The “world order” defined by the Cold War, and later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, characterized by a period of American dominance has given way to the current “global disorder” that has yet to coalesce into a stable and functioning international structure. Russian military aggression in Ukraine stokes fears of deteriorating relations between the two powers and makes the cooperation necessary to maintain global stability difficult. Some commentators even warn that a combination of Moscow’s nuclear capabilities with its continuing decline (both economic and demographic) could increase military tensions with Washington.
In parallel to China’s rise and the growing geopolitical challenge to Washington from Moscow, America’s international standing continues to be confronted. This is especially worrying as the U.S. is the only major power whose friendship and support for Israel are critical. It is also home to almost half the Jewish people, living in an age of unprecedented success. For example, the U.S. is not succeeding in preventing Western nations (including the UK, Australia, and even Israel) from joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, being developed by China. This is intended to deepen China’s regional and global influence, through creating direct competition to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in which the United States has decisive influence.
In addition, another development further threatens Israel’s basic interests: America’s increasing reluctance to become involved in the region. Israel will be affected not just by the qualitative change in its relationship with Washington but also by the shift in America’s global standing. Furthermore, the strengthening of the regional perception that the U.S. – Israel’s main ally – is in the midst of a decline and is abandoning the Middle East, serves to further undermine Israel’s deterrence power. Developments substantiating the insight that American interest in the Middle East is waning include Washington’s pivot to Asia, and forecasts that the United States will soon have no need of imported energy resources. A bold expression of the moderate Arab camp’s disappointment with the regional performance of the U.S. was the noticeable absence of Saudi Arabian King Salman from the May 2015 meeting with Gulf region leaders, initiated by President Obama, and which was intended to calm concerns over the nuclear agreement with Iran.
America’s continuing disengagement from Afghanistan (following the withdrawal from Iraq), combined with its avoidance of involvement in Syria even after Assad crossed President Obama’s “red line” (the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians), signal its desire to cap off the recent period of active military involvement in the region. Many Americans sense that this involvement, which carried a heavy cost – in blood and treasure – held disappointing returns and did not manage to achieve significant goals. The lack of appetite in the U.S. for Middle East involvement is all the more apparent now that the region is in chaos and in dire need of a powerful and stabilizing actor.
However, many commentators reject the “America in decline” theory, and many are convinced that the U.S. cannot completely disengage from the Middle East due to its potential to destabilize international security, instigate a nuclear war, and cause a global economic-energy crisis. (Even if the U.S. is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, instability in the global oil supply could lead to an unstable global economy, of which the U.S. is an integral part and dependent upon.) Obama repeatedly presents as an achievement of his presidency the fact that he ended America’s ground wars, which had demanded a U.S. military presence of tens of thousands of American troops in the Middle East. He describes, in an official document, the main guiding principles of his foreign policy as follows: “The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead…we are stronger when we mobilize collective action…America leads from a position of strength. But, this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world… As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes… we must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power. Indeed, in the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield. The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence.”1
The Obama administration increasingly describes its approach to the Middle East as a “dual engagement.” On one hand, there is the concerted effort to reach a political arrangement with Iran in order to halt progress in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, there is a similarly concerted effort to bolster the moderate Sunni states, which are worried that the U.S. has yet to determine whether its regional Iran strategy will come at their expense. President Obama’s promise to the Iranians that reaching a nuclear arrangement will allow Iran to become a “successful regional power,” is stirring fears in Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states in the region.2 They are concerned the United States will strike a “grand bargain” with Iran following the signing of the nuclear agreement that will grant it a significant regional role and allow Tehran to proceed with its subversive efforts to achieve regional hegemony.
There are those in the U.S. who are convinced that, in the long term, Iran would be a more preferable ally than Saudi Arabia. Iran has a young, relatively educated population interested in democracy and modernization, and less hostile to the United States. The fact that ISIS is a common enemy further strengthens this conviction. The opposite approach, which refuses to see in Iran an American ally, is strongly articulated by General David H. Petraeus, who claims that the most significant enemy of the U.S. is not ISIS, but rather Iran which is ultimately and at its core hostile to the U.S., and which is part of the problem, not part of the solution to Middle East stability.3