The Price of Retrenchment

What the Ukraine Crisis Reveals About the Post-American Middle East

As Russian troop maneuvers on Ukraine’s borders suggest an imminent invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden is doing his best to rally the international community in opposition. His administration has done a creditable job of lining up European countries; after some foot-dragging, Germany is now clearly committed to a unified approach. On the other side of the globe, Australia, Japan, and South Korea are also on board. Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstrated at the opening of the Olympics in Beijing that he has China on his side—at least when it comes to opposing NATO expansion. And Brazil and India are sitting on the fence. But for most part, Washington’s traditional partners have lined up with Biden.

In the Middle East, however, the administration has had a rude awakening. Its allies and partners are sympathetic to Ukraine and obliged to the United States but unwilling to take a stand against Moscow. That reflects how much has changed in the Middle East because of the decision—made by President Barack Obama, adopted by President Donald Trump, and now enforced by Joe Biden—to place the Middle East lower down on Washington’s list of foreign-policy priorities. The United States has reduced its Middle Eastern partners’ expectations of their patron; now Washington will have to adjust to the consequences.

To see just how much has changed, look no further than Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East: Israel. In mid-January, the United States and Israel held a round of strategic consultations. The focus was understandably on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Washington and its European allies are furiously trying to salvage the 2015 deal with the Islamic Republic that Trump scrapped. Nevertheless, at a time when the Biden administration is making a full court press to oppose Moscow’s pressure tactics against Kyiv, the readout of the meeting made no mention of Ukraine. Indeed, since the buildup of Russian troops began last fall, Israel has maintained a studious silence, except for an offer by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to mediate between Ukraine and Russia—an idea that was peremptorily dismissed by Moscow.

More recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid openly dissented from the Biden administration’s assessment that a Russian invasion was imminent. Biden and Bennett discussed Ukraine, among other issues, in a phone call in early February. The readout released by the White House included a strong reiteration of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, but no mention of Ukraine’s security.

Israel maintains close ties to Ukraine, especially with its Jewish community of around 300,000 people—one of the largest in the world. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. That affinity should have been reinforced by Israel’s commitment to its close alliance with the United States, its dependence on the maintenance of the liberal international order with which Israel has identified since its founding, its pride in being the only democracy in the Middle East, and its preoccupation with securing its narrow borders from invasion by hostile forces. And yet the same Israeli pundits who argue that there must be no daylight between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security needs now contend that in the Ukraine crisis, Israel should remain neutral.

Kuwait is less a close ally of the United States than a dependency. Ever since the United States liberated Kuwait from the avaricious clutches of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990-91, the Kuwaitis have supported U.S. priorities in the Middle East and elsewhere. Of all the region’s states, Kuwait should be particularly sensitive to the dangers of the international community acquiescing to a large neighbor invading a smaller one. Yet when Kuwait’s foreign minister, Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, came to Washington in mid-January for a strategic dialogue with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Kuwaiti diplomat studiously avoided the subject. Like the readout of the U.S.-Israeli meeting, the U.S.-Kuwaiti joint communique made no mention of the Ukraine crisis. During a press conference, Blinken reminded the foreign minister that at stake in Ukraine is the principle “that one nation can’t simply change the borders of another by force.” But the Kuwaiti foreign minister avoided acknowledging the point in his reply.

Washington’s other allies and strategic partners in the Middle East have also been notably quiet. Egypt is a long-time strategic U.S. ally and beneficiary of American largesse, but it also buys arms from Russia and needs Moscow’s cooperation to maintain stability in neighboring Libya. Egypt is not interested in taking a stand against Putin over Ukraine, especially at a moment when the Biden administration just decided to continue a suspension of $130 million in U.S. aid to Egypt owing to the Egyptian regime’s unwillingness to allow its people greater freedoms. (In that sense, the authoritarian tactics of Egyptian President Abdel Fateh al-Sisi are closer to those of Putin than the democratic values the Biden administration is forlornly trying to persuade Egypt to embrace.)

Saudi Arabia has deep ties to the United States and in the past was a steadfast ally in the effort to contain Soviet communism in the greater Middle East. It has often used its capacity to ramp up oil production to drive down the price whenever the United States needed it to do so. In the Ukraine crisis, however, the Saudis are not cooperating—at least not yet. A tight oil market—the product of a faster than expected rebound of the global economy from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic—and the expectation of supply disruptions generated by the Ukraine crisis have driven prices to above $90 per barrel. If Russia invades Ukraine, the price is expected to spike to $120. That would be bad news for Biden’s efforts to stem inflation in the U.S. economy ahead of the midterm elections at the end of this year. Yet Saudi Arabia seems impervious to appeals from its American ally.

One reason for this is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pique at the way the Biden administration has treated him. During the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign, Biden referred to Saudi Arabia as “a pariah,” and following his election, he shunned MBS as punishment for the prince’s ordering of the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who was a columnist for The Washington Post. Although Biden avoided sanctioning MBS, he refused to deal with him, assigning that task to Lloyd Austin, the U.S. secretary of defense. After a year of this treatment, MBS seems to have had enough. Last September, he canceled Austin’s visit to Saudi Arabia on one day’s notice and, according to a number of senior administration officials, is holding out for a phone call from the president before responding to the administration’s entreaties.

