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Does the decline of U.S. power matter for the Middle East?

Perceived or not, declining American primacy has real effects.

- March 19, 2019

Discussion of American retrenchment from the Middle East has been a persistent theme in debates in both Washington and the region for at least a decade. While some date American decline to its overstretch in Iraq and others to its failure to intervene more forcefully in Syria, the conventional wisdom today takes the retreat of U.S. power as a given.

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. Nor has any serious peer competitor risen to take its place, despite Russia’s opportunistic interventions and China’s patient economic diplomacy.

How have allies and adversaries of the United States responded to this supposed decline? What does it look like from Beirut and Brussels? To address these questions, the Project on Middle East Political Science and Princeton University’s Bobst Center brought 16 scholars from the Middle East, Europe and the United States to the American University of Beirut to discuss the impact of the shifting global structure on regional dynamics. (The full POMEPS Studies 34 collection of 16 essays, edited by me and Amaney Jamal, is available here.) Several themes emerged.

American decline may be more perception than reality

America’s military retrenchment is primarily from arenas where it overextended itself after 2001 such as Iraq or areas where it has declined more aggressive intervention to overturn the status quo such as Syria. The United States’ network of bases and deployments may be low when compared with the mid-2000s, but it is rather more extensive than it was during the peak of the 1990s U.S. unipolar moment.

The perception of U.S. decline in the Middle East 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 toppled Saddam Hussein but were unable to create a durable state in Iraq. President Barack Obama’s declaration that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must surrender power in Syria neither led to his overthrow nor prevented the country’s descent into horrific civil war. Moammar Gaddafi’s overthrow in Libya led to a failed state and interminable civil war. Tacit support for the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen produced stalemate and a humanitarian nightmare.

That the narrative of U.S. retrenchment was socially constructed does not make it any less real. The more that regional powers publicly doubted U.S. capabilities or intentions, the more independently they acted based on that perception.

The corrosive effect of uncertainty about U.S. policy

These perceptions of U.S. decline have 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 such as the nuclear agreement with Iran. But they understood them. President Trump’s policies have been wildly inconsistent, with internal disagreements routinely surfacing in sudden policy changes and mixed messaging.

Even the regional allies who welcomed Trump’s moves to upend long-standing policies could not be certain that he would adhere to those policies. Israelis may have welcomed the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but the secrecy over Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan left them uncertain about the future. The withdrawal from the Joint and Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) despite International Atomic Energy Agency certification of Iran’s compliance with its terms upended years of multilateral diplomacy and cast profound doubt on the reliability of any U.S. commitments.

Two issues most exemplify the corrosive impact of the administration’s policy confusion and mixed messaging: Syria and the Qatar blockade. Early in his term, Trump carried out a symbolic military strike against a Syrian airfield that seemed to herald a shift toward muscular confrontation with Damascus. But then there was no follow through, and nothing changed. In the fall, senior administration officials began publicly articulating a new strategy, which would maintain a significant U.S. troop presence in Syria in the name of combating Iranian influence. Then Trump suddenly announced the full and rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. After months of policy confusion, the United States may be keeping 200 or 400 or 1,000 troops on the ground. The rapid moves left others unable to formulate coherent policies in response.

Similar policy confusion and weakness were revealed in the U.S. response to the blockade of Qatar. Some U.S. officials pushed back immediately against the Saudi-UAE-led move. Trump undermined their efforts by tweeting his support. A succession of U.S. officials and envoys were unable to compel their allies to end it. This stalemate undermined U.S. capabilities to organize joint action, increased uncertainty about real U.S. intentions, and exacerbated perceptions of U.S. weakness.

Partisanship compounds this uncertainty. Everyone must hedge against the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. A Democratic victory is likely to lead to an intense but unpredictable backlash against policies identified with Trump. Congressional anger over Saudi Arabia’s killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen, and the close identification between Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Trump team, might augur a serious rupture in America’s relations with the Gulf. The prospect that a Democratic president could return the United States to the JCPOA creates strong incentives for Europe and Iran to keep the deal alive. All of this creates little incentive for allies or adversaries to make difficult concessions to a potentially transient U.S. administration.

Allies and adversaries shape perceptions of U.S. power

Those allies and adversaries are hardly passive players in shaping the narrative of U.S. retrenchment. They have an interest in either compelling the United States to do more or encouraging others to shift in response.

Russia profited from the perception of U.S. retrenchment and its own efficacy in Syria. It opportunistically played a weak hand to undermine U.S. alliances and project influence without significant material commitments outside of Syria. The perception led many regional leaders to hedge against U.S. unpredictability by entertaining offers of arms sales or military support. Hedging is not the same as shifting alliances, though the two easily have been confused.

China has welcomed moves by Gulf leaders to pivot toward Asia as a way of securing its economic interests. China’s very real and increasing political and economic weight is often overlooked because it avoids military interventions or an overt political role. Its partnership diplomacy and infrastructural investment is another form of hedging against uncertainty about America’s future role.

Europe, for its part, views U.S. moves such as abandoning the JCPOA and moving its embassy to Jerusalem as actually weakening U.S. leadership by exacerbating transatlantic differences. It is difficult for European powers to commit troops to Syria if they do not know American intentions, or if they see policy goals shifting from combating the Islamic State to countering Iran. But even this real decline of U.S. influence through weakened alliances could be quickly reversed by a new administration.

What about inside the Middle East?

An increasingly turbulent region consumed by domestic challenges and intraregional rivalries is simply less organized around U.S. priorities and less amenable to external control. The more that the United States offloaded policy to local allies and the less resources it was willing to commit, the more its allies could push for their own priorities at U.S. expense. The Saudi-UAE ability to harness the United States to its disastrous war in Yemen shows the potency of this dynamic.

Regional powers saw opportunities to extend their influence without restraint, while also fearing their rivals might do the same. Their erratic policies also reflected profound domestic challenges in key states. Foreign policy adventures are a way to secure domestic popularity, to distract from internal problems, or to protect against perceived threats emanating from abroad. Unqualified U.S. support for autocratic regimes encouraged their repressive tendencies, generating even greater internal instability and threat.

The declining domestic stability of its regional allies is an underappreciated dimension of the United States’s perceived decline. Key allies that 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. As priorities diverge and the United States is dragged into peripheral battles, the deterioration of its alliance system can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.