US and Problem of Emerging Independent Allies in the Middle East

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ali Akbar Asadi
PhD Candidate, University of Allameh Tabatabaei & Expert on Middle East Issues

During the Cold War period, the United States defined its policies and strategies for the Middle East on the basis of preventing the influence of Communism and creating a balance of power against the former Soviet Union and its allies. As a result, it was not difficult for protagonists of the United States foreign policy to draw the lines and make policies because that clear-cut approach had made it easy for the United States to determine its friends and enemies in its foreign policy schemes. As such, Washington could promote its policy of creating the power balance in the Middle East through the support of friendly countries and its allies without any major concern. As the Cold War ended and the Russians lost their influence in the Middle East, the United States tried to boost its sway in this critical region by turning it into the exclusive domain of its influence. This was truer following terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The attacks, seen through ideological narrow vision of neoconservative US politicians prompted Washington to group the Iraq under the leadership of its former dictator Saddam Hussein, as well as Iran in what it called the “Axis of Evil.” The naming was followed by incessant efforts which aimed to bring about regime change in those countries, or to change their conduct in order to keep tight control over the Middle East region in the power games against other major international players. Developments in the past decade, however, and emergence of new governments such as a federal and democratic Iraq, which were direct result of the United States’ Middle East policies, have faced Washington with a new problem in this region in the form of “independent allies.”

The United States has actually gotten used to see the Middle East as a black and white picture and define the entire region and the countries in it according to their affiliation to Washington as friends or enemies. For example, Iran and Syria have been designated enemies as opposed to the Israeli regime, Saudi Arabia or Egypt (under the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak), which have been considered by the United States as friendly countries. During the past decade, however, emergence of governments which I call “independent allies” has posed challenges and problems to the United States foreign policy in the Middle East. The United States’ traditional allies like Saudi Arabia or Mubarak-era Egypt tried to maintain strategic relations with Washington in all areas and were also attuned to and cooperated with Washington’s policies through all kinds of political developments in the region. On the other side, despite differences with those countries in many fields and with regard to various issues, the United States never hesitated to provide them and their security interests with necessary support. The independent allies of the United States, however, still avail themselves of the main advantages of having relations with a big international power in their bilateral relations with Washington, or at least do not want to be on Washington’s blacklist of enemies. At the same time, they do not accept all the goals and regional plans of the United States without a question. At the first glance, it may seem difficult to both have relations with the United States, and remain independent of its policies. However, foreign policy behaviors of the new governments in Iraq and Egypt headed respectively by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Mohammed Morsi, as well as the reaction shown by the United States to policies adopted by those countries, are telltale signs of the emergence of this type of governments in the Middle East.

The Strategic Framework Agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad in Iraq and the level of two countries’ interactions show that both sides are seriously inclined to establish strategic relations and maintain them over the long run. This has been also obvious in Iraq’s arms purchases from the United States, especially in the contract signed to sell F-16 fighter planes to Baghdad. It is also true that in view of the heavy cost that it has suffered when attacking Iraq, the United States is by no means willing to let go of the Arab country, but is more willing to have it as a strategic ally in the region. However, when it comes to regional policies, especially with regard to Baghdad’s relations with Iran, interactions with Saudi Arabia, as well as different approaches taken to the Syrian crisis by the United States and Iraq, there are serious discrepancies between Washington and Baghdad. This is especially true with regard to Syria where Iraq is opposed to further spread of the crisis and foreign military intervention as Baghdad is really concerned about the spillover of Syria’s instability through the two countries’ common border. As a result, Baghdad urges that priority should be given to finding a political solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria. However, Baghdad’s approach to Syria has evoked bitter criticism of the US government and statesmen. They have been accusing that more than trying to take sides with Turkey and other Arab states which seek a regime change in Syria, Iraq is more in line with Iran's policies toward Damascus. This point was quite evident in a recent address on Iraq to the US Senate by Senator Robert Beecroft.

The situation in Egypt is, however, different and in view of the popular revolution which has taken place in the Arab country and special conditions of Egypt’s period of transition, it is difficult, unlike Iraq, to hand down a final judgment on the final state of affairs in this country. Despite this reality, there is no doubt that both the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the US President Barack Obama are willing to help cordial relations between the two states to continue and make no drastic changes to those relations. Although the United States has lost a close ally, [Egypt’s former dictator] Hosni Mubarak, it is willing for close relations with Egypt to continue after the revolution in the Arab country. Continuation of the United States aid to Egypt as well as persistence of political meetings and interactions clearly proves this. On the other hand, due to its current fragile and vulnerable situation and the need to gain political and economic support of the United States, Morsi’s government prefers not to cause a possible freeze in bilateral relations and do not incite Washington’s hostility. However, the willingness by new Egyptian leaders to maintain ties to the United States by no means denotes that they are following on the footsteps of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is planning a gradual shift to an independent foreign policy approach which may not conform to all the interests and foreign policy priorities of Cairo in all fields. Despite the conservative policy of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s address to the 67th UN General Assembly meeting about the Israeli regime and its nuclear arsenal, and also his initiative for the establishment of a regional contact group to resolve the crisis in Syria with the participation of Iran clearly prove how different and relatively independent are the views and the performance of new Egypt with regard to regional issues. At the same time, the American officials have indicated their discontent with Morsi’s critical approach to Israel and his opinion that Iran is part of the solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria, not a factor for its exacerbation.

All the aforesaid facts and signs obviously prove that instead of witnessing the rise of new allies in the Middle East, the United States is facing a problem in the form of the emergence of independent allies. The new allies, despite their willingness to have close ties to the United States, pursue their own independent approaches when it comes to regional policies. This problem has led to relative ambiguity, confusion, fragmentation and serious doubt in the US foreign policy approach toward such emerging states. As a result, while some American officials have been critical of regional behavior of the new governments, calling on Washington to revise relations with and support for them, others still underline the strategic importance of these countries, believing that the United States has to maintain its relations with this new type of regional political players.

Key Words: US, Independent Allies, Middle East, Cold War, Regional Political Players, Asadi

More By Ali Akbar Asadi:

*Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt and Viewpoints of (P)GCC States:

*Arabs against Iran's Nuclear Program: Security Concerns or Political Opportunism?:

*Saudi Arabia and Democracy Discourse in the Arab World:

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