US Must Adapt to the New Multipolar Order in the Middle East, Panel Urges

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Conference sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council and the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington explored the future of security in the region.

With China stepping up its diplomatic and economic activities in the Middle East, and regional powers demonstrating increasing autonomy in asserting their interests, the United States must come to grips with the fact that it is no longer the undisputed hegemon, a group of former US officials declared.

In this new power structure, the region will be “less secure, more chaotic, and difficult,” Mary Beth Long, a former US assistant secretary of defense, told a conference on Friday sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council and the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “We’ve got to deal with the fact that we are no longer top dog, that these countries are not against us—they’re pursuing their own interests. And we need to figure out how to deal with it.”

Long contended that this is not a matter of China’s challenging or supplanting the US role. Instead, regional politics is now constituted by multiple and shifting clusters of alignments. Some states will align over geography but diverge over economics; others will cooperate over certain issue-areas while clashing on others. The ability of the United States to find a balance among these groups and interests “is going to be really tough,” she said.

Former Ambassador Douglas A. Silliman, now president of the Arab Gulf States Institute, stressed that the relative decline of American power should not hasten a pullout from the region. “The United States can protect its interests in the Middle East, we simply need to compete a little bit more for them,” Silliman said.

Silliman’s and Long’s admonitions to US policy makers were delivered at the Council’s 112th Capitol Hill Conference. The event at the Dirksen Senate Office Building featured an in-person audience for the first time since early 2020.

The panel

Panelist Asha Castleberry-Hernandez, a former senior adviser in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, agreed that the strategic landscape was shifting away from an emphasis on military power and counterterrorism toward a spectrum of security issues, including “economics, technology, energy, diplomacy, health, and the military.”

But military capabilities must remain a focus for those assessing the future of security, asserted David B. Des Roches, an associate professor at the National Defense University. Countries in the region lack the capacity to develop high-tech weaponry, relying instead on Western partners. “The risk,” Des Roches said, is that the lightning-fast development of modern weapons often means that countermeasures are obsolete before they can even be deployed.

The panel covered a range of issues in regional security. While generally supportive of the Abraham Accords, the participants expressed concern that the Netanyahu coalition is making it difficult for Arab states to take the next step in normalization with Israel. However, Silliman and Long said, there are still potential areas of cooperation between Israel and governments in the region, even if there is no formal peace deal.

But there were notes of caution for the right-wing government in Israel. Castleberry-Hernandez observed that some American lawmakers, such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have called for the United States to reconsider the depth of its ties to the Jewish State. Such growing unease among the public and media about domestic politics in Israel could erode US support, Des Roches warned, as happened previously with American commitments to Afghanistan and South Vietnam.

On Arabs’ bringing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold, Silliman agreed with the Biden administration’s not seeking to play a role in this process but not actively blocking it, either. Des Roches lamented the failure of US policy while noting that the Gulf states had an interest in getting a handle on the drug trade enabled by the Syrian state.

Castleberry-Hernandez noted that this effort finds support not just among the Russians but the Chinese, as well.

Indeed, the role of China took up the bulk of the discussion. While many observers have argued that the brokering of an Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement demonstrates China’s growing influence in the region, the panelists cautioned that it is too early to draw firm conclusions. The Saudi-Iran deal itself could fall apart, Silliman said, if proxies tied to the Islamic Republic decide that it is against their interests to moderate and live up to Saudi Arabia’s expectations.

The panel

None of the participants saw China as capable of, or even interested in, replacing the United States as a military power. Des Roches argued that the Americans will not tolerate a major flexing of Chinese military muscle, and China takes advantage of this de facto security umbrella for its economic investment. “They get the benefits without the obligations,” he said.

The East Asian power could seek a base in the region in order to conduct surveillance and expand security cooperation with US partners, Castleberry-Hernandez added. If this were seen as successful, she said, other countries in the region could seek similar arrangements with China. This would mean competition between the two sides, with no single power dominating.

Asked if the United States should emulate China by placing more emphasis on economic development—such as the Belt and Road Initiative—than on military deployments and arms sales, the panelists objected that the Chinese model is not proven.

Chinese Belt and Road projects have led to conflicts with port interests in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, Silliman said. Oman scaled back Chinese participation in the Duqm Port because China did not live up to its promises of investment and the use of local labor. “The mere fact that there is a Belt and Road initiative or a Chinese military presence, if not a base,” he said, “does not mean that the Chinese are winning hearts and minds.”

Long concurred, stressing that Gulf states are trying to avoid the pitfalls of dependence on either the Chinese or the Americans. The Gulf regimes are saying to the outside players, “I need your technology, I need your diplomacy, but I’m becoming increasingly independent.” In this way, Long stressed, the regional states are mixing and matching American and Chinese offerings.

But when it comes to military security, she argued that regional states would not trust the Chinese to come to their defense.

“When I speak with my Middle Eastern friends, I do try to bring them back to what I think is reality,” she said. “‘Can you imagine China coming to your defense?’” The United States, Long added, will deploy “its most valued treasure”—soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers.

“I don’t think it’s conceivable that you’re ever going to see China do that.”

A video of the Middle East Policy Council’s 112th Capitol Hill Conference, “The Future of Security in the Middle East,” can be accessed through this link.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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