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2013-2014 Annual Assessment

The “world order”, both the one that prevailed during the Cold War and that which characterized the years of American dominance following the Soviet Union’s collapse, have been supplanted by a “world dis-order” that has yet to coalesce into a stable and functioning system. Alongside the rise of China and the increasingly assertive geopolitical challenge that Moscow still poses to Washington, an erosion of the international standing of the United States continues. Home to almost half the Jewish people who live there in unprecedented prosperity, U.S. friendship and support for Israel are critically important. The already-complex geopolitical arena familiar to us in the past has been further complicated by more recent trends that draw their force and direction from the various incarnations of the “Arab Spring,” the American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis in the United States and Europe, and the continued rise of Asia. Professor Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore has predicted that we are only five years away from a historic milestone: for the first time in 200 years, a non-Western country – China – will become the world’s largest economy in purchasing-power parity (PPP) terms. In this context, Mahbubani claims that: “The big question for our time… is this: is America ready to become number two?”1

The erosion of Washington’s readiness to lead the free world (and to use its power to do so), to develop its international standing, and of the manner in which its power is perceived – as weakening – by those who provoke it, found expression in U.S. hesitance in the face of the aggressive steps taken by Russian President Putin during the Ukraine crisis. Putin was not willing to accept the possibility that Kiev would favor a Western orientation and escape from Russia’s sphere of influence. He sent forces to the Crimean Peninsula (March 1, 2014) and initiated a quick referendum that transferred the peninsula to Russian sovereignty. Israel, it should be noted, did not feel the necessity to stand alongside the United States and did not join the 100 countries that declared Putin’s move illegal at the UN General Assembly (March 27, 2014). (A similar incident occurred on June 29, 2014 when, contrary to the U.S. traditional position, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that Israel supports the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.) The crisis is still in full force so it is too soon to assess how it will affect the Middle East. Various commentators believe that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, his appetite for broadening Russia’s influence will be felt not only in its neighboring countries, but in the Middle East as well. Others claim that, in response to West-imposed sanctions on Russia, Putin may harden his positions on the Syrian crisis and be less ready to assist in the negotiations with Iran.

Accompanying the trend of the United States’ diminishing international standing is another development that seriously threatens basic Israeli interests – the growing U.S. reluctance to be involved or present in the Middle East. Israel will be greatly affected not only by changes in the quality of its relationship with Washington, but also by a change in the United States’ global standing. It is interesting to note that, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center (July 11, 2014), contrary to public opinion in Arab countries, 71% of Israelis have confidence in President Obama’s ability to “do the right thing” in world affairs (in response to the same question, only 19% of Egyptians and 17% of Jordanians answered affirmatively).2 The perception taking root, that the United States – Israel’s ally – is in the process of decline and of abandoning the Middle East, erodes Israel’s deterrence capacity and the power associated with it.

Developments supporting the perception of diminishing American interest in the Middle East include the continuing economic crisis in the United States, drastic cuts in the Pentagon budget, Washington’s pivot toward Asia and the rise of China, and the forecast that the United States will soon no longer be dependent on imported energy. (Technological developments in the field of energy will enable the United States to replace Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading crude oil producer within a year, and by 2020 the United States will even become an energy exporter.)3

