Readjustments and Difficulties in the United States’ Middle East Policy

China International Studies | 作者: Yao Kuangyi | 时间: 2014-03-19 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Yao Kuangyi[1]



At the beginning of his second term of presidency, Barack Obama made his first foreign visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and held discussions with the leaderships of these countries on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear issue. Secretary of State John Kerry also paid a visit to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar soon after he took office. In September 2013 when the Syrian crisis was escalating, the United States and Russia agreed to a proposal of “destruction of Syrian chemical weapons in exchange for peace”, thus defusing the tense situation in Syria. In November, the United States and Iran, after strenuous negotiations, reached an initial agreement on Iran’s nuclear issue. In his speech at the 68th United Nations General Assembly, President Barack Obama talked at length about the Middle East issues. He repeatedly stressed challenges the United States confronted in the Middle East and claimed that Washington would maintain its core interests in the region through every measure necessary including military means.



I. Intentions of the United States to Make Readjustments to its Middle East Policy


While pushing forward its strategy of “rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region”, the Obama administration takes measures to readjust its Middle East policy out of the following considerations:

1. To coordinate American strategies in the Asia-Pacific region and in the Middle East. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States, as the sole superpower in the world, has been pursuing a strategy for global dominance. At the beginning of this century, after suffering from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration prioritized the Middle East in the U.S. strategy, and launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, huge cost of wars has worn down the United States and put it to the mire in the Middle East. The global financial crisis in 2008 caused severe setbacks to the U.S. economy, and up to now America is still struggling with weak economic growth, high unemployment and heavy debts. Barack Obama, soon after he moved into the While House in 2009, put forward the strategy of “pivot to Asia” at a time when the Asia-Pacific region has seen rapid economic development and has gradually become the strategic focus of the world, while the United States is anxious to free itself from the passive situation in the Middle East. Since then, the United States has made great efforts to shift its strategic center of gravity by taking military as forerunner, covering political and economic and other areas, and actively pursued its strategy of rebalancing to Asia-Pacific. Although such an eastward strategic shift has become America’s established policy, the strategic readjustment does not mean the United States will leave once and for all the Middle East.

The Middle East is a region with abundant oil and gas resources. It is also a place with many hotspot issues and a major arena for great power rivalry. The Middle East is vital to the U.S. global strategy. To be specific, Washington has five strategic objectives in the Middle East: first, to safeguard its allies, that is, to foster pro-American forces against those anti-American regimes with its focus on the security of Israel, Turkey and Gulf countries headed by Saudi Arabia; second, to prevent Russia’s return to the Middle East by squeezing Russian strategic space in the Middle East, maintaining America’s geopolitical advantages, and ensuring the United States’ leading role in the region; third, to fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; fourth, to strike heavy blows to terrorism and extremist Islamic forces; and fifth, to ensure a safe energy supply and economic security in the Middle East.

Although the world energy situation has undergone great changes because of the development of the shale gas revolution, the energy resources in the Middle East is still of pivotal importance to the sustainable and stable economic growth of countries in the world, including the United States. President Barack Obama said at the 68th UN General Assembly that “we will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region’s energy supply, and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy”. It is obvious that the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East constitute two important strategic concerns of the United States. The purpose of the Obama administration’s readjusting its Middle East policy and strengthening control over the Middle East affairs is to establish a more balanced and coordinated relationship between the Asia-Pacific strategy and the Middle East strategy. By so doing, it tries to avoid a situation in which the implementation of the strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region affects its strategic interests in the Middle East, and the Middle East strategy checks its rebalancing to Asia-Pacific. U.S. State Department officials have repeatedly said the United States has the capacity to resolve problems in both the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East.

