US-MENA policy: Getting the messaging right

US-MENA policy: Getting the messaging right

Hafed Al-Ghwell

At this point, there is no mystery surrounding Washington’s intentions for the Middle East and North Africa over the next five to 10 years. Much of the discourse on the future of US-Middle East policy is dominated by a stream of superfluous terms trying to describe what has so far remained a nebulous proposition. Proponents of a diminished US presence in the region have since mainstreamed terms like “recalibration,” “rationalization” or “de-prioritization,” growing more vocal as the US seeks to pivot to priorities elsewhere on the Eurasian continent.
Unsurprisingly, this seemingly dovish view is now deeply embedded in US foreign policy-setting and will likely accelerate a significant strategic shift that is, truthfully speaking, some two to three decades late already. But unfortunately for America’s allies and partners in the region, what de-prioritization looks like or what it means remains very unclear.
For now, the Biden administration has not moved convincingly to dispel the confusion and uneasiness stemming from these statements not aligned with US actions on the ground, let alone what its allies or partners perceive of American intentions from the prognostications of pundits.
On the one hand, officials repeatedly insist that the US is not going anywhere, listing seemingly credible justifications for maintaining a sustained presence in a perpetually volatile yet geostrategically vital part of the world.
On the other, however, most assurances of US commitments in the future are quickly parsed by a White House seeking a resurgence of ambitious yet disciplined diplomacy to pursue clearly defined objectives as sustainably as possible, given finite resources. Again, Washington is attempting to tread a razor-thin line by insisting it will stay as the region’s security guarantor and ultimate broker but, this time, with substantially scaled-back goals and ambitions.
The White House is at least aware of the lack of clarity and has launched a campaign to address concerns shared by America’s partners and allies still not sold on this looming recalibration. But unfortunately, there seems to be a deliberate misreading of what answers the Arab world is seeking, given the repeated focus on how the US intends to pare down its presence rather than furnish concrete policy proposals or hawk positive visions about them.
Thus, the region will be left to its own interpretations of what a “right-sized” US-Middle East policy will stand for or not, what expectations it will have for both friend and foe and what Washington envisions for the region from 2030 and beyond. Of course, there is no shortage of clues on Washington’s policy intentions. Still, the lack of clarification and obvious concerns will complicate any “new” MENA posture, especially when expectations are still unconvinced allies and partners will shoulder it.
If a proposed “by-with-through” operational approach is to succeed (in relative terms), then greater clarity on Washington’s intentions and priorities is of paramount importance right now. Otherwise, well-intentioned domestic or regional maneuvering by some partners or allies — mainly in response to an inevitable vacuum in the shadow of a diminished US presence — could undermine its interests.
The reality on the ground also paints a pretty confusing picture. While the undeniable intent is a reduced footprint, the American military presence has remained unchanged despite the endless worries caused by an abrupt and messy departure from Afghanistan and the abandonment of US-backed Kurdish militias in Syria. Just recently, in fact, the unchanged force posture is likely why the US could, in conjunction with partners on the ground, launch combat operations targeting Daesh leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Quraishi and recapturing a detention facility in northeastern Syria after a week-long assault by Daesh operatives.
As a result, two distinct poles emerge. At the policy-setting level, officials are set on right-sizing America’s presence. However, at the ground level, recent flare-ups in combat operations have led to some concluding that the US is not done with wars in the Middle East — or worse, that the region’s conflicts are not done with the US.
Granted, two parallel narratives concerning the future of US-MENA policy are unfolding, where public, overbroad and ambitious statements are concealing more nuanced and detailed closed-door discussions between high-level officials from the State Department and their Arab world counterparts. But, unfortunately, if a rift opens up between private messaging of US intentions and public acknowledgments by officials, that too could further muddle an already complicated picture.
However, the scope of some of these private deliberations is easy to discern. For instance, if the next logical step by US allies or partners — no longer assured of Washington’s long-term commitments to their security — was to seek rapprochement actively and mend ties with adversaries, then the US is set on significantly deprioritizing the MENA region, even from a security perspective.
In fact, some of its other partners in the region have gone further to make inroads with Beijing and Moscow to hedge support from America’s great power rivals to shore up their national interests ahead of a potential US exit. After all, it would be exceedingly risky to miscalculate US backing and guarantees when faced with dangerous regional escalations. But on the other hand, US adversaries would also be wise not to underestimate its commitments, too, since the US military retains lethal over-the-horizon capabilities to respond quickly and decisively to emergent threats.
Regardless, the conflicting guidance and lack of clarity about America’s aims are already influencing the behavior of actors more attuned to US actions and unconvinced of its promises. If this discordance persists, it would be impossible to reimagine or envision a sustained US presence dominated by economic and political engagement with allies or partners rather than by the number of active military bases.
A cascade of assurances that the US is “not going anywhere” by high-ranking State Department and Pentagon officials proffer some relief to wary partners, at least for now. However, the trouble begins when these statements are weighed against a clear bipartisan focus on China in the Indo-Pacific and Russia in Europe. In a way, it does reflect the shifting priorities that are the point of concern here, but what is left wanting is messaging on just how the US intends to balance its interests vis-a-vis Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Clearly, while Washington will likely attend to some priorities in the MENA region, notably curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, confronting the jihadist threat and ensuring Saudi and Israeli security, overall, the region itself has ceased to be a top priority. Gone are the heydays of the US spearheading regime change and nation-building in favor of shoring up alliances and setting goals with absolute diligence. However, that too has its problems since most Arab world governments are left bewildered by how Washington will do so and to what end.
Suppose the grand military coalitions are a thing of the past. In that case, the only way to advance US interests is through striking unprecedented political bargains that will push America further away from its now unwanted role as the region’s police officer into a more nuanced and less effective balancer of sorts. This approach is already on display in Afghanistan, Yemen, parts of Syria and even in Libya. Unfortunately, most US-sponsored interventions in these hotspots indicate more of what America is not prepared to do than what it will do to achieve desired outcomes.
Unfortunately, this will not be enough and will likely set back Washington’s visions of a stable region absent vacuums from which transnational threats and risks to global security emerge. If the US is genuinely “not going anywhere,” then ambitious diplomacy must come with additional benchmarks and comprehensive strategies to not just maintain leverage in this part of the world but to better compete against its great power rivals. However, accomplishing such grand objectives lies in ensuring America’s Arab world partners and allies are fully onboard with and well-versed in what Washington hopes to achieve in the region and how. Failing that, even the most well-intentioned or choreographed shifts could easily embolden actors to test the limits of a recalibrated posture, unleashing new waves of chaos.

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