A Bigger Bogeyman To Focus On: The US' Geopolitical Calculus in the Middle East

China's influence on the politics of the Middle East and the world at large has deepened the worry lines of the US.

5 min read
Hindi Female

President Obama, after his election, in 2009, chose to travel to the Middle East as one of his first state visits. It took President Biden over a year into his Presidency to visit the region.

Was this delay indicative of a trend, or such thinking is tantamount to reading too much into a coincidence? Probably the latter as the universe of foreign policy is not so lazy to signal through coincidences.

Elsewhere, in his clear-eyed analysis of the US engagement in the Middle East, Prof Vali Nasr, Johns Hopkins University has written that, “despite US protestation to the contrary, Washington is no longer keen on entanglement in Middle East conflicts—as has become clear to its friends and foes in the region.”

The trend could not be clearer. To the US government, “tighter linkages between likeminded Indo-Pacific and European countries” are the future.


The Push and Pull of Hot Conflicts

The US, in accordance with its own internal laws, is required to ensure Israels’ “qualitative military edge”. While the US has committed to remain “a staunch partner and supporter of Israel”; the Middle East policy has taken a surprising turn under the Biden administration. Consider President Biden’s interview in July this year, where he referred to the members of the Netanyahu cabinet as “extreme”. To be fair, President Biden has also been critical of the UAE and Saudi Arabia based on their dismal human rights record.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine changed much of this arithmetic.

The push and pull of hot conflicts have come to dominate the US attention. While the Biden administration committed to engaging with China in its terrain, Europe has taken up the rest of its attention. These events only left space for the approach of “ruthless pragmatism” as far as the Middle East is concerned.

An example of this is the US approach towards the Assad regime in Syria. While the State Department was critical of inclusion of Syria in the Arab League; it was overall in support of the objective of resolving the Syrian conflict (this is likely connected to the fact that the US is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Syria and in the neighbouring countries that have taken Syrian refugees).

In the National Security Strategy paper, released in October, 2022; the US government clearly articulated Russia and China as its major foreign policy challenges.

The document emphasises on engaging with Europe and the Indo – Pacific to be able to deal with the dual challenge of Russia and China. And it goes as far as to attempt to frame the major crises in the world in the context of warfare with China and Russia (this included, inter alia, the global energy crisis to the unwillingness of the Chinese government to cooperate during the pandemic).

Here, a desire was expressed for an integrated Middle East to reduce “the resource demands the region makes on the United States over the long term.”


A Bigger Bogeyman to Focus On

The proposed framework of action includes broad and airy principles such as strengthening partnerships with countries that subscribe to rule – based international order and promotion of values enshrined in the US Charter. In politics, lack of specificity is directly proportional to the desire to disengage!

And what to make of the incidents in 2022 and 2023, when the US “reportedly withdrew 300,000 155-millimeter artillery shells from War Reserve Stocks for Allies stockpiles in Israel to send to Ukraine.

According to multiple reports, Israeli officials acceded to the Pentagon’s request in order to avoid confrontation with the United States and because, according to one Israeli official, “it’s their ammunition and they don’t really need our permission to take it.”

In the readout of the meeting between the US and the GCC+3 at Jeddah in 2022; the Biden administration had placed emphasis on partnerships and integration. The President seems willing to be content with energy resources and minor triumphs.For example, thanks to Saudi Arabia letting flights from Israel use their airspace, Air Force One could fly directly from Jerusalem to Jeddah.

After all, there was a bigger bogeyman to focus on – China. The Chinese influence on the politics of the Middle East and the world at large has deepened the worry lines of the US.

Especially when the “most serious competitor” of the US, even with its limited security cooperation in the region, could bring Saudi Arabia and Iran to the table to reestablish diplomatic ties.

Though, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March, 2023, Secretary of State Blinken asserted that, “based on the information we have, I think what China did, in a sense cleverly was to at the very end of that process, take advantage of the work that these countries had done. And then basically host the conclusion of the agreement that they reached to restore diplomatic relations, not to bring it together themselves. They just happened to be the host of it.”

A glimpse of the future where decades long engagement of the US in the region leads to real diplomatic wins for China.

It is not just the diplomatic wins. There is a concern in the US about the “innovative comprehensive partnership” between Israel and China. China, after the US, is Israel’s largest “single–state trading partner”.

The indication of closer ties between the two countries can be seen in Haifa, where Shanghai International Port Group has been contracted to operate the new terminal; and, in Ashdod, where a subsidiary of China Harbour Engineering Company is developing the port. This is of importance as both Haifa and Ashdod hosts Israeli naval bases. One can be assured that the Biden administration has discussed this with their Israeli counterparts. 

The other part of the arithmetic is the financial involvement.

Consider this: in 2016, the US committed to provide Israel $3.3 billion in foreign military financing and to spend $500 million annually on joint missile defense programs (from FY2019 to FY2028). The agreement anticipates the likelihood of supplemental aid in emergency situations such as conflict. After the recent Hamas attack on Israel, the Biden administration is “reportedly requesting that Congress provide $14 billion for security assistance to Israel and $10 billion in general humanitarian assistance”.

In the full picture, it is not a surprise that the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan has emphasised the need for an “integrated Middle East region” in his interviews post the Hamas attack on Israel.

There is a trite joke that Lebanese comedian Rola Z makes during her performance: “Any veterans? Oh, thank you for everything you do for us. Without you guys, I wouldn’t be here today. There would be no wars in the Middle East.”

I think the US government has heard her. Loud and clear.

(Sangeeta Chakravorty is a former lawyer and currently a student at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from opinion

Topics:   China    United States   Israel-Palestine 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More