What is the current structure of international relations, and how does this shape the politics of the Middle East? For decades, the answer was clear: international structure was unipolar, and American predominance shaped the alliance choices of both its allies and its adversaries. In recent years, this clarity has been overtaken by confusion. American primacy has perhaps declined, or at least shifted in its application, but no rival power has yet risen to take its place. How has this perceived change in global structure affected regional politics in the Middle East?
In October 2018, POMEPS, Princeton University’s Bobst Center, and the American University of Beirut brought together nearly two dozen scholars from the United States, Europe and the Middle East at AUB to discuss the impact of shifting global structure on regional dynamics. This collection features sixteen essays ranging across diverse perspectives on the evolving relationship between the global and the regional. Taken together, they offer a fascinating window into the relationship between the global and the regional, and the implications for contemporary regional politics.
Pervasive Uncertainty and International Structure
Discussion of American retrenchment from the Middle East has become a persistent theme in debates in both Washington and the region. While some date American decline to its overstretch in Iraq and others to its failure to intervene more forcefully in Syria, the conventional wisdom takes the retreat of U.S. power as a given.
This is in some ways odd. The perceived decline of American primacy is not easily observed in terms of material power. The United States continues to far outpace all potential rivals in military spending, and maintains an extensive array of military bases and alliances across the Middle East. Its perceived retreat is primarily from arenas where it overextended itself in preceding decades, such as Iraq, or areas which it has declined intervention to overturn the status quo, such as Syria. The Trump administration’s reported decision to withdraw most troops from Syria came after accomplishing the declared mission of the territorial defeat of the Islamic State. The U.S. is expanding bases such as the Al-Udeid base in Qatar. Despite Russia’s opportunistic interventions and China’s economic diplomacy, to this point the U.S. still faces no serious peer competitor.
The perception of U.S. decline is less about its capabilities than about its policy choices and its inability to translate capabilities into outcomes. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were unable to create a durable, legitimate, pro-American state in Iraq; toppling Qaddafi did not lead to a democratic Libya; support to the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen did not produce victory. Close allies have repeatedly opposed and undermined top American foreign policy objectives, such as the nuclear agreement with Iran. Overall, an increasingly turbulent region consumed by domestic challenges and intra-regional rivalries is simply less amenable to external control. As Hazbun puts it in this collection, “Middle East geopolitics has transformed from a system organized around and against a US-managed security architecture into a multipolar system lacking norms, institutions, or balancing mechanisms to constrain conflict and the use of force.”
The reality of continued U.S. military presence and dominance has been largely obscured by perception. That does not make it less real: as constructivists remind us, perception and belief often are more important than base reality in the daily course of international affairs. The perception of American decline is less about its capabilities than it is about the perceived inability to secure presumably desired outcomes and the seemingly successful moves of its rivals. Obama’s decision not to bomb the Asad regime in September 2013 may have had little real impact on the course of that war, as Christopher Phillips reminds us, but it fueled a perception of U.S. weakness, which led a wide range of other actors to take highly significant actions in response. In the opposite direction, Russia’s successful intervention to save the Asad regime in 2015 created a perception of power, which had little basis in the actual balance of power.
This is an important corrective to any concept of an easily observed “real” balance of power. Instead, perceptions with little objective foundation repeatedly became a self-fulfilling prophecy through an agitated process of public social construction. The more that regional powers doubted American capabilities or intentions, the more independently they acted based on that perception. As Darwich put it, “the perceived change in external actors’ roles by regional powers in the Middle East has led to major uncertainties and changes in their behavior… The change in the US role has led to a perceived vacuum in the region, and thereby, changed its social structure, which influenced regional actors’ role conceptions and behavior.”
The shifting perception has also been fueled by the uniquely profound uncertainty about the actual policies of the Trump administration. Most leaders in the Middle East disliked the policies of the Obama administration, passively or actively opposing such initiatives as the nuclear agreement with Iran or support for democratic transitions. But they understood them. Trump’s policies have been wildly inconsistent, with internal disagreements routinely surfacing in sudden policy changes. Above all, his withdrawal from the JCPOA despite IAEA certification of Iran’s compliance with its terms upended years of multilateral diplomacy and cast profound doubt on the reliability of any American commitments.
Syria is the most palpable area of such policy confusion. Early in his term, Trump carried out a symbolic military strike against a Syrian airfield that seemed to herald a shift towards muscular confrontation with Damascus. But then there was no follow through and nothing changed. In fall 2018, senior administration officials began publicly articulating a new strategy, which would maintain a significant U.S. troop presence in Syria following the defeat of the Islamic State in the name of combating Iranian influence. Just as the region began to internalize this new policy direction, Trump suddenly announced the full and rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. Either policy might be defensible, but the rapid moves between them left regional actors unable to formulate coherent policies in response.
