Dr. Juneau is a senior analyst with the Department of National Defence, Government of Canada. He will join the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa in July 2014 as an assistant professor.1
It has become common to hear that American power in the Middle East is waning. The recent U.S.-Russia deal on the elimination of Syria's chemical-weapons program, for example, has even led some to talk of U.S. weakness in the region.2 This article instead argues that American power in the Middle East is not declining but is, in fact, slightly increasing, due principally to U.S. military domination, the strong positions of its regional partners and the stagnation or decline of its rivals. It is true that U.S. ambition in the Middle East is diminishing, albeit only slightly. This is distinct, however, from power. A pronounced and durable decrease in U.S. regional ambition, moreover, is not sustainable. Because of structural pressures, it is difficult for the United States to more than marginally reduce its regional presence. It is not losing its grip on the Middle East but trying, with only partial success, to loosen it.3
Power and Influence
Power corresponds to the possession by a state of assets it can leverage to shape events in international politics in the pursuit of its national interests. Power is multidimensional: it includes military, economic and ideational elements. It is also relative: a state is powerful to the extent that its rivals are weaker.
Power in this sense is distinct from influence. While power corresponds to the possession of assets, influence is defined by what a state achieves with those assets or its ability to shape events, to steer them in a direction consistent with its interests. There is a clear though imperfect correlation between power and influence: the more power a state possesses, the more likely it is that it will be able to gain influence. Ambition, finally, consists of the intensity of a state's interests. How much does it seek to achieve in a given area? Analyzing a state's power is, therefore, a necessary first step toward understanding the foundations of its success in the international realm.
The United States will remain for the foreseeable future the dominant extraregional military power in the Middle East, with an unequaled network of regional bases and numerous assets permanently or temporarily deployed to the region. Its advantages are further enhanced by the military might of its local partners and the weakness of its adversaries.
The U.S. military presence in the Middle East is unmatched by regional or other extraregional forces. Precise numbers vary according to rotational deployments and specific commitments, but the bottom line is that the United States is able to respond rapidly to short-term contingencies and has a major surge capacity because of its prepositioned assets and unequaled transport and logistics capabilities. The U.S. military is able to project and sustain this presence thanks to an unparalleled network of bases and facilities in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Cyprus, Jordan and Turkey.
In late 2013, these bases were manned by more than 35,000 troops, including 10,000 forward-deployed soldiers. The United States deploys to the region advanced fighter aircraft, including F-22s, as well as attack helicopters, heavy armor, missile-defense capabilities and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. The United States also maintains a massive naval presence surrounding the Arabian Peninsula and in the Mediterranean Sea, routinely involving more than 40 ships.4 In July 2013, the United States added the deployment until 2014 of a second carrier battle group with the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain. Also, in the summer of 2013, the United States marshalled in the Eastern Mediterranean — in preparation for eventual strikes against Syria — five Arleigh-Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and three nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines.5
The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to an important decrease in America's regional military presence, given that at its peak it deployed 165,000 troops in the country. Yet a quantitative analysis must be weighed against the high costs in regional legitimacy associated with the occupation of Iraq. The United States was also bogged down against a difficult insurgency, which made its forces targets of reprisal for Iran and local adversaries. This was costly militarily and politically. At its height, the deployment also cost the U.S. Treasury more than $100 billion per year. As such, the withdrawal from Iraq did not lead to a loss in U.S. regional military power and may even have produced a net gain.
The power of a state's allies contributes to its power.6 The rule of thumb is that the closeness of the ties that bind them acts as a coefficient against which to multiply the power of a state's allies to roughly quantify their contribution; a close ally contributes more than a distant ally. America's power in the Middle East, according to this view, also derives from the military strength of its regional partners.
The Israeli military is the most technologically advanced and best fighting force in the region. The Turkish armed forces, the second largest in NATO with about 500,000 troops, provide the United States with a strong ally, notably in counterterrorism, and with access to strategically located bases. Meanwhile, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) are increasingly able to field small but technologically advanced militaries. They have acquired from the United States and other Western countries expensive weapons systems, ranging from the defensive — theater missile defenses and patrol boats — to the offensive — fighter aircraft and armored vehicles. Indeed, since 2007 the United States has approved more than $75 billion in arms sales to GCC states.
