LONDON – As protests spread across the Arab world in late 2010 and early 2011, the Obama administration struggled to decide a strategy. Torn between sticking with the autocratic strongmen who had long been America’s allies or democracy-seeking protesters on the streets, it lurched one way and then the other, only rarely committing completely to an outcome.
How much influence Washington ever had over events in the region remains an open question. Obama’s most decisive action — to intervene militarily in Libya to oust Moammar Gadhafi — unquestionably defined events there, although the unending conflict and instability since were hardly the preferred outcome.
In Egypt, the United States ultimately did nothing to stop the military regaining power, while in Syria support for those attempting to oust Bashar Assad was never more than lukewarm. Only when it came to defeating Islamic State was the U.S. truly committed militarily, and events of last week suggest that under President Donald Trump even that can no longer be taken for granted.
Even by the messy standards of Washington’s engagement in the Middle East, events over the last week have marked a low point. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Kurdish-held areas of Syria will be seen by many in the region as another indication of just how unreliable American support can be, with Russia only too eager to fill the gap by using its own troops to keep the Turks and Kurds apart.
Even much of the U.S. government appears to have been taken aback by the actions of its own commander in chief, who has clearly signaled that he sees his role as getting the U.S. out of the region altogether if he can.
Even if Trump loses the White House in 2020, any incoming Democratic president — for example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren — may be scarcely more keen for the U.S. to take a leading, particularly military, role. That means regional powers taking much more action on their own, often without regard to humanitarian or other considerations. Like Turkey in Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates know they are risking losing Western arms and support as they continue their war in Yemen, but that hardly seems to be affecting their reasoning or actions at all.
Within Washington, focus has turned to confronting China and to a lesser extent Russia, with greater domestic energy independence pushing the Middle East dramatically down America’s list of priorities. There is also no small degree of fatigue with the region. The administration of President George W. Bush, after all, was misguided in its hope that military intervention in Iraq would benefit U.S. security at home and abroad. President Barack Obama did scarcely better with his administration’s uneven embrace of the Arab Spring protests, which many in the White House and State Department hoped were a sign of a systemic, regionwide move toward more Western-style democracy.
That, it was hoped, would also help the U.S. and its allies in their long-running confrontation with Iran — indeed, a fixation on that decadeslong face-off has been one of the few common factors between the Trump and Obama presidencies. Instead, however, almost every step — not least Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq, now Trump from Syria — has played into Tehran’s hands.
Recent attacks on tankers and Saudi oil infrastructure indicate that elements at least of the Iranian government now believe they have nothing to lose by acting as they choose. The same is true of other, equally powerful regional states — particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Increasingly, as European and other countries block arms sales, such states are turning to China and Russia for support.
Nowhere is that more true than Turkey, which now finds itself likely on the receiving end of U.S. and European sanctions. Even before the events of the last two weeks, Ankara was embroiled in a furious row with Washington over the purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft rockets, a move that saw Turkey thrown off the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
A rapprochement on that front seems less likely than ever now, with the U.S. moving to sanction Turkey for taking actions that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan clearly feels had already been tacitly approved by Trump. That points to another complaint among America’s Mideast allies — that Washington’s sheer unpredictability in the Trump era makes it almost impossible to deal with. That shouldn’t be surprising — the U.S. president and his senior officials have often been on almost entirely different pages, particularly when it comes to long-standing military commitments in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
With an election looming, Trump will have less appetite than ever for engagement in a region he clearly views as politically toxic. But that may be less important in the longer run than the sea change taking place in the Middle East itself, where those calling the shots increasingly believe Washington is leaving — and are unconcerned by what America might wish.
Peter Apps writes on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.