tells a different story. The deepening of Israeli influence over the Arab world is the key message that is emanating from Washington’s security strategy document.
The NSS does not propose any vision or doctrine for a Middle East NATO – an unrealistic dream that may actually create a more convenient pretext for the U.S. to sell more expensive weapons.
All in all, the NSS chapter on the Middle East is rather pragmatic – but less ambitious – when compared with the approach of the last three presidents of the U.S., who always tried to build an aggressive narrative for the Middle East. In a nutshell, the Biden administration appears to be treading cautiously – even pessimistically – toward the political theater of the Middle East and is desisting from pursuing any lofty agenda. The ongoing Ukraine war has certainly overshadowed the global perspective of the Oval Office, it seems.