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America's Grip on the Middle East Is Slowly Slipping Away

The disastrous Iraq invasion and the Arab Spring are radically transforming the region in ways the U.S. can't control.
 
 
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A colored map of the Middle East.
Photo Credit: Jim Vallee/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

New and unexpected strains in Washington’s ties with two of its closest Middle Eastern allies — Saudi Arabia and Turkey — have underlined the difficult challenges the administration of President Barack Obama faces in navigating its way in the region’s increasingly treacherous and turbulent waters.

While neo-conservatives, many Republicans and other hawks here claim that Washington’s Middle Eastern difficulties are due chiefly to President Barack Obama’s desire to disengage from the region and his failure to aggressively assert Washington’s interests, militarily if necessary, others argue that the forces unleashed by the 2003 Iraq invasion and the so-called Arab Spring have transformed the area in ways that defy U.S. control.

“(F)or all our unmatched military power, Americans no longer command the ability to shape trends in the Middle East,” according to Chas Freeman, Jr., a highly decorated retired foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Riyadh during the Gulf War. “Delusions of imperial omnipotence die hard.”

Among other trends, “regional actors are redoubling their efforts to recruit outside powers to support them,” he told the Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference here Tuesday. “This could produce some startling geopolitical realignments.”

U.S. officials were taken completely by surprise Friday when, in a bitter denunciation of the U.N.’s failure to effectively address the ongoing civil war in Syria, as well as the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia renounced the coveted seat on the U.N. Security Council to which it had just been elected for the first time by the General Assembly.

Adding to the shock was a front-page report in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday about a meeting between unnamed European diplomats and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud in Jeddah in which Riyadh’s former long-serving ambassador in Washington was quoted as saying that the decision to boycott the Council was meant as a “message for the U.S., not the U.N.”

Bandar, according to the Journal’s sources, said he was not only planning to reduce cooperation with Washington in arming and training Syrian rebels, but that Riyadh also intended to distance itself from the U.S., including by exploring military relationships with other powers that would presumably give higher priority to Saudi defence and other interests.

Asked about the report Tuesday in London where was meeting with his counterparts from 10 other countries that make up the “Friends of Syria” coalition, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that he had just held a series of meetings with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on which there had been agreement on Syria and other issues and that he had “great confidence” that the two countries “will continue to be the close and important friends and allies that we’ve been.”

Still, while Bandar words may be more bark than bite – nothing has yet come of his much-ballyhooed “secret” meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July reportedly to offer a major arms deal in exchange for Moscow’s reducing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – it’s difficult to escape the fact that Washington and Riyadh are increasingly at odds on a range of other issues.

These include Saudi support for the ongoing repression of opposition movements in Bahrain and Egypt and its failure to more actively crack down against private Saudi funders of Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the looming possibility of détente between Washington and Tehran that Riyadh clearly fears could eventually restore Iran to its pre-revolutionary U.S.-backed primacy in the region.

Meanwhile, on the Turkish front, Washington was clearly taken aback by a series of developments that likely to complicate ties with its only predominantly Muslim NATO ally, if they haven’t already.

 
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