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Research Report

Implications of US Disengagement from the Middle East

Efraim Inbar
Copyright Date: Jun. 1, 2016
Pages: 33

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 1-4)
  2. (pp. 5-6)
  3. (pp. 7-8)
    Efraim Inbar
  4. (pp. 9-9)
    Efraim Inbar

    The United States is retreating from the Middle East. The adverse implications of this policy shift are manifold, including: the acceleration of Tehran’s drive to regional hegemony, the palpable risk of regional nuclear proliferation following the JCPOA, the spread of jihadist Islam, and Russia’s growing penetration of the region. Manifest US weakness is also bound to have ripple effects far beyond the Middle East, as global players question the value of partnership with an irresolute Washington....

  5. (pp. 9-13)

    From his earliest days in power, President Barack Obama has pursued a grand strategy of retrenchment based on the belief that the Bush administration’s interventionist policies had severely damaged US standing. In Obama’s view, a very different strategy was required: a non-aggressive, multilateral, and non-interventionist approach.¹ This has resulted in the erosion of US clout in several regions, notably Eastern Europe, the Far East, and the Middle East.²

    Most unambiguous was Obama’s intent to reduce the US presence in the Middle East. The rationale for this policy shift was clear: the region is among the world’s most volatile areas, and...

  6. (pp. 13-16)

    Whereas the Obama administration’s Iran policy has been primarily guided by wishful thinking about the possibility of encouraging moderation in that country, the apprehensions of regional actors with regard to Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions have correspondingly multiplied, especially in response to the nuclear deal. While Washington says it welcomes Iranian assurances “to work on regional stability,”15 leaders in Ankara, Cairo, Jerusalem and Riyadh see Tehran’s behavior as almost entirely unaltered from its pre-deal state in any meaningful political sense, with the added threat that it will be able to produce nuclear bombs within a relatively short time.

    The gravest consequence of...

  7. (pp. 16-18)

    Russia is fully alive to the potential for a reassertion of its historic role in the region. Though NATO proclaims that the European theater has diminished in strategic importance,22 Moscow seems to have other thoughts. According to Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu,23 the Mediterranean region, bordering NATO’s southern flank and the Middle East, has been the core of all essential dangers to Russia’s national interests, and continued fallout from the Arab upheavals of the past five years has only increased the region’s importance. Shortly after releasing that statement, Shoigu announced the decision to establish a navy department task force in...

  8. (pp. 18-19)

    The rise of a more aggressive Iran – a direct consequence of the US retreat – may bring about greater tacit cooperation among Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. A big question is whether Ankara would join this anti-Iranian alignment. The Turks and the Persians have long been rivals who have nonetheless displayed great caution toward each other in the more recent past. Moreover, Turkey under Erdoğan has been at loggerheads with both Egypt and Israel while simultaneously becoming increasingly dependent upon energy from Iran.

    Regardless of Ankara’s behavior, a reduced US commitment in the region is likely to influence...

  9. (pp. 20-22)

    US weakness in the Middle East will inevitably have ripple effects in other parts of the globe. Its credibility is now subject to question, and allies elsewhere may determine that it would be wise to hedge their bets and look elsewhere for support.

    The decision to exit the Middle East, while leaving intact a large part of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, has created incentives for nuclear proliferation in other regions of the world. Credible US guarantees backed by a military presence were once an effective way of encouraging states to make the strategic calculation in favor of nuclear restraint.28 Such...

  10. (pp. 23-24)

    Washington is retrenching. It is projecting weakness and eliciting doubts about its value as an ally. The US has the potential to snap back under different leadership, but this could take time. Building military assets is a lengthy process, particularly when it comes to training qualified military forces. Overcoming mistrust is perhaps more difficult. Certain strategic losses, such as foreign policy reorientation by former allies, are not easily reversible.

    US allies in the Middle East believe Washington needs a different lens through which to view international affairs.35 It needs a clear conceptual framework by which to identify friends and foes....

  11. (pp. 25-32)