2. To stabilize the situation in the Middle East so as to free itself from the predicament in the region and to pursue its strategies both in the Middle East and in Asia-Pacific more effectively. The turbulences in West Asia and North Africa, which erupted unexpectedly, have disrupted America’s strategy in the region and put Washington in a dilemma. After observation and consideration over a period of time, President Barack Obama, on May 19, 2011, made important remarks on America’s relations with Islamic countries. The speech was the second statement on the subject since he took office, and also his first statement on the situation in West Asia and North Africa. In the speech, Obama stressed that Arab countries are faced with new opportunities and a new chapter is opened in American diplomacy. Judging from the situation over the past two years and more, the U.S. responses to an evolving situation in West Asia and North Africa are as follows: to carry forward the diplomacy of values in order to spread American values and democracy to the Middle East, and to give support to Egypt and Tunisia in their social and economic reforms through assistance and debt relief in order to produce a demonstration effect in the entire region; to stabilize the situation in the Gulf countries, to strengthen their national defense capabilities through arms sales and to build up a multilateral security alliance among the Gulf countries against Iran; and to push forward new interventionism in an attempt to seek regime changes in those anti-American countries. Under the pretext of “humanitarian intervention”, the United States conducted brutal bombardment against Libya and overthrew the Muammar Gaddafi regime. In Syria, the United States made efforts to regroup the Syrian opposition and gave them support, drew a “red line” on chemical weapons for the Bashar al-Assad regime, and fabricated all kinds of excuses to topple Bashar al-Assad for a regime change. In dealing with Iran, the United States, in addition to diplomatic isolation, military deterrence and cyber information warfare and other means, focuses on imposing the most severe sanctions to date on Iran’s oil exports and financial system in order to force the country to give up its nuclear program. The United States renewed its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue: President Barack Obama reiterated American support to the promotion of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and he even proposed the division of the Israeli-Palestinian land based on the 1967 boundaries in order to please the entire Arab and Islamic world.

However, President Obama had more Middle East policy failures than successes in his first term. When Egypt started to have turmoil following the unrest in the region, the United States took a pragmatic attitude and abandoned pro-American Hosni Mubarak. As a result, many Arab leaders became suspicious of Washington, and their relations with the United States started to get estranged. The United States practiced double standards on matters concerning the nuclear issue and the disputes between Israel and Palestine. It tried to suppress the Iranian nuclear program while taking a partial attitude on Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, and refusing the Arab initiative on the nuclear free zone in the Middle East. It dished out the “two states” concept but openly obstructed Palestinian promotion for an independent state and Palestine’s efforts to join the UN as a sovereign state. And it even went further to threaten to use its veto in the UN Security Council. Since its predecessor’s Middle East policy was unilateral and military-oriented, the Obama administration took measures to make readjustments and put stress on “smart power”. But America would not change hegemonic policies for the benefit of its own vested interests. This will undoubtedly arouse indignation from a large number of Arab countries, resulting in the damage of American reputation in the Middle East. In the view of some Arab scholars, for many years the United States has been working painstakingly in the Middle East by investing huge amount of manpower, material and financial resources, but it has achieved little success, and its efforts sometimes even backfire. One important reason lies in America’s persistently arrogant hegemonic mentality. Meanwhile, President Obama’s Middle East policy is also opposed by many hard-line conservatives at home because they do not want to see Washington’s strategic contraction in the region and sharp reduction of strategic inputs against the backdrop of long-unresolved disputes between Israel and Palestine, the persistent Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear issue. President Barack Obama has been accused of “not proactive” and his Middle East policy of “naive and fruitless”. The unprecedented passiveness of the United States in the Middle East is another reason for Obama’s policy readjustments.


II. Major Elements of U.S. Policy Readjustments in the Middle East


President Barack Obama’s second-term Middle East policy, generally speaking, continues as it was in the first term, but with some clear-cut readjustments. The main conceptions for his readjustments are: taking the long-term instability in West Asia and North Africa into consideration, maintaining equilibrium among various political forces, and reshaping a U.S.-led and relatively balanced political landscape in the Middle East. The United States pursues a more pragmatic and unambiguous policy and strives to make progress on several hot issues so as to impress the world with diplomatic successes in the region.

1. To restart the Middle East peace process so as to ease conflicts with the Islamic and Arab world. Soon after his second term started, President Barack Obama focused his efforts on promoting the settlement of Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. In March 2013, Obama visited Israel. On the one hand, he tried his best to appease Israel and extended American firm support to it while urging Israel to apologize to Turkey for its attacks against Turkish humanitarian aid ships in an attempt to seek reconciliation between the two major U.S. allies and to help Israel get rid of its isolation since the regional turbulences started. On the other hand, Washington tried every way to cajole Israel into an early start of direct negotiations with the Palestinians. In his nine months in office, Secretary of State John Kerry paid eight visits to the Middle East in frequent shuttle mediation to persuade Palestinian and Israeli leaders to restart peace talks as soon as possible and press for concessions from both sides. The Palestinians gave up preconditions for resumption of talks, and Israel agreed to restrict its settlement expansion and release Palestinian prisoners in groups. By the end of July of the same year, Israeli and Palestinian representatives, with U.S. mediation, started their first direct dialogue after a three-year suspension. Although Israeli-Palestinian disputes involve the delineation of borders, Jewish settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the return of refugees and other complicated issues which cannot be resolved in a short span of time, U.S. efforts for a restart of peace talks are welcomed by the international community and countries concerned in the region, and this should be considered a success in the U.S. diplomatic endeavor. America’s move has obvious intentions: firstly, to curb anti-American sentiments in the Middle East so as to create favorable conditions for a smooth strategic rebalance in Asia; and secondly to show the U.S. role and value and to maintain its dominance in the Middle East through certain progress made in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts at a time when the Syrian crisis, the Egyptian situation and the Iranian nuclear issues are all in stalemate.

