Middle Eastern leaders have learned not to rely on the United States


U.S. Foreign Policy Updates

The last American flight left Kabul airport amid the din of Taliban festive gunfire. The American and Western debacle in Afghanistan sets off alarms from Eastern Ukraine to the Taiwan Strait. The flash seizure of the country by the Taliban after a 20-year war sowed cold on Central and South Asia.

Yet in the Middle East, the arena of serial Anglo-American incursions, the reaction of the leaders to the American surrender has been contained. Both allies and adversaries were already beginning to realize that they could not count on the United States.

No one is blind to the military might that the United States possesses in unique abundance. But long before Washington accepted defeat in Afghanistan, the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 showed the limits of US power and its inability to shape geopolitics in the region. .

Despite trillions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan training and equipping their armed forces, an Iraqi army hollowed out by corruption and bigotry melted before Isis’ assault from Syria in 2014, just like the Afghan army, left to fend for itself by the United States, imploded against the Taliban.

But America’s unreliability has led Middle Eastern leaders to engage in dialogue aimed at detente, rather than depending on outsiders. Critics around the world have criticized President Joe Biden for spoiling the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet in the Middle East, officials see a pattern dating back to many presidencies.

George W Bush chose to stay in Afghanistan while shifting US attention and resources to the Iraq fiasco. This has rekindled the old conflict between Sunnis and Shiites into region-wide proxy wars led by Saudi Arabia and Iran or their clients. In 2013, Barack Obama failed to enforce his “red line” against the Syrian regime by using nerve gas on Sunni rebels Washington had encouraged from the sidelines.

Donald Trump was already chaotically heading out of Syria and Iraq when, last February, he concluded his withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, undermining the Afghan government which he did not even bother to shut down. to consult. Most disconcerting to U.S. allies, Trump refused to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia after Iran exposed the kingdom’s vulnerability with a devastating drone and missile attack on Saudi Aramco in 2019. In withdrawing US security guarantees, Trump decided it was the Saudis, not the US, that had been attacked.

“The fundamental problem is Arab dependence on foreigners, and then when foreigners change policy, we are lost,” observed a former Arab foreign minister before Trump’s reaction to the onslaught of Iran.

Now the Arab rulers are trying to get ahead of the wave of events before it crashes into them. Visceral enemies talk to each other. Iran and Saudi Arabia, at daggers drawn from Yemen to Syria and from Iraq to Lebanon, began to meet in April. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt, alongside Turkey and Qatar in the civil war in Libya, are trying to mend the barriers. Iraq, which is struggling for its survival as a unitary state, hosted a summit last Sunday bringing together the region’s adversaries.

All of this is provisional. Trump was offering blank checks to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Yet Biden rejected the impulsive Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto Saudi ruler, and more firm on an Israel encouraged by Trump to unilaterally annex the occupied Palestinian territory. Last week, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders met for the first time since Obama’s failed peace efforts in 2014.

But Biden must now find a way to prevent the Afghan catastrophe from emboldening Iran further. US policy has helped Tehran build a Shiite axis through Arab lands since the invasion of Iraq brought its co-religious majority to power there.

A key goal for Biden is to revive the 2015 nuclear restriction agreement that Iran signed with the United States and five world powers, which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018. The United States and its allies want also restrict the aggression of Iran and the Shiite paramilitaries supported by Tehran in the Levant. and the Gulf.

Indirect meetings in Vienna brought Washington and Tehran closer to a nuclear deal ahead of the election of new radical Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi. He said Iran would support a nuclear deal that would lift sanctions reimposed by Trump.

The United States says it’s on the table in Vienna. But Biden may have to go further. The United States unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 deal, but Iran did not begin to exceed its nuclear limits until a year later. Biden could start lifting sanctions just as unilaterally, setting a deadline for Iran to verifiably return to compliance. Iran might also be willing to work with the United States on Afghanistan (as it did after the 9/11 attacks) to guard against a reincubation of Isis. The United States and Iran aligned themselves against the group after it entered Iraq from Syria in 2014.

Iran needs economic relief, and Arab leaders want to focus on development and diversification away from oil – imperatives in a region full of unfulfilled expectations of young populations. The United States withdrew from Afghanistan, even sharing intelligence with the Taliban, in accordance with its own perceived interests.

In a region that has just learned one more lesson about America’s unreliability, it would surely be worth Washington to explore the power of the self-interest of others.

Video: Highlights from an FT Subscriber Webinar on Afghanistan


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