The Middle East Moves On Without America

AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Saudi Arabia is normalizing relations with Iran with China’s help. Palestinian terror group Hamas sending is a delegation to Riyadh. And there’s a burgeoning civil war in Sudan. The Middle East’s major players are no longer waiting on America to return to a constructive role. Under Joe Biden, they’re rapidly moving on, and taking the region’s future into their own hands.

Meanwhile, the response from the Biden administration can usually be encapsulated by quotes from officials expressing “concern”–the geopolitical equivalent of something like a shrug.

A pattern has emerged—the three stages of the Biden administration’s approach to events in the Middle East. The first is denial, the dismissal of any possibility that certain events could happen. The second is angry, impotent posturing. The third, a form of acceptance, involves smiling U.S. officials suggesting that whatever events “blindsided” them were ones they had not only always supported, but had played a key role in bringing about.

The three recent major developments fit into this pattern perfectly. Saudi Arabia’s decision to normalize ties with Iran reportedly blindsided Bill Burns, the CIA Director, when he visited Riyadh a month ago. The National Security Council echoed that the U.S. was “informed” but “not involved” in the process.

By last week, the tone had shifted. U.S. officials briefed the press that there was no need to worry about China’s mediation in the region and it could even be a good thing. When Jake Sullivan called Saudi Crown Prince Muhamad Bin Salman on April 11, he “welcomed Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary efforts to pursue a more comprehensive roadmap for ending the war [in Yemen] and offered full U.S. support for those efforts.”

This new approach has an advantage over the impotent rage and ineffective saber rattling which followed the Biden administration’s failed efforts to bully Saudi Arabia into increasing oil production before last year’s midterm elections. It recognizes that the U.S. lacks the ability to do much to Saudi Arabia, and most actions the United States could take would make the situation worse.

Nonetheless, the administration’s approach is merely putting the best face on the collapse of what has been America’s policy in the region for the last decade.

That became clear with two other Saudi initiatives, neither of which it seems the U.S. was “informed” of or “involved” with.

The day after Sullivan spoke with the Saudi Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia invited Syria’s Foreign Minister to an Arab League Summit in Riyadh to discuss re-admitting the Assad government. When the Crown Prince met with Biden’s Middle Eastern and Energy envoys the following day, both were noticeably silent, not mentioning the initiative, or a Saudi invitation for Hamas to attend meetings in Jeddah.

Neither policy is likely to be welcomed by the United States, and particularly not by Barack Obama’s former vice president. Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Assad represents a decision to dispense with the last remnants of Barack Obama’s policy of embracing the Arab Spring as a means to bring down authoritarian regimes in the hope that whatever succeeded them would be better.

The result of that policy was the collapse of Syria, Libya, and Iraq into sectarian conflict, with regional powers such as the Saudis, Turks, and Iran holding the bag for funding proxy conflicts, while at the same time creating a climate of insecurity among the Gulf States.

There is an emerging contrast between China’s efforts to create “win-win” agreements with regional actors and America’s increasingly ideological lecturing. Take, for example, the U.S. policy toward Syria, which has managed to harm the interests of absolutely everyone in the region for abstract principles the U.S. has failed to uphold in any case.

Syria is not a democracy. Assad has not been removed for the use of chemical weapons. Iranian influence is not curtailed. Everyone – Syrians, Assad, the Saudis, Turks, Israel, even arguably Iran – have all lost. China, by offering to end the war, is the party offering to help everyone cut their losses. The U.S. no longer has pretensions of overthrowing Assad, but seems to want the war to continue, at the expense of Saudi and Turkish lives and money, out of principle.

What seems to have escaped U.S. policymakers is the meaning of the term “constructive.” A constructive role is a policy that is aimed at accomplishing an end that is attractive or beneficial to the parties involved. Neither the U.S. policy toward Syria, which can best be described as “No War, No Peace,” nor its role in the region can credibly be considered constructive by regional powers. It makes them less secure either in pursuit of goals which have been abandoned – deterring the use of chemical weapons – or abstractions that are not taken seriously, such as the western elite’s conception of universal democracy and values.

More worryingly, the same seems to be occurring when it comes to America’s policies on both Israel and Iran. The constructive aspect of the Abraham Accords for Gulf States was that it allowed Israel and the Arab states to pool their influence in Washington and around the world to contain Iran. It prevented something both Riyadh and Jerusalem feared under Obama – a U.S. rapprochement with Iran – and provided both Israel and the Arab nations with greater leverage in Washington.

Failing to grasp this makes it impossible for the Biden team to understand why U.S. hostility to Israel and overtures to Iran, rather than driving Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together, are doing the inverse. If the United States is not going to stand up to Iran in any event, Saudi Arabia has no choice but to make its own deals with Tehran. At the same time, if closer relations with Israel are going to worsen relations with Washington, not improve them, and cause the U.S. to move closer to Iran, not further away, why should Saudi Arabia accept those political costs? By abandoning support for the Jewish State, the Biden team has turned relations with Israel into a liability rather than an asset for many of the countries that signed the Abraham Accords.

Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Hamas reflects a lack of constructive signaling from the United States toward Israel, not a preference for the fundamentalist group. Revelations that the United States was aware of efforts by the Mossad, Israel’s own intelligence service, to oust Netanyahu, combined with U.S. efforts to topple the Israeli leader, mean that Saudi Arabia must take the prospect of an Israeli civil war, previously unthinkable, seriously.

In this context it would almost seem like an afterthought to mention the apparent civil war which has already broken out in Khartoum between two wings of Sudan’s military government, not least because it probably is an afterthought for the Biden team, despite peace being a passion project for the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. The country has been slipping into chaos since Biden took office. With hundreds dead, all Secretary of State Tony Blinken could manage at the G7 summit were vague references to “a shared deep concern about… the violence that is going on in Sudan, the threat that that poses to civilians, that it poses to the Sudanese nation and potentially poses even to the region.”

Joe Biden was able to muster $6 billion for a bribe which managed to offend all parties in Northern Ireland, but no suggestion has been made of using Sudan’s total dependence on international financing to force the parties to the table. Their conflict is treated as some sort of force of nature, like the weather.

That is why there have been so many articles about China replacing the United States as a mediator around the world, and why there will be many more to come. Whether in Syria, Israel, or Sudan, the United States seems increasingly to view violence and conflict as a kind of weather. It seems not to occur to them that those who live next door to violence would prefer to see it ended, even without considering how LGBTQ+ inclusive or DEI-compliant such settlements may be. If the U.S. has given up on playing a constructive role, then it is no surprise others will give up on the U.S. role altogether.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.

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