2. To make proper fine-tunings to its policies concerning Syria and Iran in an attempt to prevent the situation from spinning out of control and to strive for certain breakthroughs. Over the past three years since the crisis in Syria erupted, Washington has been carrying out a cautious policy toward Syria. Initially the United States worked to topple the Assad regime through military, economic and diplomatic sanctions and gave support to the opposition, although direct military assistance was avoided. With the situation evolving in battlefield, the United States changed its supporting tactics. Since 2013, the United States has intensified its support to the opposition groups as the Bashar al-Assad regime gains the upper hand in the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in February that the first “non-lethal” assistance of over US$ 60 million would be provided to the opposition forces and about US$ 1.4 billion in humanitarian aid be given to Syria in future. The United States urged the regrouping of the opposition groups and the elimination of extremists inside the “Salvation Front”. It also pushed for financial and military aid from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other countries to the Syrian opposition. When the government forces gained evident advantages in battlefield, the United States found that the Syrian army has got arms from Russia and Iran and support from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, and the split-up opposition could not fight against the government forces without any external help. The United States played up the “chemical weapons incident” to manipulate the public opinion, threatening to implement a limited military strike against Syria. However, taking into account the Syrian situation which was very complicated and sensitive, President Barack Obama tried to seek congressional approval first, and then shelved his military strike plan by agreeing to the Russian proposal of destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution aimed at the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons, thus “bringing the Syrian situation back to the track of peace from the verge of war and presenting a new opportunity for seeking a political settlement of the Syrian issue”. The Syrian crisis involves sharp clashes of interests among a variety of forces both at home and abroad, and there is no possibility of a quick settlement. In a nutshell, the Obama administration does not want to jump into a war against Syria, given the lessons it learned from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fact that Syria is so strategically important that it may affect the overall situation in the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s true intentions probably are: to maintain relative equilibrium between the government forces and the opposition, and to drag Iran, which supports the Bashar al-Assad regime, into the civil war in Syria in order to weaken Iran’s influence in the region, making way for the United States to foster a new regime composed of various pro-American forces. Meanwhile, Syria, out of a protracted civil war, will become weakened and even divided, and the country will no longer pose a threat to American interests in the Middle East.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, the Obama administration changed the previous tough attitude on Iran by the Bush administration by carrying out the policy of “carrot and stick”. On the one hand, by accusing Iran as a threat to international peace and stressing that Iran must pay for its reckless behaviors, the United States stepped up sanctions to deal heavy blows against Iran’s economy, and in particular against Iran’s economic lifeline of financial and oil sectors. On the other hand, the United States worked actively to engage in negotiations with Iran. In June 2013, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate conservative, became the president of Iran. He emphasized pursuance of a moderate course, called for new opportunities for dialogue between Iran and the countries concerned, and expressed his desire to settle the nuclear issue with the West. President Barack Obama was very quick to seize this opportunity and conducted “letter diplomacy” with President Hassan Rouhani. They had historical talks while attending the UN General Assembly. President Obama said for the first time that the United States did not seek a regime change in Iran and the United States respected the rights of the Iranian people to nuclear energy. Obama’s Middle East policy readjustments and President Hassan Rouhani’s new policy have brought about important changes in the bilateral relations between the two countries, and ushered in a new stage featuring political settlement of Iran’s nuclear issue. An interim agreement was reached on November 24 between the six parties and Iran after three rounds of hard negotiations. Iran promised to suspend, in the next six months, some uranium enrichment activities in return for alleviation of certain sanctions. This “historical agreement” is an important outcome achieved by President Obama despite great pressures both at home and abroad. However, the differences between the United States and Iran in ideology and geopolitics remain hard to be reconciled, and there are many uncertainties in a comprehensive resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue as well as in the improvement of the U.S.-Iran relations.

