WASHINGTON (Dispatches) -- U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East ended not with a bang but a whimper, leading news publication Foreign Affairs said.
The rewards for his fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MBS, proved paltry, the magazine said.
“Saudi Arabia did not commit to increasing oil production. No dissidents were released. Human rights only came up when MBS dismissed criticism of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, which was carried out under his orders, by pointing to American silence over Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist who was killed in May in the West Bank by the Israeli military. Saudi Arabia did not announce major moves toward normalization with Israel, and no new security alliance emerged,” it said.
Yet the Biden administration had broader ambitions for the trip that aren’t fully captured by the scorecard of short-term deliverables, it said. The administration believed that it needed to reset relations with Saudi Arabia and other regional allies, working on the relationships for their own sake to better deal with a range of issues. The likely impending demise of negotiations for a revived nuclear agreement with Iran, as well as the rippling shocks from Russia’s operation in Ukraine, added some urgency.
“While media rumors ahead of the visit about the creation of a formal military alliance with the Arab states and Israel proved premature, the intent of the trip was to push the region toward a new regional order based on Israeli-Arab cooperation against Iran under American guidance,” the magazine said.
According to the publication, the United States is gambling on the ability of autocratic Arab states to embrace a regional order that includes Israel without concern for how these policies are received by their publics back home. But taking that risk at a time of escalating economic, political, and social crisis across much of the region is likely to backfire—as it has in the past.
Orchestrating a U.S.-led Middle Eastern regional order, the magazine said, has been a U.S. pastime since at least 1991, when the United States launched a war on Iraq to drive it out of Kuwait. But today’s Middle East is in no condition to be ordered by Washington, the FA said.
Middle Eastern leaders, it said, prefer to hedge their bets within what they see as an increasingly multipolar world, as could be clearly seen in their refusal to take the side of the United States and Europe against Russia.
“Were Biden to succeed on his own terms by bringing Israel and the Arab autocracies into a formal regional alliance against Iran, it would only repeat the mistakes of the past.
“This would accelerate the next collapse of regional order by reversing progress toward de-escalation, encouraging domestic repression, and paving the way to the next round of popular uprisings.”
This is not a period of U.S. dominance, the publication said. Even without a true peer competitor, the United States simply does not have the resources or the political capabilities to play the role of hegemon in the Middle East.
“Regional powers no longer believe the United States can or will act militarily to defend them. The Arab uprisings taught these autocratic leaders that Washington could not guarantee the survival of regimes that worked toward U.S. interests. Their nationalist posturing and relentless complaint of abandonment by Washington are not just a bargaining position aimed at securing more U.S. arms and political support (though they are that). They also reflect Arab states’ increased capabilities and their profound feelings of insecurity. Attempting ineffectually to reassure these states will go nowhere: their doubts are too deep, and American capabilities and political will are too obviously insufficient.”
Over the last year, it said, the UAE rebuilt its relations with Qatar and Turkey, ceasefires took hold in Yemen and Libya, and Saudi Arabia even held preliminary talks with Iran. The United States’ moves to build a united front against Iran—escalating arms sales and reaffirming security guarantees—could prove deeply counterproductive to these local efforts. The more that Washington moves to expand its military and political commitments to lead a new regional order, the less stable the region will likely become, it added.
Arab regimes have adapted quite effectively to Washington’s demands.
“At the same time, the United States is a mess, consumed by political infighting and polarization. Washington has largely abandoned even the pretense of promoting democracy or human rights. Advocates in Israel and the Persian Gulf argue that the Abraham Accords provide a vision for the region around which an order can be built, but all evidence suggests that Arab publics overwhelmingly reject the idea of normalization with Israel without a resolution of the Palestinian issue. An order relying on autocratic regimes to suppress public opinion rather than building an order that commands legitimacy beyond the palaces will not be a stable or enduring one.”