The future of Egypt and its relations with the United States adds an element of uncertainty to American military power in the Middle East. Egypt will likely remain in a state of internal turmoil in the short to medium term. Its ability to project power regionally will therefore be constrained. Even assuming that it remains a close American partner, this represents a loss for the United States. It would be further magnified should post-Mubarak Egypt distance itself from Washington.
Yet the future direction of Egyptian foreign policy is unclear. There is growing tension between Washington and Cairo, as witnessed by the U.S. decision in October 2013 to temporarily freeze some of its military aid. At the same time, there are major constraints on any regime's seeking to change Egypt's international posture, pushing the Arab world's most populous country to remain close to the United States, irrespective of future domestic developments.
The $250 million the United States provides annually to Egypt in economic assistance is minor. Egypt, however, is dependent on the $1.3 billion it gets in annual military assistance. Strictly in terms of numbers, this assistance could be replaced by monetary support from Saudi Arabia or other rich Arab states. U.S. military assistance does not take the form of unconditional cash handouts, however. Egypt has to buy military kit such as Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters from the United States. As a result, the Egyptian military is dependent on Washington's continuing delivery of such systems and, crucially, providing the technical and training services necessary for their maintenance and operation. A prolonged cut-off in U.S. assistance would therefore cause a steady decrease in the serviceability of these systems.
The vast power imbalance with Israel also reinforces structural pressures keeping Egypt in the U.S. orbit. The leadership of Egypt's armed forces, in particular, is cognizant of the massive superiority of the Israel Defence Forces. It also realizes that there are important converging interests between Egypt and Israel, particularly in opposing the perceived common threats of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and of militancy and criminality in the Sinai Peninsula.
The difficulty for any Egyptian leadership to move away from the United States was illustrated by the foreign policy of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi between his election in June 2012 and his forced removal in July 2013. Whatever the Brotherhood's intentions were, it did not stray far from Mubarak-era policies. There were some tactical changes; rhetoric and tone, in particular, were often more confrontational towards the United States and Israel. The strategic posture, however, did not change. The Egyptian government, for example, closed tunnels to the Gaza Strip, kept the pressure on extremist groups in the Sinai and, as Mubarak would have done, acted as a mediator in late 2012 between Israel and Hamas. The Brotherhood, moreover, did not make significant efforts towards rapprochement with Iran, recognizing the same divergent interests as pre-2011 Cairo did.
Though relations between the United States and Brotherhood-led Egypt were at times strained, it is important to keep in mind that the United States also had frequent tactical disagreements with Mubarak. Such disagreements have continued with the military-backed government that replaced the Brotherhood after July 2013. These should not be interpreted as efforts by Egypt to break off the strategic partnership, however, but as symptoms of tensions inherent to the partnership. Reports of Egypt's efforts to procure military hardware from Russia are thus consistent with Cairo's intent to diversify its ties, but it is hedging at the tactical level, not the strategic.7
There are, in sum, important structural forces constraining Egypt's margin of maneuver and pushing it to remain within its partnership with the United States. These pressures raise the potential costs for Cairo of breaking off ties and provide benefits for keeping the status quo. This point can be broadened: U.S. partners face incentives and constraints rewarding them for cooperation, or at least their lack of opposition, and penalizing them for pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests.
Indeed, beyond its own and its partners' military assets, America's power in the Middle East is further boosted by its position as the security guarantor of many regional powers. Such ties, moreover, are unlikely to diminish. America's partners will continue to need an external guarantor of their security, and no entity other than the United States is willing to assume this role. It is true that GCC states are making efforts to hedge their bets by diversifying their security ties, but their main alternatives have been France and the UK. Both are major arms suppliers to the GCC. France actually opened, in 2009, its first Gulf naval and air base in the UAE, which permanently hosts about 250 troops and three fighter aircraft. This will not, however, alter the regional balance of power; neither France nor the UK is able or willing to challenge America's position.
The case of Qatar is intriguing, given the emergence of some divergent objectives between Washington and Doha. But these differences have been tactical, not strategic. The United States and Qatar, for example, both oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though they disagree on means, especially on which opposition groups to support. Overall, Doha remains broadly aligned with the United States, as witnessed by its enthusiastic hosting of the largest American military base in the Middle East, its opposition to Iranian ambitions and its support in 2011 for the NATO-led mission to overthrow Colonel Muammar Qadhafi in Libya.
