Following Hamas’s brutal massacre of Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, Israel’s massive military campaign against the group has brought the Gaza Strip to the brink of annihilation and the Middle East to the edge of a broader war. A slew of incidents since then suggests that the conflict could escalate even further, notes ‘The Foreign Policy’.
Washington should face reality: U.S. Middle East policy has failed.
At the heart of this failure are the United States’ main regional partnerships. The two crucial U.S. partners in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are liabilities to the United States, not assets. Although the two states maintain considerable political, economic, and social differences, they both consistently undermine U.S. interests and the values that the United States claims to stand for. Washington should fundamentally reorient its approach to both countries, moving from unconditional support to arm’s-length relationships.
Israel’s war in Gaza epitomizes the violence done to stated U.S. values while also jeopardizing U.S. interests in the Middle East. The destruction wreaked by this war will take generations to fix, and Washington’s global image has been permanently tarnished by its support for such actions.
The Biden administration has centered its regional policies around efforts to broker normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel as an extension of the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, which witnessed Israel formally normalize relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in 2020 and were later expanded to include Morocco and Sudan.
In return for normalizing relations with Israel, the Saudi crown prince has repeatedly made his demands clear: The United States must provide the kingdom with a formal security guarantee and assist in the development of Riyadh’s civilian nuclear program.
Since Oct. 7, Israeli, Saudi, and U.S. officials have repeatedly reiterated their commitment to striking this deal. Saudi-Israel normalization has been packaged together in what U.S. commentator Thomas L. Friedman referred to as a “single formula” to somehow preserve a two-state solution, balance against Iran, and counter China’s ambitions in the Middle East.
Biden has repeatedly claimed that Hamas launched its attack on Oct. 7 with the intention of derailing Saudi-Israel normalization. Numerous U.S. administration officials have since stressed their continued efforts toward brokering such an agreement.
Washington should seize this moment to fundamentally transform its approach to its Middle East partnerships. By moving from reflexive support toward arm’s-length relationships, the United States can end its complicity in its partners’ policies while fundamentally reorienting its Middle East policy.
Of course, such a fundamental reorientation will be difficult: That policy has, for decades, been rooted in an array of misconceptions and structural barriers to change. An entrenched system of lobbying and special interests designed to preserve status quo policies represents the most immediate obstacle. Among the U.S. political elite, the perceived political costs of transforming the U.S. relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia have long been an impediment to reform.
Pushing for change will be an uphill battle, but the need has never been clearer. After decades of projecting force into the region without a coherent strategy, the United States has spent trillions of dollars but failed to produce regional stability or advance U.S. interests. These interests in the region are limited, and their advancement does not require unconditional political or military support for any actor.
Washington’s unwavering devotion to its current approach to the region has produced 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 and policies in the Middle East.
The human and material costs of Washington’s Middle East policy have been immense. What will billions more in military aid and an expansive U.S. presence in the Middle East accomplish in the years to come? History suggests that it will produce continued damage to U.S. interests and regional stability.
It is past time to change course in the Middle East. Failure to do so risks formalizing Washington’s commitment to a cycle of instability that will continue to impact the region — and undermine U.S. interests — for generations.
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