Similar policy confusion and weakness were revealed in the American response to the blockade of Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain announced this boycott suddenly following Trump’s ostentatious visit to Riyadh. Numerous U.S. officials pushed back against it, based on the U.S. strategic interest in sustaining GCC unity against Iran. Trump then undermined their efforts by tweeting support for the blockade. As the blockade settled in to become a new reality, a succession of U.S. officials and envoys tried to negotiate its end while sustaining strong working relationships with both sides. The U.S. military and diplomatic corps viewed the blockade as clearly detrimental to vital national interests, but were unable to compel their allies to end it. This stalemate both increased uncertainty about real U.S. intentions and exacerbated perceptions of U.S. weakness.
Russia’s inroads into the region reflect a similar perception-based dynamic. This perception led many regional leaders to entertain offers of arms sales or military support from Russia. Even highly dependent U.S. allies such as Jordan ostentatiously met with Russian officials. Russia, as described in detail in a parallel report co-sponsored with the Elliott School’s Central Asia Program, opportunistically played a weak hand to undermine American alliances and project influence without significant material commitments outside of Syria. It has been very successful at crafting this image on the cheap: for instance, breathless media coverage of its limited support to Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa al-Hiftar has allowed him to be cast as a Russian client even as the overwhelming majority of his military support comes from American allies UAE and Egypt.
China has welcomed moves by Gulf leaders to pivot towards Asia as a way of securing its economic interests, but with little significant material military presence. Its very real and increasing political and economic weight is often overlooked because it does not engage in military interventions or take an overt political role. Growing ties between Arab regimes and China generated significantly less consternation among American grand strategists than do such contacts with Russia, despite their likely greater longer-term significance. Overall, then, the flirtations of American allies has created a perception of multipolarity which has little basis in material reality. Hedging is not the same as shifting alliances, though the two have easily been confused.
The Middle East has responded in a variety of ways to this perceived decline of American primacy. That shifting international structure is, of course, only one element of the broader international and regional landscape they face. The Arab uprisings of 2011 posed an existential threat to the survival of regimes, which colored every aspect of their domestic and foreign policies. The uprisings unfolded across the whole region, drawing power from their synchronization across borders. This meant that frightened Arab leaders had to view protests anywhere, not only at home, as potential threats to be met. In response, Arab regimes increased their cooperation in defense of regime survival. Wealthy Gulf states sent many billions of dollars to support fragile but friendly regimes such as those in Jordan and Morocco. They supported the overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt and financed the reconstitution of Sisi’s military regime. They also intervened in civil wars such as Libya, Syria and Yemen in hopes of placing their proxies in power and denying such a win to their rivals.
As several of the contributions to this collection note, the more that the U.S. offloaded policy to local allies and the less resources it was willing to commit to achieving policy goals, the more those allies pursue their own interests. Soubrier describes this as a shift from a restrained, status-quo oriented policy set to “assertive and competing power plays which are in turn deeply reshaping the conduct of international relations within the Gulf region, in the broader MENA region, and beyond.” Allied complaints of a lack of U.S. leadership often in practice meant that the U.S. chose to not follow their lead – a reverse chain-gang logic. Had the United States retained its position of primacy, it might perhaps have been able to restrain its regional allies from some of their more destabilizing actions. Several essays in the collection suggest that U.S. decline both enabled and fueled the erratic foreign policy choices of Gulf states and other regional actors. It is possible that the causal arrows run in the other direction, of course. The intensity of the perceived regional challenges and the mixed preferences of Washington on key issues (such as democratization in Egypt or intervention in Syria) may have tipped the balance of alliance politics towards the local powers.
Domestic Stability and Regional Order
It is no accident that regional disorder has accompanied profound domestic challenges in key states. For many leaders, foreign policy adventures are a way to secure domestic popularity, to distract from internal problems, or to protect against perceived threats emanating from abroad. The declining domestic stability and legitimacy of U.S. allies is an underappreciated dimension of its declining primacy. Key allies which once carried a large share of the security burden, such as Egypt and Turkey, are consumed by domestic instability. Others, such as Saudi Arabia, have become ever more erratic and confrontational. Public hostility to the United States, cultivated by those regimes in ever more aggressive ways, undermines the soft power foundations of American primacy.
More broadly, weak states invite myriad security problems. The turbulence identified by Hazbun constantly threatens to overwhelm stability. The challenges to these states are staggering. As Khouri observes, the focus by external powers on matters of high politics blind them to “new and deep structural threats that have converged in a cycle of poverty, inequality and vulnerability that seems likely to keep the region mired in stress conflict for decades to come.” Refugee flows increase demands on services and resources. Non-state actors take advantage of pockets of state failure. And perceived insecurity galvanizes exclusionary forms of identity politics which can undermine national cohesion and encourage dangerous strands of sectarianism and prejudice. Neither the U.S. nor Europe have prioritized the types of democratic reforms which might enhance the resilience of these states. The relentless prioritization of regime security, supported by external actors worried primarily about stability, ironically leaves these states more vulnerable to serious disruption.
The essays in this collection do not offer a single conclusion as to either the reality or the implications of declining U.S. primacy. By approaching the question of structural change from multiple diverse perspectives, they point the way towards better understanding its complexity and ambiguity. This analytical diversity parallels the divergent perceptions of structure, opportunity and threat by individual leaders across the region.
Director, Project on Middle East Political Science
George Washington University
Director, Bobst Center for Peace and Justice