Neither will renewed tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia fundamentally alter the American posture. Riyadh has grown irritated, in particular, by the U.S. reluctance to become more deeply engaged in the conflict in Syria and by what it perceives as America's failure to support the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011 and its criticism of the removal of the Morsi government in 2013.
These disagreements must be understood from a historical perspective, however. The strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia is based on a fundamental bargain going back decades: Washington guarantees the kingdom's security, while Riyadh ensures a stable flow of oil to global markets. This understanding has survived major challenges, including the oil crisis of 1973, the September 11, 2001, attacks (15 of 19 hijackers were Saudi), the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (which Riyadh opposed) and constant tension over the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fundamental bargain, in other words, is not only unaltered by these disagreements; it contains an inherent flexibility that allows it to manage the ebb and flow of tensions. Most fundamentally, the bargain has held because the basic convergence of interests has not been broken: no other power can guarantee Saudi security, while Saudi Arabia is the state best positioned to support the stability of oil markets.
The structure of the regional balance of power, in sum, is inherently favorable to the United States. Its partners are strong, which is beneficial to American power, but they are also dependent on the United States for their security. This is optimal for Washington; its key partners are neither weak nor autonomous but strong and dependent.
Power must also be measured in relative terms. If state A's assets do not change in absolute terms but those of its rivals decrease, then A is gaining in power. That is precisely the case for the United States: the power of its rivals is mostly declining. This is a long-term trend that will continue, with one important exception. It plays a major part in explaining the continuance of America's dominant position.
The United States has two major regional rivals, Iran and Syria. Iran's asymmetric and unconventional assets allow it to spoil regional developments that oppose U.S. interests, but much of its conventional military is obsolescent. It has limited power-projection capability, and its major weapons systems are old and suffer from low serviceability and reliability. Training, coordination among services, communications and logistics are all deficient. Illustrating Iran's military inferiority, its defense budget is about seven times smaller than the combined defence budgets of GCC states. The Islamic Republic has also alienated itself from almost every state in the Middle East and is bereft of allies beyond Syria and Hezbollah.8
In early 2014, the United States, alongside other members of the UN Security Council and Germany, began negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program. Whatever their outcome, it is unlikely that these talks could fundamentally alter the U.S. posture in the Middle East, whether positively or negatively. Indeed, even in the best of cases, a final deal would not lead to reconciliation. The United States and Iran would remain adversaries, while regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, would remain highly suspicious of Iran. The lifting of some sanctions that would result from a deal would partly unshackle its power, but Iran would remain isolated and under remaining sanctions. At the same time, failure to reach a deal would lead to a continuation of the status quo, with Iran still weak, isolated and subject to a massive and possibly growing sanctions regime.
Syria, for its part, is caught up in a devastating civil war that has made it much weaker. Unlike in 2012, when its days appeared numbered, however, it is now conceivable that the Assad regime could survive. But even if he remains in power, Assad will be weakened and focused on rebuilding his state. Irrespective of the outcome of the war, in sum, Syria has been largely removed from the regional balance of military power. Thus even Assad's survival would provide a net gain for the United States, as this would not represent a return to the status quo ante, when Syria was able to challenge the projection of U.S. power.
Extraregional powers, meanwhile, are not gaining relative to the United States. Russia lost much of its military power in the region after the Cold War. Its only remaining military installation is a minor naval facility at Tartus in Syria; its only regional partners are Iran and Syria, themselves isolated and weak. Russia does not have the power-projection capability to sustain military deployments in the region. China, for its part, does not have, and is unlikely to acquire for many years, either military capability or ambition in the Middle East. It is therefore not a factor in the regional balance of military power.
Russian and Chinese policies in the Middle East seek to balance competing priorities. On the one hand, neither wants to give the United States blank checks to manage regional security affairs. Beyond their general opposition to U.S. preponderance, they oppose specific American policies, especially when they take a more interventionist form. In Syria, moreover, both are concerned that an eventual successor to the Assad regime could be less hostile to the United States, removing what has been, from their perspective, a convenient obstacle to American power.
