The next US president must establish a post-American order in the Middle East

Without it, dynamics of the region are heading towards greater fragmentation

A supporter of US President Donald Trump gives a thumb's up as he arrives to attend his final Make America Great Again rally of the 2020 US Presidential campaign at Gerald R. Ford International Airport on November 2, 2020, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. / AFP / JEFF KOWALSKY
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The Middle East is in the middle of a major reconfiguration, following on from what appears to be a regional breakdown of “Pax Americana”.

The process of American disengagement began under former president Barack Obama and has continued under Donald Trump, leaving a vacuum that many countries now seek to fill.

The question is whether the region can find a new equilibrium and avoid major conflict.

While Mr Obama and Mr Trump seem miles apart on most things, they shared a sense that the US had to withdraw substantially from the Middle East and from its role as the region’s primary military power.

But Mr Trump’s defenders would argue, perhaps rightly, that the President has been more consistent than his predecessor in his desire to fill the void by bolstering traditional US allies – Israel, Saudi Arabia and to an extent Turkey.

Soon before Mr Obama left office in 2016, he expressed his thinking on the matter in a much-publicised interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic  magazine.

At the time, he observed: “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians … requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”

Mr Obama’s rationale was that if regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran could “share” the region, then this could lead to stability that would allow the US to reduce its military involvement there.

A new US administration has the challenging task of finding commonalities among its allies

The detached, almost tone-deaf nature of his phrase seemed disconnected from the fact that Iran’s rivals regarded its regional rise as threatening.

In such a context, the idea of sharing anything seemed ludicrous.

Yet Mr Trump’s style of backing US allies, while it has created a front against Iran, has been unable to impose definite outcomes.

The reason is that as states in the region have adjusted to the reality of US disengagement, many of them have resorted to transactional power politics, where they might be allied with countries in one conflict and fighting them in another.

Turkey’s relations with Russia are a prime example of this detached approach.

Turkey and Russia, however, are not alone. Other countries are active in conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa – sometimes opposed to one another geopolitically or ideologically, sometimes working in alliances of convenience and sometimes operating independently.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the leaders of Sudan and Israel as he announces that Sudan will normalize relations with Israel at the White House in Washington, DC, on October 23, 2020. "Sudan and Israel have agreed to the normalization of relations -- another major step toward building peace in the Middle East with another nation joining the Abraham Accords," Trump said. / AFP / ALEX EDELMAN

This situation suggests that the dynamics of the region are heading toward greater fragmentation. Without a framework for common action and restraint, the possibility of a broader conflict or miscalculations leading to conflict cannot be ruled out.

That is why whoever wins the US presidential election this week ought to contribute to finding a mechanism to reducing such a possibility.

The cerebral Mr Obama was no less erratic than Mr Trump in the Middle East. After withdrawing US forces from Iraq, he had to deploy thousands of troops to both Syria and Iraq after 2014 to fight ISIS.

TOPSHOT - Former US President Barack Obama speaks at a drive-in rally as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden in Miami, Florida on November 2, 2020. / AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA

This should have taught him the difficulty of imposing simple solutions on the region. Mr Trump faced a similar situation when he wanted to pull US forces out of Syria in 2019. After pushback from Congress, he redeployed a smaller number to the east of the country.

Can Washington help mediate a regional package deal that can bring a new modus vivendi to the Middle East? If anyone can, it is the US, but there is also a major obstacle in that Iran won’t go along with anything the Americans propose.

That leaves a new administration with an equally challenging task: finding commonalities among its allies and laying the groundwork for a consensuses that can reduce regional tensions and advance US goals.

This will have to begin with a US effort to reconcile those among its friends who are currently hostile to one another.

Many rifts in the region will be difficult to resolve, but the main thing for a Biden or Trump administration to do is to facilitate a post-American order in the region that introduces mechanisms of conflict resolution, sets consensual red lines for behaviour and even sets up functional and informal institutional forums for the parties to address their differences, perhaps under US sponsorship, similar to what Russia did with the Astana process.

This may sound fanciful at a time when states are aggressively pursuing competing interests and see no impetus to be bogged down by US-defined constraints. Perhaps it is. But after this phase of chaotic interventions, the actors of the region will need to find ways to anchor their gains.

The US may no longer want to be in the Middle East, but it will surely remain in the region, as all major players have a stake in remaining on good terms with Washington. They realise that in all likelihood their ambitions will at some stage require American acquiescence.

Michael Young is a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut and a columnist for The National