Middle East is not US priority. It is not a sign of weakness – opinion

Two significant events that happened in different parts of the world during August and September accurately describe current American foreign policy: the departure from Afghanistan and the launching of the AUKUS trilateral security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia to counter China. While many commentators have focused primarily on the ramifications of this pact on US-France relations, they have missed the big picture: The US is busy with restructuring its power in the global arena and it will not let anyone, even close partners, stand in its way. 

The current developments are rooted in long-term American policy that is focused on countering China in the multipolar world. All other projects, such as the “forever wars” that were initially meant to advance democratic state-building and regime change, are now officially abandoned. Israel, whose security is closely tied to the American presence in the Middle East, should take note and prepare for the future.

 A day after U.S. forces completed its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, refugees board a bus taking them to a processing center upon their arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, US, September 1, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE) A day after U.S. forces completed its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, refugees board a bus taking them to a processing center upon their arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, US, September 1, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

All eyes on China

Alon Pinkas, who served as Israel’s consul general in New York as well as [a] policy advisor for former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and political advisor to the late President Shimon Peres, was not surprised by the US’s latest moves in Afghanistan or vis-à-vis Australia, the UK and France. 

Pinkas believes that the speedy pull out of military forces from Afghanistan was necessary for the US, in order to focus on its top priorities, while the creation of AUKUS was an essential step in this direction. 

“Of course the French are mad, as they’ve lost their contracts and their status,” Pinkas told The Media Line. “However, the Australians have been saying for the last two years that they are not happy with the French submarines, that [is] not nuclear-powered. Australians had a revelation recently when China targeted their goods as a means of ‘economic punishment’ after Canberra called for a COVID-19 probe. The Chinese presented them with the list of demands that were to be fulfilled prior to mending the ties. The Americans were ready to give the nuclear technology to a country that is not nuclear but they demanded that the Australians will let go of the French contracts. Basically, the US is showing the Chinese that they are doing exactly what they promised to do and enhance their alliances.” 

The US, Australia, and New Zealand are also partners in ANZUS, a collective security non-binding agreement signed between Australia and New Zealand and, separately, between Australia and the United States in 1951 that was forged to cooperate on military matters in the Pacific Ocean.

Not only President Joe Biden but also former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump made efforts to switch the focus from the troubled Middle East to Asia and the Pacific, each in their own fashion. However, unlike Obama, Biden seems to be determined not to let the Middle Eastern drama drag him down in regional affairs, and, unlike Trump, he creates alliances and uses international organizations such as NATO and pacts such as AUKUS to promote his goal.

The Israeli dilemma

By the end of the year, the US also will withdraw from Iraq – though it will probably leave a contingent of military advisors and will continue supporting the Iraqi government, and it’s clear that many Middle Eastern governments, including Israel and the Arab Gulf states, feel that the situation is changing rapidly and not in their favor.

In the past few months, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, who all realized that the American departure from the Middle East is a done deal, have reconciled with Qatar and launched a gradual reconciliation process with Turkey and Iran. Israel, however, finds itself in a different strategic situation. It is worrying that Iran might soon turn nuclear and increase its malign activities near Israeli borders. Whereas Saudi Arabia and the UAE can afford to cautiously reconcile with Iran or Turkey, Israel is concerned that the US departure will embolden Iran and Turkey and other radical Islamic forces in the region.

“When the US is less concentrated on the Middle East, other great powers are filling the vacuum, [as] it happened in Syria. The US is hardly in the picture there, while the Iranians are signing treaties with China. It’s clear why Israel is concerned. It has to make sure that the US will increase its diplomatic efforts, even if there are no boots on the ground. The administration is absolutely capable of both walking and talking, and they are not doing it. Only now the newly appointed US ambassador to Israel is being confirmed while so many things are happening, and the Americans are not present,” Nadav Tamir, executive director of J Street Israel and former diplomatic advisor to the late President Shimon Peres, told The Media Line. 

While Tamir believes that it is wise to maintain good connections with every great world power, he says there is no substitute for the US.

During the last few months, the new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made significant efforts to restore good relations with the Democratic Party, which were left in shambles during his predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu’s reign; however, the recent development in Congress in which House Democrats removed a provision to fund replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system from a government spending bill, is a sign of changing times. 

“Israel will get the Iron Domes, as this fight in the Congress was more a product of internal political tensions than a strategic change of policy, and yet we have to understand that when nothing happens on the Palestinian track, it’s becoming harder for the Democrats to defend Israel and the US support to Israel.

Israel needs the US; it cannot afford to despair and just let go. Neither Russia nor China are our geopolitical partners,” Tamir said.

The discussion about the change in American global strategy is fierce and ongoing. For some critics of the current administration, it is convenient to present the departure from the Middle East as a defeat and as a weakening of American positions, since this process weakens their own position in the region.

During the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US was comfortable operating in a world where Russia was weak and China remote and insignificant. During those two decades, the US involvement in the Middle East had reached its peak. Today, when the world is no longer unipolar, the US, still the strongest country in the world, is fighting for its interests on other strategic fronts. However, the global power competition doesn’t stop at the Indo-Pacific; it also stretches to the Middle East. 

The ability of the US administration to balance its global policy action, including its military and diplomatic activity, will shape significantly the future of this region as well as the well-being of its strategic regional partners, Israel, and the Arab states.

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