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Middle Eastern leaders have learned not to count on the US

US foreign policy updates

The last American flight has left Kabul airport, to the din of celebratory Taliban gunfire. The US and western debacle in Afghanistan is setting off alarms from eastern Ukraine to the Taiwan Strait. The Taliban’s lightning seizure of the country after a 20-year war has spread a chill across Central and South Asia.

Yet in the Middle East, arena of serial Anglo-American forays, leaders’ reaction to the US capitulation has been restrained. It was already dawning on allies and adversaries alike that they cannot count on the US.

No one is blind to the military might the US possesses in unique abundance. But long before Washington accepted defeat in Afghanistan, the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq showed the limits to America’s power and its inability to shape geopolitics in the region.

Despite trillions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan on training and equipping their armed forces, an Iraqi army hollowed-out by corruption and sectarianism melted before the Isis onslaught from Syria in 2014, just as the Afghan military, left to its own devices by the US, imploded against the Taliban.

But American unreliability has led leaders across the Middle East to start dialogue aimed at detente, rather than depending on outsiders. Critics worldwide have rounded on President Joe Biden for bungling the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet in the Middle East officials discern a pattern stretching back many presidencies.

George W Bush chose to stay in Afghanistan while shifting US attention and resources to the fiasco in Iraq. This rekindled the ancient conflict between Sunni and Shia into region-wide proxy wars headed by Saudi Arabia and Iran or their clients. Barack Obama in 2013 failed to enforce his “red line” against the Syrian regime using nerve gas on the Sunni rebels Washington had egged on from the sidelines.

Donald Trump was already heading chaotically for the exit in Syria and Iraq when, in February last year, he struck his withdrawal deal with the Taliban, undermining the Afghan government he did not even bother to consult. Most disconcerting for US allies, Trump declined to come to Saudi Arabia’s aid after Iran exposed the kingdom’s vulnerability with a devastating drone and missile attack on Saudi Aramco in 2019. Binning American security guarantees, Trump decided it was the Saudis, not the US, that had been attacked.

“The basic problem is Arab dependence on foreigners, and then, when the foreigners change their policies, we’re lost,” a veteran Arab foreign minister observed before Trump’s reaction to Iran’s assault.

Now Arab leaders are trying to get ahead of the wave of events before it crashes over them. Visceral enemies are talking to each other. Iran and Saudi Arabia, at loggerheads from Yemen to Syria and Iraq to Lebanon, began meeting in April. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt, on opposite sides to Turkey and Qatar in Libya’s civil war, are trying to mend fences. Iraq, struggling to survive as a unitary state, last Sunday hosted a summit bringing together the region’s adversaries.

All this is tentative. Trump was offering blank cheques to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Yet Biden has been dismissive of the impulsive Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto Saudi ruler, and firmer towards an Israel encouraged by Trump to unilaterally annex occupied Palestinian territory. Last week, Israeli and Palestinian leaders met for the first time since Obama’s peace efforts collapsed in 2014.

But Biden now has to find a way of preventing the Afghan disaster from further emboldening Iran. US policy has helped Tehran build a Shia axis across Arab land since the invasion of Iraq brought its coreligionist majority to power there.

A key Biden objective is to revive the 2015 nuclear restraint deal Iran signed with the US and five world powers, from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018. The US and its allies also want to restrain Iran’s aggression and Tehran-backed Shia paramilitaries in the Levant and the Gulf.

Indirect meetings in Vienna brought Washington and Tehran tantalisingly close to a nuclear deal before the election of new hardline Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi. He has said Iran will back a nuclear deal that lifts the sanctions Trump reimposed.

The US says that is on the table in Vienna. But Biden may need to go further. The US withdrew from the 2015 deal unilaterally, but Iran only started breaching its nuclear limits a year later. Biden could start lifting sanctions just as unilaterally, setting a deadline for Iran to return verifiably to compliance. Iran may also be willing to collaborate with the US on Afghanistan (as it did after the 9/11 attacks) to guard against a re-incubation of Isis. The US and Iran were aligned against the group after it swept into Iraq from Syria in 2014.

Iran needs economic relief, and Arab leaders want to concentrate on development and diversification away from oil — imperatives across a region bursting with the unmet expectations of young populations. The US withdrew from Afghanistan, even sharing intelligence with the Taliban, in line with its own perceived interests.

In a region that has just been taught one more lesson in US unreliability, it would surely be worth Washington’s while to explore the power of the self-interest of others.

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