On the other hand, Russia and China want to avoid damaging their most important bilateral relationship — with the United States — for the sake of less important ties to troublesome partners such as Syria and Iran. In addition, because it is unwilling to take on a more prominent role in regional security affairs, Beijing lets Moscow take the lead in opposing the United States. Thus when, for example, Iran's nuclear program has been discussed at the UN Security Council in recent years, China discretely supported Russia's efforts to dilute sanctions. Given their discomfort with Iranian assertiveness, however, both ultimately voted in favor of resolutions sanctioning Iran, to Tehran's annoyance. China, in addition, is dependent on U.S. guarantees of regional security, notably U.S. control of international shipping lanes. Chinese oil imports from the Middle East, as such, are partly dependent on the continuation of these U.S. guarantees.
The U.S. fiscal situation partly explains the decrease in its ambition in the Middle East. There is limited appetite in Washington to embark on a new, costly war in the region. Moreover, at the global level, U.S. economic power is declining as relative wealth steadily shifts to emerging powers, mostly in Asia. These two trends are distinct, however, from the question of whether the economic component of American power in the Middle East is declining. It is not. That said, the economic component does not contribute much to aggregate U.S. power in the region. With the partial exception of weapons sales, the United States has not deeply penetrated the Middle East commercially. Instead, the United States largely derives its regional economic power from the economic strength of its partners and the weakness of its rivals. Over the long term, however, this will be challenged by China's steadily growing economic presence.
The trade component is not significant in shaping U.S. power in the Middle East. The United States is not a major importer of Middle Eastern oil. In 2012, the United States imported 10.6 million barrels of oil per day (bpd). Most of this came from Canada (2.95 million), Mexico (1.04 million), Venezuela (0.96 million), Russia (0.48 million) and Nigeria (0.44 million bpd). The United States only imported 2.16 million bpd from the Persian Gulf, mostly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, or about 20 percent of its imports and less than 10 percent of its total oil consumption. This already low proportion, moreover, is set to decline as domestic production increases.9
America's interests in the Middle East thus do not emerge from a need to protect oil imports. Rather, the United States has long believed that it has a fundamental interest in a stable international economy, which is dependent on a secure and free flow of oil globally. This is how the bargain with Saudi Arabia originally arose. The United States perceived that stable global oil supplies require the security of Saudi Arabia — a young, sparsely populated and geographically vulnerable state surrounded by aggressive powers — as well as that of its smaller neighbors and of international shipping lanes. This reinforces the U.S. posture in the Middle East: oil producers are dependent on the United States for security, but the United States is only indirectly dependent on them.
Beyond oil, U.S. trade with the region is marginal. In 2011, it amounted to $193 billion, about 5 percent of total U.S. trade. Of the $123 billion in U.S. imports, $90 billion, or 70 percent, consisted of oil. Of the $70 billion in U.S. exports, about half consisted of motor vehicles, machinery, aircraft and precious stones. More than 90 percent of total trade was concentrated in eight countries: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Algeria, Iraq, the UAE, Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar.10 U.S. arms exports to the Middle East play an important role in cementing America's regional posture. In 2012, the United States exported $28.5 billion worth of arms worldwide. Of this, 27 percent, or $7.7 billion, went to the Middle East. By comparison, Russia exported $900 million worth of arms to the Middle East, or 9 percent of its $10 billion in exports in 2012.11
Again, the strength of its partners and the weakness of its adversaries favor America's posture. The region's most important economies, first, are U.S. partners. GCC states, especially, boast fast-growing economies with per capita GDPs rivaling, and in some cases exceeding, Western levels, while Turkey is the world's seventeenth-largest economy. The United States, of course, does not always agree with how these states use their wealth for foreign-policy purposes. Most recently, Washington has disagreed with the financial support that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided to Egypt's military leadership in the wake of the July 2013 removal of Morsi from the presidency. But in most cases, there is agreement. When there is disagreement, it is mostly over tactics, not strategy.
Compounding this favorable economic dynamic is, again, the weakness of Syria and Iran. The Syrian economy has been ravaged by civil war. Precise measurements are impossible to obtain yet, but it could have fallen more than 50 percent since 2011.12 Meanwhile, Iran has been experiencing negative economic growth and double-digit inflation in past years, and its future prospects are bleak as a result of the combined effects of sanctions and mismanagement. In particular, its main source of cash, oil exports, has decreased by half in the last two years.
