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Is American interest in West Asia dwindling?

Left to itself, West Asia is inherently unstable. Most Arab countries are artificial constructs arbitrarily drawn on a map of the desert by British and French officials in 1916. The region is swarming with wannabe powers.

world Updated: Jul 13, 2014 10:22 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
US foreign policy,President Barack Obama,West Asia

Things fall apart, the centre does not hold. That is West Asia in a nutshell. The centre that is not Iraq, it is United States policy. The real story of the multiple crises that are tearing apart an area from Libya to Iran is that the geopolitical player that kept all these volatile balls in the area is no longer juggling. "The silent story of Middle East diplomacy," says a British official, involved with Syria, "is that the Americans aren't there anymore."

Left to itself, West Asia is inherently unstable. Most Arab countries are artificial constructs arbitrarily drawn on a map of the desert by British and French officials in 1916. The region is swarming with wannabe powers. Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia all want to be first among equals. As for the Arabs, many are still tribes with flags, prone to fratricidal conflict.

Once the British Empire shuffled off, keeping the West Asian peace was left to the United States. In the Levant and North Africa, the US backed a constellation of dictators. In the Persian Gulf it sought a balance of power that favoured its allies. Now, both these structures are falling apart.

If the popular revolts called the "Arab spring" surprised everyone, so did the American response of passively accepting the fall of long-standing sidekicks like Hosni Mubarak. After 9/11, two wars in the Muslim world, a domestically focused President Barack Obama's view was that the US should be out of the intervention business.

The third surprise is that Washington is also playing with the idea of shedding its role as Persian Gulf balancer. Holding on to the refilling station of the world was seen as a cornerstone of US foreign policy. Not anymore.

In hindsight, it seems more obvious why Washington isn't interested: there is no longer a balance of power to sustain.

The first US Persian Gulf policy revolved around outsourcing it to the Shah of Iran. When he was replaced by the virulently anti-American ayatollahs, the US switched to backing Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the Sunni monarchies led by Saudi Arabia.

But Hussein's invasion of Kuwait made him fall in the eyes of the US and triggered his first war with the country.

Even then Washington and Riyadh decided not to overthrow him because they hoped to restore an Iraq-centred balance of power. The difficulty arose when the US discovered Hussein's covert nuclear weapons programme as this nuclearisation would effectively end US supremacy in the Gulf.

The 1990s was when the wheels came off of US attempts to maintain a Gulf balance of power. Washington had isolated and sanctioned Iraq and Iran, the two largest Gulf nations.

They compensated by massively increasing the military presence in the Gulf. But this DIY policy was too difficult. Even after Saudi subsidies, Washington was spending close to $100 billion a year to sustain this huge military presence and Iraqi sanctions were proving diplomatically impossible to maintain. The ultimate blowback was 9/11. Osama bin Laden turned on the US because he hated so many US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The Gulf was now a hydra-headed problem - each crisis the US resolved created two new problems.

The second US invasion of Iraq was an attempt to resolve all these in a single stroke which included plan to create an Arab democracy to defuse the al Qaeda threat, restore the Gulf balance of power by bringing Iraq back into the picture, and eradicating the nuclear issue from region. It failed on all the three accounts.

The US' Persian Gulf policy since then has been one of passivity. Saudi officials persistent complain that secretary of state John Kerry's top priority in their region is to resolve US's nuclear differences with Iran, explains where the wind is blowing.

Iran, argues Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute, has been "the biggest beneficiary" of George W Bush's Iraq war. Events have only added to Iran's rise. "Iran will likely be the long term beneficiary of Iraq's demise since the Shia will have to rely on Iranian help. That means 80% of Iraqi oil will be in the Iranian orbit," he told HT. Iran has even begun toning down its anti-Israeli rhetoric, knowing Jerusalem remains a key obstacle to its geopolitical rise.

The geopolitical wheel is turning a full circle in the Gulf, returning it seems to the Iranian hegemony that existed in the 1960s. But there is one difference between now and then. Sunni Islam is heading down a path of extremism, with moderates among them caught between Shia power and Sunni militants.

Some Americans, like Daniel Twining of the German Marshal Fund, argue India needs to be more pro-active in stemming this militant tide. "Rather than stand back and hope that the region's radical currents do not impact India (they will), or that America will solve the problem (it won't)," he emailed, "New Delhi should be buttressing Iraq and working with the Sunni Gulf states on how to keep Sunni militancy at bay."

First Published: Jul 12, 2014 23:07 IST