United States initiates moves to reevaluate its influence in the Middle East


Just two years ago, as the United States scrambled to hastily withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, leaving behind billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, the scenes of chaos spoke volumes. The moment seemed to mark a potential turning point for the Pax Americana that had ushered in a period of relative global peace since the end of the Cold War. However, both the Pentagon and the White House downplayed the notion of retreat, preferring to term it a “strategic withdrawal”.

Despite the rhetoric, the repercussions were felt worldwide, nowhere more significantly than in the broader Middle East. In the years following the completion of the US departure from Afghanistan, new strategic agendas have emerged within the region. Simultaneously, Washington and its allies have demonstrated an increased willingness to exhibit sustained commitment amid growing global challenges.

Analogous to the perceived lack of American determination and strategic influence in Syria, Iraq, and Crimea prior to the US exit from Afghanistan, the aftermath of Kabul contributed to the circumstances that led to the conflict in Ukraine.

Across various global arenas, the apparent US withdrawal, attributed to diplomatic hesitancy and a reluctance to engage militarily, has transformed the geopolitical landscape. This trend is particularly evident in the Global South, a term that the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and other academic voices have argued should be retired due to its lack of precision.

During the Cold War, the world was effectively divided into the Western bloc led by the US and its northern allies, and the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union and its allies in the developing world. However, the diverse group of 130 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean can no longer be neatly classified as the “Global South” in terms of development.

In recent decades, for instance, Turkey’s standard of living has surpassed that of certain European nations. Morocco’s economic growth no longer parallels Egypt’s, and the progress in countries like Jordan and Malaysia has attracted admiration from Southern European counterparts.

Politically, the concept of the Global South has proven ineffective. For example, India has been a US ally but has also maintained crucial ties with Russia and Iran. This has led to positions that sometimes contradict Washington’s interests, such as India’s stance of neutrality in the Ukraine conflict.

US allies in the Gulf region have similarly been cautious in taking sides in the conflict while maintaining connections with Moscow. Furthermore, their strong security relationships with the US have not prevented them from forging ties with the BRICS group of emerging economies, which includes Russia and Iran.

The once linear division of the world, from which the term “Global South” emerged, has grown substantially more intricate and diverse. Against this backdrop of shifting global power dynamics, the US has begun to respond.

Although US power projection is often associated with its military capabilities, the American relationship with international institutions also plays a crucial role in its influence. Recent calls for NATO to adapt, expand, and seek new allies reflect the imperative to maintain the relevance of existing international frameworks.

Amid China’s efforts to bolster the BRICS bloc as a rival to the G7, US President Joe Biden announced a focus on economically supporting “like-minded countries of the Global South”. This involves channeling US$50 billion through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to strengthen institutions in which the US has historically played a part. Such collaboration is essential to counteract China’s coercive lending practices under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Given that more than 40 impoverished nations are already heavily indebted to China, strengthening the Bretton Woods institutions is crucial for addressing the challenges faced by the US and its allies.

Amid the multipolar nature of the international system, unilateral actions by the US are increasingly untenable. Recent years have seen the US withdraw from the global stage due to a more insular foreign policy. However, last week’s summit involving the US, Japan, and South Korea demonstrated a step in the right direction by focusing on cooperation, upholding international law, ensuring freedom of navigation, and pursuing peaceful dispute resolution.

Sustained support for such initiatives and collaboration with traditional allies are vital if the US is to uphold the rules-based global system it has long championed. The pressing arena for these efforts is currently the Middle East, where the aftermath of the US’s rapid Afghanistan withdrawal continues to cast a shadow. Longstanding US allies are increasingly looking beyond Washington to secure their interests.

Qatar’s recent monumental 27-year liquefied natural gas deal with China underscores this trend. Doha, a non-NATO ally that supported the US in evacuating people from Kabul, is also bolstering its ties with Turkey and Indonesia while upgrading its defense pact with Turkey.

Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet and the UK’s Juffair naval base, is economically aligned with Asia while sharing security concerns with the US.

As Arab nations reassess their international partnerships, Washington must avoid further signs of disengagement, especially as the prospect of a new world order emerges amid a potential Chinese economic slowdown. Amid this evolving landscape, the US must strategically navigate its role in the Middle East to counteract the impact of its abrupt Afghanistan withdrawal.


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