US unreliability makes regional allies cautious on Ukraine

US unreliability makes regional allies cautious on Ukraine

US unreliability makes regional allies cautious on Ukraine
Local residents walk among debris of a residential building destroyed by shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 2, 2022. (Reuters)
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As Europe led the world in denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Moscow, America followed, while its Middle Eastern allies did not. Arab countries and Israel voiced concern over war and called for a peaceful settlement, but fell short of criticizing Russia.
At the UN Security Council, the UAE abstained on the American draft resolution that denounced Russia’s invasion. The UAE was in no mood for granting America any favors. Since Yemen’s Houthis struck Abu Dhabi with missiles and explosive drones weeks ago, it has tried to convince President Joe Biden’s administration to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organization. Washington has yet to oblige, reasoning that reclassifying the Houthis might offend Tehran and obstruct the return to the flawed Iran nuclear deal.
In Cairo on Monday, the Arab League held a meeting, during which deputy foreign ministers said “respecting international law” was important and pleaded for “restraint” and “a diplomatic solution,” but did not criticize Russia.
In Israel, dual Russian-Israeli nationals burned their Russian passports at protests in support of Ukraine. Yet the Israeli government’s position was more measured. Because America has no influence in Syria, where Iran is trying to build a military infrastructure with which it can threaten Israel, Tel Aviv has had to coordinate its strikes on Iranian targets with Russia, and hence has to maintain a working relationship with Moscow.
In 1991, Israel did not respond to Saddam Hussein’s firing of missiles on Israeli cities, mainly because Tel Aviv trusted that Washington was in charge. But now that the US is “pivoting away” from the Middle East, Israel and all other American allies in the region have to navigate international relations on their own, including calculating how far they can go against Russia, a regional player.
America’s Middle Eastern allies do not view Washington as a reliable partner today, and therefore cannot put all their eggs in the American basket. Instead, they have been hedging, aware that, when the dust settles, Vladimir Putin will likely remain the ruler of Russia and will probably outlast Biden and most other European heads of state. Middle Eastern countries play the long game.
Meanwhile, Washington’s convoluted position on Russia has not helped its regional allies jump off the fence. Even though Biden announced that Putin has now become an international pariah, State Department spokesperson Ned Price added a caveat. “Our relationship with Moscow is very different today than it was last week or even a few days ago,” Price said in describing how relations between the two capitals have quickly deteriorated. “At the same time, we have national security priorities, national security imperatives… (and) some areas in which the fulfillment of our national security priorities and imperatives require us to engage, to coexist at some level, with the Russian Federation.”

As long as Russia remains a player, with America’s blessing, no Middle Eastern capital will see any benefits in getting on Putin’s bad side.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Even though the Biden administration has not yet spelled it out, it is understood that America’s “national security priorities” mean engaging with Moscow over Iran’s nuclear program. Biden might have proclaimed Putin a pariah but, in the Middle East, the Biden administration believes he will remain in the game.
As long as Russia remains a player, with America’s blessing, no Middle Eastern capital will see any benefits in getting on Putin’s bad side.
And because America cannot show a steady hand, its leadership has been compromised. America’s Middle Eastern allies do not look up to Washington for guidance anymore, but rather see the US as an unreliable partner whose default reaction to global conflagrations is often appeasement.
Had America’s leadership been bold and assertive, its Middle Eastern allies might have lined up behind Washington in countering Russia’s belligerent behavior. Those allies might have found in a global coalition a great tool for confronting another dictatorship whose behavior is destabilizing their own region: The Iran regime.
But America’s Middle East allies are aware that Biden’s foreign policy is run by those who want a nuclear deal with Iran at any price. US allies understand that, when confronting Iran, they cannot rely on Washington, but only on themselves and on other powers, including Moscow.
Until America goes back to showing reliable leadership, do not expect its allies to toe its line.

• Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
Twitter: @hahussain

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