Commentary

Kerry in Middle East to Calm U.S. Allies

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has returned to the Middle East amid rising concerns from the Saudis, the Egyptians and others who fear the United States is abandoning them in favor of a rapprochement with Iran. Many commentators doubt Mr. Kerry will be able to overcome the anger and suspicion of Riyadh especially, which has taken an unprecedentedly loud stand against President Obama’s change of heart on military intervention in Syria. Likewise, the Egyptian military is still smarting from the suspension of U.S. military aid in the aftermath of the ousting of President Mohammad Morsi. Even though some hold out hope that relations will improve, there is a concern that a perceived lack of an overarching U.S. strategy for the Middle East might yet do further harm to Washington’s relations with its traditional regional allies.

Written at the start of what it calls ‘John Kerry’s whirlwind tour’ in the region, the Khaleej Times editorial expresses a view shared by many that “he will have much on his plate as he is debriefed in the Arab capitals on the simmering ground realities....Kerry will also have a tough time in Riyadh as he tries to explain to the Saudis why Washington backtracked from its earlier policy of going for strikes against Damascus. It remains to be seen whether America’s top diplomat is able to allay Saudi Arabia’s reservations on America’s inconsistent approach towards the Muslim world and persuade it to accept a seat at the UN Security Council early next year.”

Nonetheless, as Gulf Times’ Marco Mierke points out, the visit is much needed, since some of America’s main allies in the region are feeling jittery about Washington’s policy, especially  regarding Syria: “The fact that Egypt was not originally on Kerry’s official plan speaks volumes: although the U.S. government does not regard the ousting of the democratically-elected Mursi as a coup, it still suspended aid for the Egyptian military. There is substantial tension between the two parties, which had been close allies until now. Saudi Arabia appears to want some clarity, too. Riyadh is annoyed by Washington’s Syria policy. The U.S. decision not to carry out a military strike on Syria as punishment for the use of chemical weapons blamed on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been puzzling to many in Saudi Arabia.”

There does appear to be some initial success, at least according to the Khaleej Times, which followed its initial skeptical assessment with a more upbeat editorial just two days later: “During his visit to Saudi Arabia, the articulate U.S. secretary of state seems to have succeeded in allaying recent concerns that Washington’s hip-hop diplomacy has created in many a capitals in the region....The reiteration of trust has come at a time when ground realities in the region are in a flux. The nuclear talks that Washington is set to resume with Tehran this week could be a milestone if it results in persuading the Islamic republic to scale down its ambitious uranium enrichment programme, and open up the country for trade. Neutralising Iran will serve as a security cushion for the Arab states. Similarly, a rejuvenated Saudi diplomacy can play a greater role in prevailing over the Syrian opposition for entering into meaningful talks at Geneva later this month. Kerry has just laid the ground for a broad-based understanding of divisive issues.”

However, not everyone is convinced. In an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News Mr. Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman of the Gulf Research Center, believes the inconsistency of the Obama administration’s policy towards the region has been that the Saudis now see Mr. Obama as “a ‘Paper Tiger President’ in the White House....While it remains the case that U.S. is the only country in the world that can project power effectively anywhere and anytime, the Obama administration’s hands-off approach has made U.S. policy look like a set of meaningless and empty promises.... it needs to be clearly understood that for the Saudi decision-making circles, the alliance with the U.S. might be irreplaceable, but certainly not indispensable. The differences are not irreconcilable yet, but considering the direction in which the Obama administration is moving, one cannot be very optimistic about the future of U.S.-Saudi relations.”

The Daily Star (Lebanon) editorial is even less forgiving, labeling the U.S. policy in the Middle East across a series of issues ‘failed’: “U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s current Middle Eastern tour is a patently obvious attempt to salvage relations between America and its key partners in the region, badly burnt over differences on Syria and Iran, but his trip reeks of both desperation and hypocrisy, and sadly for the U.S., appears to have come too late....The U.S.’ position in the Middle East is changing, and faster, and perhaps more irrevocably, than it is prepared to accept. Nowhere has this descent been more evident than vis-a-vis the American relationship with Saudi Arabia over recent weeks....However it appears that Kerry’s Middle Eastern charm offensive may be too little, too late. The many countries of the region have grown tired of the U.S.’ broken promises and self-serving interests.”

Part of the problem, argues Al Hayat’s Jihad el-Khazen, is a lack of an overall U.S. strategy for the region which allegedly allows other countries to manipulate it according to their own interests: “The policy that America is currently adopting is a policy of disengagement in the Middle East and anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken....The politics of disengagement mean that the American Administration is solely working for two purposes: the dismantlement of the chemical weapons in Syria; and preventing Iran from carrying out uranium enrichment above twenty percent, thus maintaining a limited and peaceful nuclear program there. These are purely Israeli objectives. Syria and Iran can never represent a threat to the USA, neither now, nor in a thousand years. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration shrank its politics in the Middle East according to Israel’s wishes, knowing that the latter is practicing occupation, killings, and destruction and that it surely possesses a nuclear arsenal.”

For Francis Matthew, the editor-at-large of Gulf News, the lack of a ‘consistent strategy in either Middle East or Asia’ means that the United States risks losing the footing and standing in both: “Important events in the Middle East have derailed Obama’s much-publicised ‘pivot to Asia,’ as the Arab world’s fast-moving developments have grabbed the attention of the world’s superpower and stopped American thinkers from looking to Asia....America is in danger of falling between two stools. It has to find a long-term strategy in Asia to deal with what will be the most important global region for the next century, but it remains stuck with the endemic problems of the Middle East, which will not allow it to focus on Asia. A further challenge is that the U.S. does not have an over-arching strategy in the Arab world and reacts to events as they happen, failing to offer a principled set of responses.”


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