For the last two years, although signs have surfaced much earlier, certain evolutions in Mideast gave the perception that the USA withdraw from this region. Among these signs, one can mention the end of the Iraq war, the sometimes unpredictable attitude toward the ‘Arab spring’ phenomenon, the reluctance over a military intervention in Syria, the signing of the recent agreement for 6 months with Iran or the calendar of the withdrawal from Afghanistan towards the end of 2014. And the pronouncing, at the end of 2013, of the ‘Asian pivot’ by the USA and the subsequent measures strengthened this opinion, so widespread among decision makers from the states of the region, as well as throughout the public opinion here.
This skidding of the USA from Mideast to Asia was coupled with two other significant evolutions. The first was the explosion of the energy revolution generated by the extraction of shale gas, which took a substantial start in the USA, heralding a real energy independence of the systemic hegemon about to become the main energy exporter of the world.
Or, in such conditions – the story of the US withdrawal from the region – why should Washington be interested in Mideast? At the same time, especially after the start of the Syrian war, Russia became deeply involved in the region, and this autumn it became obvious that it returned in the region from where it had been expelled by the USA one generation ago and begins playing a major role (the recent evolutions in Egypt led by the army after July 2013). Or, as the story goes on, such a performance of Moscow could not be implemented without the acceptance/disinterest/approval of the USA, hurried to pronounce the big systemic skidding toward Asia.
It is worth mentioning that such stories can also be heard in Europe, where America’s Asian pivot raised fears that the USA are abandoning the ‘old continent’ in their grand strategy; in justifying these fears one can evoke the still ongoing euro crisis or Russia assertiveness in its former imperial space and beyond (the recently confirmed deployment of tactical nuclear missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave).
There is something else that must be mentioned. Such a story is not shared by many American experts, such as reveals a recent post on the blog of Stephen Walt (‘Foreign Policy’ review). He wrote (21 November 2013) that “the United States has three strategic interests and two moral interests. The three strategic interests are 1) keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; 2) minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and 3) inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The two moral interests are 1) promotion of human rights and participatory government, and 2) helping ensure Israel’s survival.” According to this expert, the best way for defending these interests is not dominating the region, but shaping a power balancing policy related to that conducted by the USA during the Cold War, acting as an ‘offshore balancer.’ This means that the purpose is to prevent the situation in which one country – especially Rusia – dominates the region. “The United States didn’t need to dominate the region itself; it just had to make sure no one else did. Accordingly, the country relied on local allies for the most part, and it kept its own military forces out of the region save for brief and rare moments.”
Of course, these are the opinions of experts and it is hard to predict how things will evolve. Security, above all, relies on perceptions that are not always correct, and in the present circumstances it is evident that the perception prevalent in the Mideast – not just Israel of Saudi Arabia, allied with the US, but also in other countries, especially in the small Gulf states – is that the USA are withdrawing. Throughout these states, political leaders’ confidence in the evolutions of Washington in the region diminishes.
It is also undisputable that such perceptions spark questions about who can replace the weight and influence of the USA in the region, so that to avoid the insecurity and instability possibly generated by its absence. Moscow seems to have noticed this increasing reticence toward the USA, present in the Arab states of the region and in Israel, and accelerated its involvement here. Over the last few months, Saudi Arabia tried to improve its relations with Russia, especially in relation to the Syrian dossier, but its initiative was not met adequately, at least according to media reports. Also recently, a high-level Russian delegation (the heads of the Foreign and Defence departments) visited Cairo, where the aforementioned perception of the US attitude gains momentum. Not just the states of the region seem worried about the recent actions of Russia, but also Europe, which imports oil especially from this region, experiences a rising apprehension for a possible increase of the Russian influence. England, for instance, through the voice of its minister of Foreign Affairs, recently made it clear, during a visit to Bahrain, that it will strengthen the relations with Gulf states, while an article in the British press came with details about this initiative: “Apart from the prospect of negotiating a £20 billion arms deal, plans to revive Britain’s military presence east of Suez, which are currently being given serious consideration by Downing Street, would be a welcome demonstration that Britain, at least, cherishes its historic ties to the Gulf. “
The formula “revive Britain’s military presence east of Suez” revives a concept that seemed long forgotten in history books, at least since London’s decision to withdraw east of Suez, made in 1971 during the era of prime minister Harold Wilson. Back then, the United Kingdom decided to withdraw its forces from SE Asia first east of Aden, then of the Suez Canal, and the influence of London was replaced by that of the USA.
Other big European powers have their own opinions on the present evolutions in the Mideast. Without going into details, it is worth mentioning the attention granted by France to the crisis of Syria and, in general, to the evolutions in various complex dossiers of the region, also with regard to Iran, and Paris makes proof of an increasing visibility on the international stage through the ‘liberal interventionism’ it adopted for the last two years in Northern Africa. In its turn, Germany repeatedly mentioned that one of the fundamental principles of its foreign policy is ensuring the security of Israel, equivalent to a regional commitment that must be taken into consideration.
It is thus obvious that, even if the USA withdraws from the region – which some experts find unlikely, as Washington will continue to act as an “offshore balancer” in the region – the European powers belonging to the EU will resume a historic tradition of involvement in the Mideast. All in all, this is the immediate vicinity of the European Union and its security and stability represent matters of continental interest and – why not? – one of the main vectors of action for the affirming of the EU as a global actor.