The regional economic presence of Russia and China does not change this equation. Economically, Russia is not an important player in the Middle East. In 2011, its trade with the region amounted to under $30 billion, or less than 5 percent of its total trade. Crucially, three of Russia's top four trading partners — Turkey, Egypt and Israel, the fourth being Iran — are close U.S. partners. Of note, Russia's trade with Syria amounted in 2011 to only $800 million, or 0.1 percent of total Russian trade.13 In addition, Russia competes with GCC states in global oil and gas markets. This acts as a brake on potential cooperation between Moscow and hydrocarbon-exporting Arab states, another structural incentive driving regional states to remain broadly aligned with the United States.
China's steady economic penetration of the Middle East will partly come at the expense of U.S. power. For now, however, it remains relatively low. In 2012, China's trade with the Middle East amounted to $220 billion, or 7 percent of its total.14 In 2011, in particular, just over 50 percent of China's oil imports came from the Middle East, or about 2.6 million bpd, with about 1 million from Saudi Arabia and 0.5 million from Iran.15
The ideational component of power is similar to what Joseph Nye refers to as soft power.16 Nye, however, defines soft power as a relation, or state A's ability to persuade other states to change their behavior through the appeal of its ideas and values. Here, the ideational component of power refers to those ideas and values that constitute assets that A can leverage; they represent a capability, not a relation. Ideational power arises from the combination of the appeal of A's values and ideals and its credibility and legitimacy with key stakeholders. It is strong when it is costly for rivals to confront these ideational assets and when A can use such assets to shame or pressure rivals who promulgate divergent values.
U.S. ideational power in the Middle East hit a nadir after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has only minimally recovered since. Again, however, ideational power must be viewed in relative terms. America's main rivals also face challenges and suffer from heavy and, in some cases, growing constraints.
The United States has suffered important damage to its ideational power in recent years because of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, certain aspects of the global war on terrorism, and its continued support for Israel.17 Polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that there was a spike in U.S. appeal in 2009 in the wake of the election of Barack Obama and his June 2009 speech in Cairo promising a new era of relations between the United States and the Muslim world. This, however, proved ephemeral.18 The bottom line is that even though the situation is not deteriorating, it remains difficult for the United States to use the appeal of its ideas and values in the pursuit of foreign-policy objectives. The Arab uprisings, in particular, have shown that the United States has limited leverage in this area.
Moreover, unlike military and economic power, alliances in this case provide marginal benefits to the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been able to muster their ideational assets in the pursuit of regional influence: the "Qatar brand" for Doha, including Al-Jazeera, and for Riyadh its position as the custodian of the two holiest sites of Islam. This has brought neither strategic gains nor losses to the United States. Similarly, predictions of the ascendancy of a Turkish model — a successful blend of Islam and democracy providing a template for fledgling Arab democracies — have not materialized.19 Turkish regional influence is on an upward trend, despite vagaries. But its drivers are the country's growing wealth, in addition to its ties to the West, large military and central geographic position — not its appeal.
The inability of its rivals to generate significant ideational power mitigates America's potential losses. Iran and its model of resistance had some success after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in appealing to broad swaths of the population in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic was able to gain influence, peaking around 2006-07, as the foremost regional actor tapping into a broad pool of resentment towards U.S. policies. Iran was thus able to position itself as the leader of the rejectionist front opposing U.S. policies and what Tehran — along with many in the region — criticized as the subservience of most Arab states. Iran's ability to leverage the appeal of its ideas and values, however, has steadily declined, especially in the wake of the brutal repression of its opposition after the 2009 elections and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
The picture with Russia is mixed but ultimately marginal. Russia is much criticized in parts of the Middle East for its support for the Assad regime, especially among Sunni populations, which view Moscow as backing the use of violence against the predominantly Sunni Syrian opposition. At the same time, there is some respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin for being perceived as standing up to the United States. More generally, nevertheless, ideational assets have not been prominent in Russia's toolkit in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War.
