The Cost of Neglecting the Middle East

Delegates attend the opening session of an energy symposium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 16.



Wladimir PutinThe attack on Ukraine tests the health and strength of the American alliance system. In Europe and Asia, US allies like Germany and Japan have banded together to defend an order that guarantees their security. in the middle east, not as much.

Asked to increase energy production to offset the consequences of sanctions against Russia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told French President Emmanuel Macron that Saudi Arabia prefers to stick to its production agreements with Moscow. The United Arab Emirates, another longtime American ally in the Biden administration’s doghouse, was similarly cool, abstaining from the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s aggression before backing a less consequential resolution general assembly. Israel, which must coordinate its military activities against Hezbollah and Iran in Syria with Russian military authorities and has close ties with both Russia and Ukraine, is trying to avoid alienating the US or Russia while it continues the chaotic Interface navigates between them.

The Obama administration was a disaster for America’s network of alliances in the Middle East. The early withdrawal from Iraq; failure to develop constructive policies towards the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt; the sorry aftermath of the intervention in Libya; and the repeated miscalculations in Syria, which eventually led to Russia and Iran taking the lead at the expense of a brutal civil war and the collapse of Lebanon, created a deep impression across the region of American incompetence and unreliability. President Obama’s frantic rush for an Iran nuclear deal that sacrificed the key security interests of longtime US allies to facilitate America’s exit from a region it no longer wished to defend deepened the sense of desperation seen by regional powers.

While American policies were superficially more favorable to our Middle Eastern partners during the Trump era, few in the region were impressed with President Trump’s competence or confident in his retention of power. Across the region, good relations with Russia and China are now seen as necessary complements to a dwindling American alliance of dubious value. If America is to prevent further gains for Russia and China and restore our central position in the Middle East, our policy must change.

Ukraine’s shock may force a fresh start in Washington, but so far the Biden administration has shared both the Obama administration’s skepticism about the value of our network of alliances in the Middle East and its blindness to the dangers of weakening ties. The root problem is a misunderstanding of how important Middle Eastern energy still is to both the world economy and American power.

Many policymakers and commentators radically underestimate the value of the Middle East relationship that has slowly built up over many decades. That’s partly because of green fantasies about the speed of the energy transition, partly because of surges in US and Canadian fossil fuel production, which until recently had weakened the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ grip on world energy prices. and in part a failure to grasp the importance of deep political and economic ties with the Middle East for America’s key industries, ranging from technology to defenses.

Abundant oil and natural gas flows from the Middle East at affordable prices are essential to the liberal world order. It’s important that major oil producers like Saudi Arabia balance their desire for higher prices with a long-term concern for the health of the global economy — and that American officials are able to sway their deliberations. It is important that oil-rich but geopolitically insecure petrostates turn to the US in the first place for high-end weapons systems, support for the American defense industry, and lower defense costs for American taxpayers. It is important that China understands that America’s deep ties with oil-producing countries mean that its energy supplies would be shut down in the event of a confrontation with the US. Holding China’s oil supply hostage is one of the best and cheapest ways to stave off an attack on Taiwan. Importantly, the US enjoys a privileged partnership with Israel’s dynamic and defense-oriented technology sector. And it is important that Turkey sells drones to Ukraine.

While American “soft power” goals in the region (spreading democracy, creating a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state) may be unattainable even with intense American engagement, our key security and economic goals have never been easier to attain. For decades, Arab-Israeli tensions hampered the path of American regional diplomacy. Today, most of the Gulf States are strategically aligned with Israel. Thanks to Russian assertiveness in Ukraine, Syria and the Caucasus, Turkey seems open to a new kind of relationship with Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh. Properly managed, a powerful network of alliances in the Middle East will bolster America’s global peace strategy at a reasonable cost.

As the Kremlin intensifies its disinformation campaign against media companies, the EU bans “Russia Today” and “Sputnik” with immediate effect, while pressure mounts on tech giants to do more in Russia and the US. Images: Reuters/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Markus Kelly

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Appeared in the March 4, 2022 print edition as “The Cost of Neglecting the Mideast”. The Cost of Neglecting the Middle East

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