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Time to Change Course in the Middle East

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John Hoffman

The Hamas attacks should produce a fundamental reconsideration of the U.S. Middle East position, not doubling down on failed policies.

The eruption of war between Israel and Hamas delivered a major blow to U.S. Middle East policy. Just days before the war began, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan touted the Biden administration’s accomplishments in the region, claiming “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” With thousands already dead, the war risks devolving into a prolonged disaster with the possibility of escalating into a region-wide conflict with catastrophic consequences.

Remarkably, some defenders of deep U.S. engagement in the Middle East have blamed U.S. disengagement, or the threat of it, for the current disaster in the region.

Some argue that the outbreak of the war has ended “the illusion that the United States can extricate itself from a region that has dominated the American national security agenda for the past half century.” Others say that the war is what a “post-American Middle East” would look like. According to this perspective, the United States must remain chin-deep in the Middle East—or go in even deeper—to protect U.S. interests.

This account gets things backward. The war between Israel and Hamas erupted amid grand designs for reforming the regional order—not a lack of U.S. involvement. Despite the past three administrations campaigning on promises to curtail America’s involvement in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy in the region has been rooted in continuity, not change.

The war between Israel and Hamas should discredit the status quo of U.S. Middle East policy because it demonstrates that Washington’s dedication to the unstable and illiberal regional order has been detrimental to both regional stability and U.S. interests. Hamas’ terror attack and the Israeli response both happened under a policy of deep U.S. involvement in the region, not withdrawal.

Now, the United States finds itself on the brink of serious escalation and long-term entrapment in the Middle East. The current war could quickly suck in the United States, against its interests. But instead of reevaluating its counterproductive approach to the region, the Biden administration appears wedded to its plan to center U.S. policy on security guarantees and nuclear cooperation with the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel.

On Friday, October 20, a bipartisan delegation of ten U.S. senators, including Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ben Cardin, arrived in Saudi Arabia to continue their push for the deal.

Speaking on CBS 60 Minutes, Biden reiterated that the effort to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue, adding that “it’s going to take time. But the direction, moving into the normalization makes sense for the Arab nations as well as Israel.” On Meet The Press, Jake Sullivan denied that there was “some kind of formal pause” on normalization talks and that the “long-term goal of a peaceful more integrated Middle East region, including through normalization, remains very much a focus of U.S. foreign policy.” During his visit to Israel and several Arab countries, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinkenspoke repeatedly of “two paths” forward for the Middle East:

One path forward is a region that comes together, integrated, normalized relations among its countries, people working in common purpose to common benefit. More peaceful, more stable. Then there’s the path that Hamas has shown in the stark, clear light: terror, destruction, nihilism. The choice could not be more clear. We know the choice that we’re making, our partners are making. We have work to do to carry it through.

The Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, echoed this, stating, “We don’t see any reason that it should be off the table…we still want it to happen.” Despite issuing a statement the day of the attack blaming Israel’s “continued occupation” and the “deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights,” Saudi Arabia reiterated its continued interest in normalization to a bipartisan Congressional delegation visiting the kingdom.

It was through the Abraham Accords—marketed initially as a “dawn of a new Middle East”—that the United States hoped to create a formal coalition to solidify the status quo in the region. Some framed the Accords as “one of the first signs of an emerging post-American order in the Middle East,” but this was always an illusion.

Under Donald Trump, the Middle East commentariat was howling about a “post-American era” in the Middle East, too. Then, as now, it was entirely fictional. As two scholars pointed out in 2019: “For all the headlines, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East… remains relatively constant, and seemingly permanent.” The same is true today: despite campaigning on vows to reevaluate America’s relationships with dictators in the Middle East and move toward a more sensible regional policy, Biden’s approach in the Middle East mirrors his predecessor. In fact, Biden has increased America’s military presence in the region and is reportedly considering sending an additional 4,000 troops to support Israel.

The Accords have not led to a smaller American Middle East presence and do not represent an exit strategy for Washington. Whether Israel and Saudi Arabia normalize or not, the new Middle East will look a lot like the old Middle East. The main effect of the Abraham Accords and a U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi normalization deal would be to serve as a springboard for further U.S.commitments in the region at a time when the Middle East no longer represents a core theater of U.S. interests.

For their part, regional actors do not interpret the Accords as an exit strategy for the United States, either. If they did, they wouldn’t support the approach. On the contrary, they are using the Accords as a mechanism to keep the United States entangled in the region as the guarantor of their security. Israel has viewed the Accords as a way to align the region’s states against Iran while sidestepping the Palestinian question altogether. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu even presented a map to the United Nations last month representing his vision of a “new Middle East” in which all Palestinian territories were incorporated into Israel, setting off a diplomatic firestorm.

The Arab signatories to the Accords and Saudi Arabia recognize the limitationsfacing actors like China in the region and have therefore sought to manipulatethe return of great power politics in the Middle East and cultivate Washington’s anxiety about losing its position relative to Moscow or Beijing, resulting in a type of “reverse leverage,” in which fear of lost influence causes the patron to deepen its commitment to its clients.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in March, “In private, Saudi officials said, the crown prince has said he expects that by playing major powers against each other, Saudi Arabia can eventually pressure Washington to concede to its demands for better access to U.S. weapons and nuclear technology.” In other words, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hopes to gain even more goodies from Washington by dangling the prospect of lost influence.

Falling for this ploy, as the Biden administration has, is a mistake.

The Abraham Accords do not represent a panacea for the region’s problems. They represent the formalization of a coercive political, economic, and security order designed to maintain the status quo in the region. They provide the United States with trivial benefits while compounding the core problems that continue to lead to instability in the Middle East. The innovation here is that the United States would pay for the privilege by committing to fight and die to defend the House of Saud and give it nuclear technology.

Moreover, normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel will not de-escalate tensions in the Middle East. The two countries are not about to go to war with one another. They are informally aligned against Iran. Making that informal alignment formal promises negligible benefits to the United States in exchange for very real costs.

Israel’s latest war with Hamas should be a wake-up call for Washington. It should produce a fundamental reconsideration of U.S. Middle East policy, not doubling down on failed policies.

Washington’s decades-long support for an unstable regional order has resulted in a vicious cycle: by committing itself to the root of regional instability, the United States repeatedly finds itself having to confront challenges that are largely the product of its own presence, partners, and policies in the Middle East.

In recent decades, conventional thinking has repeatedly brought the United States to ruin in the Middle East. Asking the Beltway establishment to think bigger in the region is madness. Instead of escalating or entrapping itself, the United States should recognize the failures of its past policies, acknowledge the limitations of what U.S. involvement can bring to the region, and reduce its Middle East policy to a level commensurate with U.S. interests.

Jon Hoffman is a policy analyst in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute. His research interests include U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Middle East geopolitics, and political Islam. Hoffman’s work has been featured in a number of academic and policy-oriented platforms, including Foreign PolicyThe Washington PostThe National InterestMiddle East Policy, and more.