History is a Prologue
The Middle East has undergone a sea change at the geostrategic level, presenting U.S. policymakers with a new set of serious challenges. Today’s Middle East order is being shaped by these fundamental realities:
- Egypt and Jordan are no longer key shapers of regional politics and are fast becoming irrelevant to the emerging new order in the Middle East.
- Saudi Arabia today is more of a liability than an asset for the United States; while its security and stability remain a U.S. top priority, its Wahhabi identity is the source of its vulnerability.
- Israel remains the most powerful regional power but has been “relatively weakened” by the emergence of an asymmetrical strategic environment in the region.
- Iran, which had been relatively “dormant” from 1979 to 2004, emerged since 2005 as a new regional player to be reckoned with. Iran today projects its influence throughout the Middle East and Central Asia region of the world.
- Turkey, which was for decades secular-driven and Europe focused (while being a strong ally of Israel), has in recent years built a strategy focused on the Middle East and Central Asia rather than Europe. By recapturing its Muslim identity and making it a basis for its new national security strategy, Turkey reversed its pro-Israel stance of the past and positioned itself as a new independent and engaged regional player.
- Iran and Turkey are forging closer relations and fast becoming the “key shapers” of Muslim opinion and power (Shiite and Sunni respectively) in the region.
- China, which has the ambition and long-term potential of becoming a superpower that could rival the United States in ways not even the Soviet Union could achieve in its heydays, is aggressively seeking oil and gas agreements in the Muslim dominated region of the Middle East and Central Asia.
The emergence of Turkey and the entry of China as new players in the region has driven the last nail in the coffin of the old Mideast order and ushered a new era of power politics, with the Middle East and Central Asia becoming practically one, interdependent and inseparable geostrategic theater. Given this new Middle East order, what should the United States be doing to safeguard its vital and strategic interests in the region?
To design a new approach to the region that would have resonance with the key players and be ultimately successful in preserving its vital interests, the United States needs to fully understand and assimilate “why and how” this shift has taken place in the region.
I will attempt in this series to shed some light at the root developments that have caused the demise of the old Mideast order, the birth of the new order and its significant impact on U.S. strategic interests, and the viable policy options at the disposal of the United States, given the new realities of the region.
The Old Mideast Order and the Containment of the Soviet Union
The Cold War was the most defining phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century. In its efforts to contain Soviet influence around the globe, the United States designed a Mideast policy aimed at denying Soviet access to that oil and gas-rich region of the world. Oil security became the most important pillar supporting U.S. policy in the Middle East with Iran as the key ally in this endeavor since 1953 under the Shah.
The one event that changed fully the equation of power in the region was the1956 Suez Canal crisis, prompted by a tripartite military operation undertaken by Israel, Britain and France. Fearing Soviet penetration of the Middle East oil rich region, the United States responded to the crisis by pressuring Britain, France and Israel to withdraw. This single most important act convinced both Israel and Egypt that a new era had dawned on the Middle East, with the United States asserting itself as the new outside power in the region, eclipsing the old colonial powers of Britain and France. David Ben-Gurion of Israel was much quicker in his response to this new reality and upstaged Egyptian efforts by paving the way for Israel to ultimately become a “second pillar” of security for the United States against the Soviet Union.
U.S. Twin-Pillar Policy: Israel Security and Oil Security
From that point onward, U.S. policy in the Middle East was built on two pillars: the security of Israel and the security of oil. Israel had become an important strategic asset for the United States in its containment strategy of the Soviet Union. Oil security, on the other hand, was of paramount importance to the United States in order to secure the free flow of oil, the lifeblood of the world’s economy.
The Arab-Israeli conflict in its nascent years was considered a “nuisance” at best by the United States. As long as oil security was assured via the strategic relationship with Iran, a non-Arab country that had recognized Israel, the twin-pillar policy was safe. Furthermore, the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab world proved Israel’s military superiority in defeating the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and led to Israel’s occupation of Egypt’s Sinai, Syria’s Golan Heights, and the Palestinian territories of Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank.
Arab governments, having felt humiliated by their defeat in 1967, worked diligently to orchestrate a comeback and reassert their power in a region that was dominated by Israel and Iran – both enjoying close relations with and the strong backing of the United States. The 1973 war, also known as the Yom Kippur War or the October War, was an attempt by Arab governments to do just that. The armies of Egypt and Syria launched a simultaneous and surprise attack aimed at recapturing the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The arms supply by the Soviet Union to Egypt and Syria was answered by the United States organizing a strategic airlift of weapons and military supplies to Israel, which led Saudi Arabia to orchestrate an oil embargo against the United States and the West.
For the first time, the Arab-Israeli conflict had a direct impact on both Israeli security and oil security, thus proving it had the potential to disrupt the U.S. twin-pillar policy. In order to contain this new development, the United States added a third pillar to its Mideast policy: the Peace Process.
U.S. Third-Pillar Policy: the Middle East Peace Process
In the aftermath of the 1973 war and the oil embargo that ensued, the immediate objective of the United States was to ensure that the Arab-Israeli conflict would not jeopardize its twin-pillar policy. If full and comprehensive peace could be achieved between Israel and the Arab world, that would be ideal; however, U.S. policymakers, being quite skeptical of such an outcome in the foreseeable short/midterms, focused their energies on structuring a mechanism called “Process” that would “manage” the Arab-Israeli conflict to achieve three main objectives:
- Ensure the Israel security pillar by pursuing a separate peace between Israel and Egypt, the latter having been deemed by the United States as the only Arab power with the potential capacity to seriously endanger Israel’s safety. In addition, drawing Egypt closer to the United States through the peace process would deny the Soviet Union a critical ally. Henry Kissinger’s famous quote, “No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria” best illustrates this objective.
- Safeguard the oil security pillar by creating an environment in the region that would make it easier for Arab oil countries in the Gulf (especially Saudi Arabia) to resist the persistent calls by Arab nationalists advocating the use of oil as a political weapon against U.S. policy in the region.
- Keeping both pillars “unlinked,” as separate from each other as possible with no pillar’s challenges endangering the other.
The Peace Process was quite effective in its early days. By 1978, it produced the Camp David Accords establishing “peace” between Israel and Egypt. The fact that the peace between Egypt and Israel was “cold” (because it did not produce the kind of normalized relations expected in a “warm” peace) was relatively inconsequential to U.S. policy-makers; after all, the first objective of the Process was to enhance Israel’s security by neutralizing Egypt’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Peace Process also achieved its second and third objectives by providing the rationale and the comfort zone for Arab oil gulf countries (with the exception of Iraq, which was ruled by Baathist Arab nationalists) to adopt a “politically neutral” oil policy and continue to accept Iran’s unique role in ensuring oil security in the region.
Stay tuned for Part II of this series, subtitled “Oil Security at Risk”
Cultural intelligence matters!