Middle Eastern leaders believe the United States is no longer a reliable partner.
Biden may yet pick up the phone and absorb the blowback from progressives in his party and The Washington Post editorial board. But it’s by no means certain that MBS would respond positively even then. Russia looms large in his calculus in a way that was not true for Saudi Arabia in earlier decades. Russia now exports almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia and has recently assumed a leadership role in OPEC+, the organization of oil producers that controls prices by setting production quotas for all its members. Saudi Arabia used to dominate OPEC, but at the outset of the pandemic in 2020, when demand dropped dramatically, MBS engaged in a price-cutting war with Moscow that drove the price of oil down to almost zero. Trump stepped in and brokered an agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia that drastically cut OPEC oil production and made Moscow a partner to Riyadh in the fixing of oil prices. Responding to Biden’s appeal now would require MBS to break his agreement with Putin, as well as give up the windfall profits from the rise in price that he needs to fuel his ambitious modernization projects.

In the past, Saudi Arabia would not have hesitated, calculating that responding to its American ally at its moment of need was like paying an insurance premium to help guarantee that the United States would be there to defend Saudi Arabia when necessary. But that pact fell apart in September 2019, when Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq were attacked by Iranian drones and missiles that knocked out 50 percent of its oil production. Instead of rushing to Saudi Arabia’s defense, Trump equivocated and then noted that it was an attack on Saudi Arabia and not on the United States. If he decided to respond, Trump vowed the Saudis would have to pay for it.

Trump’s disregard for traditional U.S. security commitments compounded the doubts already raised by Obama’s decision in 2013 not to enforce his own stated redline against the Assad regime in Syria, when it used chemical weapons against its own people. Biden continued this trend, deemphasizing the Middle East as he made combatting China his first priority. When he ended the “forever war” in Afghanistan and brought the remaining U.S. troops and American citizens home in a shambolic evacuation, Middle Eastern leaders reached a common conclusion: the United States was no longer a reliable partner in the security of the region.

Because this trend of U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East had been developing over the last decade, and because the region’s leaders are always sensitive to shifts in the balance of power, they have been looking around for alternative guarantors of their security for some time. Russia was quick to put up its hand, intervening militarily in Syria’s civil war in 2015 to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At the time, the United States was pursuing regime change in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The contrast was not lost on the region’s Arab leaders: Russia had become a status quo power in the Middle East; the United States was the one that seemed to be promoting instability.

This did not precipitate a headlong rush into Moscow’s embrace, however. Memories of Soviet destabilizing behavior and the hope that a new president in Washington might turn things around led to more cautious explorations. But over time, Arab leaders have become comfortable with a hedging strategy that involves warmer relations with Russia.

For Israelis, the calculation is not that different, notwithstanding their heavy dependence on the United States. Their existential threat is Iran. On three of Israel’s four borders, Iranian proxies are gathering strength: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iranian-controlled militias in Syria. Israel is fighting what it calls “the war between the wars” to prevent the transfer through Syria of Iranian advanced missiles and guidance systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to thwart attempts by Iranian-backed militias to open yet another front with Israel, on the Golan Heights.

Russia’s military presence in Syria makes it more of a player in this conflict than is the United States, which maintains a limited force in eastern Syria, to fight the Islamic State (or ISIS), but has left Israel to fend for itself in the rest of the country. The only way that Israel can keep up its frequent aerial attacks on Iranian targets in Syria is if the Russian air force acquiesces in Israel’s use of Syrian airspace. For that reason, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made ten visits to Russia between 2015 and 2020 to kiss Putin’s ring, secure the Russian president’s cooperation, and make sure that Russian and Israeli air force operations in Syria did not get in each other’s way. Similarly, once Bennett became prime minister last year, he wasted no time in reaffirming those arrangements on a visit to the Kremlin in October 2021.

In January of this year, however, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Russian and Syrian jets had conducted a joint patrol over the Golan Heights and that these patrols would continue. This was a symbolic warning shot across Israel’s bow, signaling to Jerusalem that if Putin wanted to, he could easily put an end to Israeli military operations in Syria. If Israel were thinking of siding publicly with the United States over Ukraine, Moscow had just signaled that there would be a steep strategic price to pay.

Washington might have to release the Saudi crown prince from the penalty box.
U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East are not critical to the effort to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. They may even be willing to help on the margins: Qatar could divert gas supplies from long-term contracts in Asia to the European spot market, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could ease the pressure on oil prices in the event of an invasion, and Israel can continue passing private messages to the Kremlin, urging de-escalation.

But the public silence of all those countries in this crisis speaks volumes about the new geopolitics of the Middle East. Russia has become a player in the region, partially filling the vacuum left by U.S. retrenchment. And to some U.S. allies, Moscow appears more reliable than Washington. There is no getting around this fundamental tradeoff given the reality that a rising China and an aggressive Russia require greater U.S. attention. Rather than demand that his Middle Eastern partners and allies take a public stand, Biden is going to have to cut them some slack. And this extends beyond pronouncements and condemnations over Ukraine. Washington might have to release the Saudi crown prince from the penalty box if Biden needs MBS to reduce the price of oil. U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to end their war in Yemen may have to give way to support for their efforts to deter Iranian-backed Houthi aggression. The United States may have to continue giving Israel a free hand to deal with Iran’s regional subversions even as Biden reenters the nuclear agreement with Iran. And cooperation with Egypt in Gaza and Libya may have to take priority over U.S. demands that Sisi ease up his repression at home.

The Ukraine crisis has spotlighted a cruel paradox for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Even though it has downgraded its interests there, which should have allowed for a greater assertion of American values, the return of geopolitics is forcing the Biden administration to adopt a new realism. Whatever good intentions the United States might have in the region, its interests there are increasingly taking priority over its values.

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