3. Taking a pragmatic attitude and downplaying the values of democracy and freedom, the United States, in the light of complicated factional and sectarian conflicts, focused on checks and balance over various forces to ensure American dominance and influence in the region. While continuing its support to secular forces, and in particular to those pro-Western democratic forces, Washington has made efforts to readjust its policy to Islamic sects by abandoning its hostile anti-Islamic policy and stepping up contacts with moderate Islamists in opposing extremist Islamic forces. With the Middle East reality in mind, President Obama said for the first time in his speech at the UN General Assembly that the democratic process in the Middle East is “not America’s core interest”. His words were described by The Washington Post as the most morally distorted speech by any American president in the contemporary time. The U.S. attitudes on the evolving Egyptian situation clearly reflect the American double-dealing policy. When the unrest broke out in Egypt, Washington first abandoned its ally Hosni Mubarak, and then intensified contacts with various factions that emerged in the turbulent situation. Betting on many sides, the United States started contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization it claimed to be a terrorist organization. When Mohamed Morsi, Chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, was elected president of Egypt, Barack Obama sent to him a congratulatory message in which he expressed America’s desire to establish a “strategic partnership” together with Morsi, and promised assistance to Egyptian social and economic reforms, hoping that Egypt would be an example in the region. However, President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the armed forces in July 2013 after taking office for one year. Although Washington had obviously given its acquiescence to the army’s actions in Egypt, the United States had to defend its democratic values by condemning the military’s violent crackdowns against pro-Morsi demonstrations and declaration of a state of emergency. Later on, it canceled the joint military exercises with Egypt scheduled in September, and froze assistance. However it tried to avoid determining the nature of the military regime. In November, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Egypt, and the United States formally recognized the Egyptian military regime. The Middle East Online, an Arab media outlet, pointedly commented that the United States is the behind-the-scene driving force for the recent two regime changes in Egypt, and the contrasting positions taken by Washington reflect its double standards on democracy, which showed that America’s policy in the region is based on its vested interests.

The Obama administration’s Middle East policy readjustments are of tactic change in nature, and the main feature of new interventionism and power politics remain unchanged. Since he moved into the White House, President Barack Obama has been pursuing different tactics, emphasizing America’s “smart power”, and combining the “hard power” with the “soft power” in order to effectively meet challenges in the region and in the world as a whole, and to maintain its strategic superiority. The main mission of Obama in his second term is to free the United States from the predicament in the Middle East, and to reshape its “leader as well as constructor” image in the Middle East. Therefore, America’s Middle East policy readjustments not only try to cope with the current difficulties, but also intend to make preparations to meet future strategic challenges in the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific region. As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a president free from re-election pressure, Barack Obama concerns ultimately his historical legacy. An article in The Economist magazine considered Middle East peace and development as one of the three issues determining Obama’s legacy.


III. Difficulties in the U.S. Middle East Policy


1. Simultaneous implementation of strategic policies in both Asia-Pacific and the Middle East may clash. Washington does its best to carry forward a rebalancing strategy to Asia-Pacific, and this is bound to affect its endeavor in the Middle East; similarly, protracted turbulences in the Middle East will restrain American eastward strategic shifting. The continued chaos in Iraq following U.S. withdrawal, the gloomy political solution in Afghanistan, deadlocked peace talks between Israel and Palestine, the stalemate in the Syrian crisis, difficulties in solving the Iranian nuclear issue in a comprehensive way, grim regional terrorism and increased uncertainties in Egypt, all these problems inevitably will distract American efforts and disrupt its strategic planning. As an Egyptian scholar put it, Obama’s rebalancing to Asia would not be smooth-going since the Middle East requires his extensive and in-depth involvement and so many hotspot issues would hinder his focus on rebalancing to Asia-Pacific. Issues in the Middle East are likely to attract America’s attention back to the region, and Washington will find itself trapped in predicament and will eventually end up in failure.

2. Collision between the ideology-oriented foreign policy and the reality in the Middle East. The pursuit of American-style democracy and freedom constitutes an important pillar in the U.S. foreign policy. George W. Bush’s democratic reforms in the Middle East aroused strong discontent among the Islamic countries with strong anti-American sentiments. Obama readjusted the policies, but without fundamental changes. Faced with the current unrest in the Middle East, the United States intended actually to promote the so-called “Turkish model”, that is, to establish a democratic political system allowing the participation of moderate Islamist parties. However, the ousting of elected President Morsi in Egypt shattered American wishful thinking. In the 1970s the total Westernization of the Pahlavi Dynasty brought about the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and recently Egypt has undergone abrupt changes with an elected president becoming a prisoner. This proves that American remedies for the Middle East countries have turned out to be a nightmare for these countries, and a pitfall for the United States itself.

