Why the Middle East no longer trusts America
It will take a while for the dust of America’s hasty retreat from Afghanistan to settle, especially considering the hefty price tag for a nation-building project that was always doomed to fail, but the unceremonious end to a two-decade adventure will affect just about every corner of the Arab world.
A battered and diminished Washington will find it even more challenging to exert influence in a region that has been, for decades, a major focus of its foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Any modicum of authority the White House still had in the region is now in tatters.
The Afghanistan debacle is no mere instance of yet another nation’s tumble with fate after exceeding the scope of its mission, and prolonging the stay in a perennially fragile, conflict-prone area. Afghanistan — and by extension, Iraq — came to symbolize the culmination of what should have been a decisive global counterterrorism campaign marked by devastating demonstrations of hard power, and soft power mostly via muddled efforts at post-conflict nation building. It went well beyond deployments of men, munitions and money in pursuit of narrow objectives. The “War on Terror” was as much a forceful demonstration of America’s enduring commitment to the region, and the lengths it was willing to go in pursuit of its democratization ideals.
It all ended in that swift and chaotic exit from Kabul.
Some will argue that the writing was already in the sand, considering the diminishing returns from what had become a runaway misadventure. To them, America's departure had long become a matter of “when,” not “if.” All that was lacking was a political window of opportunity.
Of course, pundits and opinion columnists will beg to differ. Regardless, the timing of President Biden’s fateful decision will always be a matter of debate, depending on which side of the political fence one falls. What is not up for discussion is the air of foreboding now descending on a region quickly being reshaped by intensifying rivalries and self-serving encroachments from Beijing and Moscow.
There is ample justification for Biden’s critics to wonder whether the collapse of American credibility will accelerate an Al-Qaeda or Daesh re-emergence. Others fear a reinvented seemingly moderate Taliban has learned how conciliatory overtures and diplomatic doublespeak can earn them friends in the unlikeliest of places, such as Iran.
Any modicum of authority the White House still had in the region is now in tatters
In other parts of the Arab world, Afghanistan was never a zero-sum game, and what was lacking was not America’s absence, but an enduring self-sustaining strategy. With the last entanglement now being a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely Washington will find it even more challenging to corral support and cooperation among partners no longer convinced that the White House will stick to its commitments.
For them, impassioned speeches by US presidents or the high-level summits they spawn are no longer credible signs of enduring American interest. The only way to trust Washington is to gauge which foreign policy outcomes will deliver the most political dividend ahead of congressional or presidential elections.
However, the American public has been largely supportive of the Afghanistan pullout, and of the US lowering its profile abroad in favor of solutions for domestic woes. These realities complicate the State Department's agenda, especially the parts guided by a Biden-Blinken worldview that US leadership should be about fostering multilateral engagements, and persuading partners, allies and adversaries to talk rather than make war.
Unfortunately, the US can only go so far if even its staunchest allies are not convinced of the longevity of its commitments past the next elections, dooming efforts across the Middle East and North Africa aimed at forging peace, countering terrorism, and facilitating regional integration.
Take for instance the Maghreb, where Morocco and Algeria are frequently at odds about the Western Sahara, and compete for dominance over parts of North Africa and the Sahel. Both countries enjoy strong ties to Washington, and are capable allies in efforts to contain Al-Qaeda and Daesh offshoots in the Maghreb, and to disrupt networks financing terrorism via trafficking and weapons flows from Libya to extremist groups in and south of the Sahara. Now, however, Morocco and Algeria are again at loggerheads, and without America’s counterbalancing presence, cooperation against shared threats will probably crumble.
The same applies in Libya, where US-led efforts have maintained some momentum in peace-building efforts and dialogue between conflicting interests. However, should the December elections fail to materialize, or deliver an outcome that makes civil war inevitable, the US will eschew deeper entanglements. After all, Biden would prefer to avoid another decade-long fallout, as happened after the misguided 2011 NATO intervention, for which he had a front-row seat.
This same story runs on repeat throughout the region, from Sudan to Somalia, the Levant, and the Gulf, where seemingly entrenched US interests are quickly losing their permanence. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and the UAE must accept a pared-down US presence, with hundreds of troops, aircraft and air defense systems withdrawn in what some suspect is an effort to placate Iran ahead of an agreement to revive the nuclear deal.
Surprisingly, the Biden administration is betting on a rekindled JCPOA as the focal point of constructive US re-engagement in a region where most Americans are simply too indifferent and too fatigued to care. Obtaining Ebrahim Raisi’s signature on any sort of agreement may score some points for an administration largely on the defensive about Afghanistan at home. Abroad, however, it remains to be seen just how well the US can salvage its mangled reputation from the wreckage of the Afghanistan exit.
What is left, after all, is an increasingly distrustful regional audience forced to come to terms with just how much Washington is prepared to undo in service of its pivot to Indo-China. To them, what lies ahead is a dark future poisoned by two decades of costly failures, and the new reality of a distant America no longer interested in policing the world.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell