Home Editorial Editorial: A Rudderless Middle East

Editorial: A Rudderless Middle East

With the U.S. increasingly losing relevance in the Gulf, and no takers to replace it, the region is in a state of flux

by Editorial

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The prevailing view holds that the Middle East is changing because of shifts in external dominance. While the U.S. seems to have lost influence, China and Russia are not yet Middle Eastern powers. In Gaza, Washington cannot persuade Israel to endorse a two-state solution or the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. Washington retains enough influence to dispatch two aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean and fly B-1 bombers to strike the Houthis and Iraqi militias, but not enough to prevent attacks on commercial shipping. Highlighting the decline of its diplomatic and military efforts, the U.S. is finding it difficult to deal with Iranian proxies and a recalcitrant Israeli government.

Iran has refused to unleash its most powerful proxy, Hezbollah—also under pressure in Lebanon—to drag the country into war with Israel. Tehran is also uneasy about the actions of its proxies in Iraq and Yemen. That “axis of resistance” was meant to keep conflicts away from Iran’s borders: but the risk of bringing them home remains. Even though Gulf states are not siding with Israel against Iran, they are not lining up against Israel either. The U.A.E. has maintained its diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel, to the point of keeping regular flights to Tel Aviv from Dubai and Abu Dhabi—even in the early days of the war, when the planes were nearly empty. Bahrain has seen anti-Israeli protests, and its toothless parliament has passed a symbolic resolution about severing ties with Israel, but its regime has ignored all that. The Saudis are still in a hurry to do their own normalization deal with Israel.

This time, the Middle East is “nonpolar” which means no one is in charge. To sum up: the United States is an “uninterested, ineffective hegemon,” with its rivals even more so. Fragile Gulf states cannot fill the void; Israel cannot, either; and Iran is seen only as a spoiler and troublemaker. Everyone else is a spectator beset by economic problems and crises of legitimacy. In a bid to regain its relevance, the U.S. has begun airdropping food and supplies into Gaza but cannot do much about what Israel is doing. Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice directed Israel to do all it could to facilitate humanitarian aid for Gazans; this order has been largely ignored. Much like the U.S., which ignores its own laws prohibiting security assistance for any country that is blocking the provision of humanitarian assistance.

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