The main locus of future ideational competition for the United States may be with a moderate version of political Islam that rejects violence and is willing to participate in mainstream politics but adopts policies opposed to, and sometimes openly confrontational towards, Washington. Should this emerge as the dominant path for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its sister parties elsewhere, in particular, it could prove costly for the United States. Such regimes would be able to attract significant popular support and would be well-positioned to use the appeal of their ideas and values to oppose U.S. interests. Recent events in Egypt, however, show the major constraints confronting the Brotherhood and similar movements throughout the region. Most are institutionally weak, while they face massive resistance from remnants of old regimes and other sectors of society such as leftists and secularists. For now, in sum, such movements remain far from able to challenge U.S. power.
Limited Retrenchement Only
This raises the question of the long-term willingness of the United States to apply its power in the pursuit of its interests in the Middle East. Its level of ambition in the region has been decreasing slightly, a downward trajectory that is unlikely to be reversed in the short term. This decrease results from the convergence of various trends, chiefly the need for fiscal prudence, intervention fatigue in the wake of difficult experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and a desire to rebalance towards Asia. But this decrease in regional ambition must be viewed in a broad context. The baseline of long-term commitments, under which the United States is not retreating, still consists of a strong regional presence. This baseline — the long-term U.S. military presence, its diplomatic penetration and the security deals it has struck with key regional players — has not changed.
Continuing preponderance is distinct from a limited reluctance to use available assets. America's power in the Middle East, and therefore its potential capacity to reach its objectives, has not diminished and will not in the short to medium term. America's vast preponderance in the regional balance of power gives it an unusually broad range of options; it is the will to use its assets that has decreased. It is, of course, possible for a state, especially a powerful one, to temporarily ignore some of the options it faces, especially as a result of domestic pressures, and to choose partial retrenchment.
In the longer term, however, this is not sustainable. Understretch, like overstretch, is possible in the short term, but it eventually carries consequences. Indeed, a state's place in the international system — its share of the international distribution of power — creates pressures that shape a range of feasible policy options. This pushes a state in certain directions, creating incentives to adopt some courses of actions and raising the costs of others. It does not rigidly determine what this state will do, but it shapes the parameters of possible courses of action and the costs and benefits associated with different options. A state can choose to temporarily ignore such structural signals. This can happen when domestic political processes intervene in the foreign-policy-making process, if, for example, a political party with a particular worldview takes power and pushes that state away from what the system signals is the optimal outcome. A state can then try to punch above or below its weight. Yet states suffer consequences when they ignore structural signals. Overreach, in particular, can lead to defeat in war, while understretch leads to missed opportunities to increase security or prosperity.
In the long term, systemic pressures and a state's international posture are likely to converge. The United States dominates the Middle Eastern balance of power. Because a state's interests are primarily shaped by its power, the United States is thus strongly pushed and pulled to maintain a large regional presence. Of course, there have been over the decades fluctuations in this presence, and such ebbs and flows will continue. These consist, however, of changes in degree, not in kind. U.S. ambition in the Middle East has varied over the years from strong to very strong. After the high level of ambition of the George W. Bush era, a period of relative retrenchment, as is the ambition of the Obama administration, is not surprising. But there are two essential features to this retrenchment. It is severely limited in its potential extent (the United States is unlikely to withdraw from the Middle East more than marginally) and time frame (the United States cannot sustain a decrease in its ambition beyond the short term without incurring mounting costs).
U.S.-Russia Agreement on Syria's Chemical Weapons
The Syrian civil war has raised difficult dilemmas for the United States. On the one hand, Washington has faced pressure from its regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia, to more actively support the opposition. In addition, the atrocities perpetrated in the war, which by May 2014 had caused more than 150,000 deaths, have led to calls for the United States to lead the international community in stopping the bloodshed. On the other hand, Washington has been reluctant to actively intervene for fear that entanglement would inflame the situation and would not allow it to shape outcomes to its benefit. Opinion polls, moreover, suggest limited appetite among the American public for involvement in a new Middle Eastern war. 20
Allegations of chemical weapons (CW) use by the Assad regime raised uniquely complex challenges, especially after President Obama declared in 2012 that their use represented a red line that, if crossed, would trigger consequences. The United States did not directly react to a series of allegations of small-scale use in the first half of 2013. In August 2013, however, allegations surfaced that a larger-scale CW attack in a rebel-held Damascus suburb had caused hundreds of casualties. In response, Obama threatened to launch limited missile and air strikes to punish the Assad regime and deter it from further CW use. As U.S. strikes appeared imminent, Washington and Moscow agreed to a framework for Syria to eliminate its chemical arsenal. For critics, the deal represented a major victory for Russia and was illustrative of declining U.S. power in the Middle East.21
The view that the deal was a result of U.S. weakness is wrong, however. A diplomatic outcome such as the U.S.-Russia agreement is a case of influence, not power maximization, and is distinct from the question of whether U.S. power in the Middle East is declining. Rather, America's approach to the issue was a reflection of its perceptions of its interests, and of which assets it should use to pursue them. In this case, America's many available assets allowed it to consider a variety of possible courses of action. It was reluctant, however, to become deeply engaged.