3. The collision between national interests and value-oriented diplomacy. The maintenance of national interests serves as the primary starting point of the U.S. Middle East diplomacy. During the unrest, Washington adopted different attitudes with double standards in dealing with turbulences in various countries. On the one hand, it made efforts to suppress those anti-American secular republics, and even resorted to military intervention. On the other hand, it worked hard to ensure a stable and secure situation in its monarchy allies. However, in pursuance of its value-oriented diplomacy, the United States has never stopped selling U.S.-style democracy to its allies, thus causing resentment and resistance in these countries. The United States does not want to abandon its diplomatic values, and at the same time, it works hard to maintain pro-American regimes. Such inherent contradictions between its interests and value-oriented diplomacy will land U.S. Middle East policy in predicament repeatedly.

4. Selfishness in America’s foreign policy leads to its incredibility in the world and increasing centrifugal tendency of its allies and friends. America’s prisoner abuse scandal, its wanton killing of innocent civilians by drones, and in particular its large-scale global surveillance have severely damaged Washington’s image, and alienated its relations with important allies including its allies in the Middle East. In this respect, Saudi Arabia is a typical example. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to serve in the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member was an unprecedented move. Saudi Arabia intended to express its dissatisfaction to the UN Security Council for its inadequate activities in the world; what is more, the move was aimed to protest against the U.S. Middle East policy. The Arab News of Saudi Arabia said that Saudi Arabia was unhappy with the United States for stagnant peace talks between Israel and Palestine, and also felt disappointed with America’s failure to honor its commitment on the Syrian issue and its policy towards Egypt. The strategic alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which was established in the 1930s, is undergoing a crisis. That is the reason why Secretary of State John Kerry had to rush to Saudi Arabia to amend the relationship. An article in the U.S. Fox News Radio website commented that Washington’s policy failure in the Middle East highlighted a strategic evolution in the region in which America’s allies in the Gulf, one after another, has taken policies different from that of the United States. It is high time for the United States to make a reflection on its policies.

5. Intensive strategic maneuvering among major powers, in particular the rivalry between the United States and Russia for geopolitical and strategic interests in the region. For years Russia has been actively involved in the Middle East hotspot issues. Russia clearly intends to restore its traditional influence by returning to the Middle East and increasing its rivalry with the United States. The Syrian crisis is an important contest of strength between Russia and the United States. Being Russia’s key strategic ally in the Middle East, Syria is not only Moscow’s important economic and trade partner, but also a major market of arms. Russia gives support to the Bashar al-Assad regime out of its far-reaching strategic considerations. By keeping control over Syria, Russia will be able to guard against increasing U.S. pressures over Russia’s strategic space in the Middle East. And what is more, Russia will prevent Syria’s collapse and guard against the spread of extremism and terrorism, which might pose a threat to Caucasus and even to the five Central Asian countries viewed by Russia as its backyard, endangering Russia’s overall national security. The “chemical weapons for peace” swap is a deal reached between Russia and the United States, and Russia seized the opportunity and played a leading role. In this round of rivalry with Russia, Washington finds itself not only in a passive position, but also faced with doubts and misgivings from its allies. Commenting on the agreement reached between the United States and Russia on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, the American media depicted it the most disastrous day for U.S. and Western diplomacy since Washington ceded to Russia regional dominance. The United States and Russia, despite their compromise and cooperation, have formidable conflicts in their respective strategic objectives and policy orientation, and their intensifying rivalry in the region will undermine America’s diplomacy in the Middle East.

The Middle East will be in protracted turbulence. Sharp competition and rivalry among various internal and external forces are driving drastic changes and regrouping in the regional architecture. Arab countries and peoples long for peace and development. They are exploring a development path suitable to their national conditions. They strongly hope that the Middle East will become a peaceful, stable and prosperous region. This is an irresistible historical trend. The U.S. Middle East policy will come across greater difficulties and suffer bigger setbacks if it fails to change fundamentally to meet the trends of the times.


Source: China International Studies January/February 2014 107-121


[1]Yao Kuangyi is a senior research fellow at China Foundation for International Studies. He is also former Chinese Ambassador to Turkey.