American plans to re-chart pro-U.S. Middle East policy backfires, refuels conflicts
After two wars in Iraq, the Arab Spring, Syria's conflagration, ISIS's near defeat, Russia's resurgence in the region, Iran’s advance towards the Mediterranean Sea and close to the Israeli borders, Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the relocation of the U.S embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as well as the killing of over 60 innocent civilians in Gaza by Israeli troops are some of the outcomes of the U.S. policies in the Middle East.
A new Middle East map, the U.S. had charted to put in place since 1990s of the past century, by a variety of means, has been in tatters without taking a shape and the region is again reaching the verge of new catastrophes with modern weapons and nations to be used.
The U.S both wants to have a final say in the Middle East and avoid responsibilities and expenses, which is impossible. “We cannot purge the world of evil or act everywhere there is tyranny,” Trump averred, in stark contrast to John F. Kennedy’s “pay any price, bear any burden…to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Instead, Trump was intent on downplaying expectations and limiting U.S. engagement: “No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East. It’s a troubled place,” he declared without admitting that this was caused by illogical U.S. policies. Simultaneously, by issuing contradictory statements, Trump promised to “try to make it better,” reiterating that “It is a troubled place” – the rhetoric that boild down to “though we wanted the best, but ended up with the same as always”.
A month before Trump reintroduced U.S. sanctions on Iran, he sent a secret letter to leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in which he urged them to put an end to their almost year-old schism. The letter charted a way on how Gulf countries should come to terms, including putting an end to the media attacks that their respective media outlets launch against each other.
Trump wanted to launch his campaign against Iran, and for this purpose, he wanted America’s Gulf allies to have reunified their ranks. Since the outbreak of the crisis between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, on the other, Doha has inched closer toward Tehran.
Because Saudi Arabia shutdown Qatar’s only land border crossing, while Bahrain and the UAE closed off their airspace to Qatari flights, Doha was forced to rely on its other neighbors, especially Tehran, which - naturally - would not miss the chance of exploiting a widening gap between its Arab neighbors.
But unlike Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, the GCC’s three other members- Qatar, Kuwait and Oman - have a different calculus when it comes to Iran. Small kids on the bloc are learning how to walk on the fence between big powers for fear of being bullied by one, or swallowed by the other.
Kuwait, for example, has maintained good ties with both Riyadh and Tehran over the past two decades. Kuwait is one of America’s most reliable partners, so much so that American officials call it “our foremost partner outside NATO.” Yet, despite its excellent ties with Washington, Kuwait has made sure to keep good relations with Iran too. Small countries know that it is in their interests to remain as neutral as possible, even if that forces them to walk a tight rope.
So when Trump urged the GCC countries to come together in preparation for his escalation against Iran, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman seemed ready to help reunite the GCC, but their officials seemed reluctant in endorsing a hardline against Tehran.
Another problem with Trump’s plan was his policy of turning Iran into a scarecrow, scary enough to make all GCC-member countries override whatever reservations they have against normalizing their relations with Israel, independent of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Abandoning the traditional Arab line of solidarity with Palestinians, this means keeping Israel out in the cold until the Palestinians get a deal to their liking, Bahrain and the Emirates have shown leniency in their dealings with Israel. Some reports suggest that even Saudi Arabia has allowed Israel’s national airliner El Al to fly over the Saudi airspace, which is another sign of thawing relations between the two countries.
Kuwait, and especially Qatar, seems unwilling to join their fellow GCC capitals in cutting Israel some slack. The Kuwaitis, and especially the Qataris, prefer the traditional Arab policy of holding out on relations with Israel until the Palestinians are treated fairly, and until Palestinians give the Arabs the nod to open up to Tel Aviv.
So while all GCC members do not mind some escalation with the ever-expanding Iranian influence in the region, they do not necessarily share Trump’s enthusiasm in completely vilifying the Islamic Republic and depicting it as dangerous as overriding Arab reservations against normalizing relations with Israel.
From the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini perspectives, the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” certainly applies to this situation. If Iran is their enemy, and Iran is Israel’s enemy too, then Israel becomes the friend of Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Manama.
For the Qataris and the Kuwaitis, ‘the Israeli enemy of my Iranian enemy is not necessarily my friend, but rather still an enemy in its own right’.
Such a complicated web of interests makes it harder for Washington to re-impose its sanctions on Iran. With the Europeans announcing parting ways with the U.S. over Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and with some Gulf states neighboring Iran showing more leniency in dealing with Tehran than the U.S. expects them to, the embargo regime that the Trump administration is trying to bring back on Iran seems to be born with loopholes. And without a resolution from the Security Council, states like Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and even Dubai - one of the Emirates within the UAE - will find it harder to enforce American sanctions.
The new regional order is partially based on a breakthrough in peace between the Arabs and Israelis based on the “outside-in” scheme, where Arab countries sign peace first with the Israelis, before the Palestinians do, instead of the old “inside-out” approach.
Yet, this Middle East order, as imagined by the Trump administration, seems to be a policy that follows his often improvised announcements, instead of him announcing coherent policies planned after sober and extensive debate.
Until Washington comes up with a better scheme for reorganizing the Middle East, the Trump administration’s policy toward this region will remain a set of improvised steps that aim more at shooting holes in the policies of former President Barack Obama than introducing a new coherent vision.