Russia, for its part, succeeded in achieving its primary objective of occupying the center of the diplomatic stage and, specifically, of positioning itself as an equal to the United States. Moscow still has assets it can leverage to achieve regional influence: its Security Council veto, its ties to Syria and Iran, and niche capabilities such as CW expertise. Circumstances, moreover, appeared more favorable throughout 2013 than in 2012 for Russia as the Assad regime steadily improved its odds of survival. Yet this should not be confused with strategic gains; in the long term, Assad's survival only allows Russia to cut its losses.
The essential point in analyzing how U.S. power impacted its management of the Syrian crisis is that the threat of American military intervention catalyzed the chain of events that led to the agreement on the elimination of Syria's chemical arsenal. Without this threat, Damascus would not have agreed to jettison its strategic deterrent. No other regional or extraregional actor has the assets necessary to alter the balance of probabilities among plausible outcomes the way the United States does. Russia, in particular, is very far from being able to steer events this way. For the United States, in other words, the key factor acting as a ceiling on its possible options is its willingness to use its assets. For Russia, it is its lack of such tools. That is the purpose of power: the United States possesses an unparalleled range and depth of assets that allow it to potentially shape regional events, and this has not declined.
This is consistent with the view that it is U.S. ambition that is decreasing, not power. Despite its superior capability, the Obama administration was reluctant to intervene militarily. Russia may have achieved its objective of positioning itself as an indispensable player, but this is not sustainable. Moscow is punching above its weight; it does not possess the assets to establish itself as an equal to the United States.
U.S. power in the Middle East is still preponderant and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As a result, the current structure of the regional distribution of power is unlikely to change more than marginally in the short to medium term. This has implications.
First, whatever the precise extent to which the United States wants to detach itself from the Middle East, structural constraints work against more than marginal withdrawal in both scope and duration. The perennial fear of local actors, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Israel, that the United States could significantly withdraw from the region are unfounded. Whatever U.S. intentions are, anything more than a marginal decrease in the U.S. regional presence would be costly to sustain.
Second, structural pressures do not make it impossible for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey or Israel to defect from the U.S. orbit. They do, however, create costs — often important ones — to efforts to create distance from the United States. At the same time, structural incentives continue to provide benefits to the continuation of the partnership. U.S. relations with regional partners will, therefore, continue facing regular challenges and occasional setbacks, but these will be more tactical than strategic. This will not impact the broad assessment that U.S. power is not declining.
Third, Syria and Iran, the main regional U.S. rivals, will remain isolated and weak. Damascus and Tehran have very few allies beyond each other, they are strangled by sanctions, and the United States and its powerful regional partners actively work to contain both. If current trends — a stalemated civil war in Syria and a confrontational Islamic Republic — continue, neither Damascus nor Tehran will be able to unshackle itself from the many constraints on its power and will remain unable to challenge U.S. power more than marginally.
Fourth, neither Beijing nor Moscow will be able to challenge U.S. power in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. China and Russia are far from having the ability to project their power militarily, as a result of which they will not be able to challenge, let alone replace, the U.S. role as the guarantor of the security of most regional powers.
As long as its regional ambition remains marginally curtailed, finally, the United States wants more involvement from its allies and partners, both in the region and internationally. Washington will participate in coalitions and de facto lead them, if need be, but at least for the remainder of the Obama administration, it does not want to bear most of the burden. It wants to act as an enabler, in particular by providing the specific capabilities its allies do not possess but require to sustain operations. During the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, for example, the United States encouraged the UK and France to play a leading role in the air strikes against the Qadhafi regime. Without U.S. air-to-air refueling and intelligence, British and French forces would have been unable to sustain six months of operations.