The continuing U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan (following the disengagement from Iraq) and its avoidance of military action in Syria, even though the “red line” concerning the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons – set by President Obama himself – was violated, testify to an American desire to close the chapter of its active military involvement in the region. Many in the United States feel that this involvement, which exacted a heavy price – in blood and treasure – was a disappointment and failed to achieve its primary goals. This bitter feeling was reinforced by recent developments in Iraq, where Fallujah and parts of Ramadi fell to radical Islamic forces at the beginning of January 2014. Many American soldiers’ lives were lost conquering these cities, and now it seems all for naught. The situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate with the impressive gains of the Sunni extremists working within the framework of the ISIS organization (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)), who conquered – without serious opposition – Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul (June 11, 2014) and extensive additional territory that place them not far from the capital, Baghdad. According to UN data, more than 5,500 Iraqis were killed during the first half of 2014.4 The United States and its allies face a difficult dilemma as to how to respond to this challenge, which makes a fiction of the central government in Iraq, erodes the last few achievements that still remain from the war against Saddam Hussein, and presents the West with a most extreme rival – ISIS – which controls more and more territory and which, according to most commentators, is significantly more dangerous and has much greater ambitions and capacities than Al Qaeda. ISIS seeks to erase the borders between Arab states in order to establish a united Islamic caliphate to be governed under the strict rules of early Islam. Jordan is preparing for the possibility that it will be marked as the extremist organization‘s next target, and Israel too has been forced to prepare for the possibility of a new and determined enemy on its borders. The threat ISIS poses led President Obama to deviate from his own policy and announce (June 21, 2014) that the United States would deploy 300 military advisers to assist the Iraqi army.

Polls show that 52% of Americans prefer that their country focus on domestic affairs and stop bothering with global affairs (this is the highest figure recorded on this issue in the 50 years since this question has been asked).5 Similarly, only 14% of Americans believe that military intervention is right answer to the crisis in Ukraine.6

This waning appetite for involvement in the Middle East is apparent just as the region is in the midst of a storm that requires a superpower’s stabilizing influence. While many commentators reject the notion of ” American decline,” some also believe that the United States will not be able to disengage from the Middle East because of its potential to undermine global security, possibly igniting a nuclear war, and cause a global energy-economic crisis (even if the United States were no longer to depend on Middle Eastern oil, disruptions in the supply would likely undermine the global economy, which would, in turn, damage America’s own).

Turmoil has characterized the Middle East since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring”. The civil war in Syria and the crisis with Teheran test the implications of reduced U.S. involvement in the region. The regional upheaval has made the American task of preserving relations with key states in the Middle East even more difficult. Thus, during President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia at the end of March 2014, serious disagreements emerged between the two countries, which have been allies for decades. Riyad’s grievance centers on U.S. policy toward Iran, which it sees as too soft, on the lack of U.S. military support for the opposition forces fighting Assad, and on the coolness that Washington has shown to the al-Sisi regime in Egypt. Like other states in the region, Saudi Arabia fears that Washington’s conduct in the Middle East may even signal its adoption of a new strategy whose aim is to create a regional balance of power in which Iran has a stabilizing role in halting radical Islam (at the expense of the United States long-term allies). It is still not clear whether the invitation for the Iranian foreign minister to visit Saudi Arabia is a sign of a new Saudi policy toward Iran (which could undermine the anti-Iranian alignment), or whether it is only a tactical maneuver. In announcing the invitation, the Saudi foreign minister explained (May 12, 2014): “Iran is a neighbor. We have relations with them and we will negotiate with them. We will talk to them.”7

The complex and fluid situation in the Middle East is forcing the United States to chart its foreign policy while, before its eyes, weighty considerations are pulling in opposite directions. For example: Should it give up on its commitment to democracy and human rights and focus on strengthening its friendship with the Egypt’s repressive regime in the interests of stability, whether real or virtual? Against this background, the messages coming out of Washington are perceived in the region as contradictory, and its grand pronouncements as not necessarily being accompanied by the practical actions that should be inferred from them. President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that he would not send his forces to dangerous combat zones unless absolutely necessary: “But I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary; nor will I allow and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”8 National Security Advisor Susan Rice explained that President Obama, in his second term, will follow a more modest approach in the Middle East and will not allow the region to dominate his foreign policy as it did those of his predecessors.9 Secretary of State John Kerry presented the opposite approach at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in which he labeled claims that the United States is disengaging from the Middle East “a myth”: “We are entering an era of American diplomatic engagement that is as broad and as deep as at any time in history… The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed retreat by the United States from the Middle East.”10 It is appropriate to ask: Which of the two describes U.S. Middle East policy more accurately?