1 The author would like to thank Marie-Hélàne Chayer, Yves Goulet and Jérôme Nepveu for their very valuable comments on earlier drafts.
2 Criticism has come from all directions. Mark Lynch of George Washington University refers to America's "vastly reduced capability — and not only willingness" in the region, while Elliott Abrams, a White House official under George W. Bush, laments American weakness relative to Russia. See Mark Lynch, "The Middle East Power Vacuum," Foreign Policy, October 25, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/10/25/the_middle_east_power_…; and Elliott Abrams, "Syria, Russia, and American Weakness," Council on Foreign Relations, May 7, 2013, http://blogs.cfr.org/abrams/2013/05/07/syria-russia-and-american-weakne….
3 I thank Charles-Philippe David for phrasing the argument this way.
4 As detailed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a speech to the Manama Dialogue conference on December 7, 2013. Available at http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5336.
5 Michael Lipin and Jeff Seldin, "U.S. Military Has Myriad Ways to Strike Syria in Potential Operation," VOA News, August 30, 2013, http://www.voanews.com/content/us-military-has-multiple-ways-to-strike-….
6 Stephen M. Walt, "Alliances in a Unipolar World," World Politics 61, no. 1 (2009): 88.
7 Jeremy Binnie, "Egyptian-Russian Arms Deal in the Pipeline," IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, February 19, 2014.
8 Thomas Juneau, "Iran: Rising but Unsustainable Power, Unfulfilled Potential," in Iranian Foreign Policy since 2001: Alone in the World, eds. Thomas Juneau and Sam Razavi (Routledge, 2013),18-39.
9 "U.S. Imports by Country of Origin," U.S. Energy Information Administration, September 27, 2013, http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_move_impcus_a2_nus_ep00_im0_mbblpd_a.htm.
10 Shayerah Ilias Akhtar, Mary Jane Bolle and Rebecca M. Nelson, "U.S. Trade and Investment in the Middle East and North Africa: Overview and Issues for Congress," March 4, 2013, Congressional Research Service, R42153, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42153.pdf.
11 Paul Holtom, Mark Bromley, Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman, "Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2012," Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 2013, http://books.sipri.org/files/FS/SIPRIFS1303.pdf; "‘Peak Defense' on Horizon as U.S., UK & Europe Erodes Competitive Edge," IHS, June 24, 2013, http://press.ihs.com/press-release/country-industry-forecasting/peak-de….
12 Mohsin Khan and Faysal Itani, "The Economic Collapse of Syria," Atlantic Council, June 27, 2013, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-economic-collapse-o….
13 "Russia: EU Bilateral Trade and Trade with the World," DG Trade, European Commission, May 23, 2013, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/september/tradoc_113440.pdf.
14 "China: EU Bilateral Trade and Trade with the World," DG Trade, European Commission, July 5, 2013, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/september/tradoc_113440.pdf.
15 "Country Analysis: China," U.S. Energy Information Agency, April 22, 2013, http://www.eia.gov/countries/cab.cfm?fips=CH.
16 Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means of Success in World Politics (Public Affairs, 2004).
17 According to one survey, only 26 percent of those polled in six Arab countries in 2011 held favorable views of the United States, albeit up from 10 percent in 2009. Shibley Telhami, "The 2011 Arab Public Opinion Poll," Brookings Institution, November 21, 2011, http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2011/11/21-arab-public-opinio….
18 According to this same poll, 52 percent of Arabs polled in six countries in 2011 were "discouraged" by Obama's policies in the Middle East, up from 15 percent in 2009. Telhami, "The 2011 Arab Public Opinion Poll."
19 On the view that hopes of Turkish regional leadership are overblown, see Steven A. Cook, "Overdone Turkey," Foreign Policy, November 21, 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/11/21/overdone_turkey?page=f….
20 On debates inside the U.S. government on policy towards Syria, see Mark Mazzetti, Robert F. Worth and Michael R. Gordon, "Obama's Uncertain Path amid Syria Bloodshed," New York Times, October 22, 2013.
21 For a review of some of those criticisms, see Mark N. Katz, "U.S. Policy toward Syria: Making the Best of a Bad Situation?" Wilson Center, Viewpoints No. 41, October 2013.