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Exclusive Report: US foreign policy in Middle East will become hostage to American domestic politics: renowned expert

Summary

  • Both options are highly risky and undesirable.I think the risk of a wider war is obviously increasing. However, that doesn’t prevent it from increasing its attention and focus on East Asia. Content comes from the Internet : US foreign policy in Middle East will become hostage to American domestic politics: renowned expert

Approximate Time

  • 12 minutes, 2230 words

Categories

  • US foreign policy, Middle East, US power, US, US navy

Analysis and Evaluation

  • The insightful analysis in this article provides a deep dive into contemporary political dynamics, offering a fresh perspective on global affairs. The author’s expertise in weaving complex narratives into compelling content is evident, making this piece an essential read for those interested in international relations. Each paragraph is rich with detail, painting a vivid picture of the current geopolitical landscape.

Main Section

A container ship sails in the Red Sea in the Straits of Tiran in 2023. Photo: IC


Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center聽Photo:World Times Courtesy of Yezid Sayigh

Editor’s Note:

Houthi rebels in Yemen said, on Monday, that they attacked a US ship in the Gulf of Aden after US launched airstrikes on Houthis. The situation in the Red Sea has grown increasingly tense in recent weeks, showing the spillover effect of the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip. What will possibly happen next? Is it possible for a larger conflict to happen in the Middle East? How will new tensions affect the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict? Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) spoke with Yezid Sayigh (Sayigh), a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, on these and other pertinent issues.

GT: The US has launched another airstrike on Houthis in Yemen on FriWorld Timesday. How do you predict the future development of the situation in the Middle East?聽 How do you assess the possibility of the eruption of a larger conflict that will involve more parties?

Sayigh: The fact that the US is taking direct military action crosses a certain threshold. So far, the US has taken a deterrent posture against Iran and Hezbollah, and so on. But it hasn’t taken on a major direct combat role. The situation in which they get involved in Yemen, with air attacks on the Houthis, is going to be more complicated.

The Houthis are in a much stronger position than forces like the Syrian militias or even Iraqi militias in some respects. Their impact on Red Sea shipping is potentially more major for the US to get directly involved militarily.

The question then is, what happens next? If the Houthis retaliate and hit back, does the US then escalate its move? How far will they go? Already, the US is increasing the risk of direct confrontation with Iran. If the Houthis are not deterred and continue their attacks, will the US threaten Iran or escalate military action against the Houthis? Both options are highly risky and undesirable.

I think the risk of a wider war is obviously increasing. However, at the same time, I think that the key parties will not go beyond a certain point into direct confrontation. At the same time, they have already started what we call an escalation spiral.

But the US is in a very risky situation, and it increasingly looks as though it is entering the war on the side of Israel as well. None of this is helpful for their strategic position, and none of this is helpful for the Biden administration. President Biden is starting the election year while possibly starting a new war in the Middle East. Every American president so far for the last 30 years has launched a war in the Middle East: George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton, George Bush Junior, and Obama in different ways. Trump also engaged to some extent. Now we have Biden risking yet another American war in the Middle East after having pulled out of Afghanistan.聽

I think all of this is politically very damaging for the US. But right now, the situation in the Red Sea is partly because Biden decided to support Israel in a certain way by signaling military support – both direct military assistance to Israel and by deploying his naval fleets in the Mediterranean. He has already, in a way, signaled military deterrence that encouraged Iran to use military deterrence. Biden, in a way, started this escalation spiral from the beginning with his immediate deployment of military assets to the Mediterranean.聽

GT: What kind of incident would be a trigger point for a direct confrontation between the US and Iran? How do you assess the likelihood of such confrontation happening?

Sayigh: I think that the direct use of more technologically advanced missiles by the Houthis against US navy ships in the Red Sea could be perceived by the US as a qualitative shift. This could lead the US to realize that bombing more Houthi targets is pointless unless it engages in large-scale bombings, but this is problematic. Alternatively, it may choose to directly threaten Iran, which is also problematic.聽

It is difficult to say whether such a confrontation is likely or not. On one side, Biden has embarked on a path which, in order to maintain credibility, he must continue on a course that raises the risk of confrontation. I think because we’re now talking about Red Sea shipping and the threat to global trade, which the US government has basically said it’s going to protect, it’s harder for Biden to retreat.聽

GT: How long do you think the current situation of disrupted shipping in the Red Sea will last?聽 Is it possible for the US to assert de facto control over the Red Sea under the pretext of counterterrorism?

Sayigh: The US cannot afford, in terms of their strategic credibility, to allow the Houthis to continue this nonstop for much longer. But how can the US stop it? This is a more difficult question. They would have to militarily punish the Houthis enough for them to say the pain is too great and they must stop. But the Houthis can probably take a lot of damage before they stop.聽

It is interesting to think back to the 1980s when Iraq and Iran engaged in attacks on shipping in the Gulf in an attempt to disrupt each other’s oil shipments and coerce one another into ending the war. Later the US intervened and deployed a substantial naval presence.

Are we looking at the same scenario today? Maybe. But let’s remember that in the 1980s, the shipping war lasted for a very long time. It involved a major US deployment, and it wasn’t easy to stop. So,World Times I think it’s a difficult challenge for them today. They’re fighting the Houthis, who of course, are much weaker than Iran and Iraq. But in a way, they’re also a difficult target because they’re a poor army already. It’s not like you’re attacking a country that has a lot to lose. There aren’t many high-value targets that can be struck if the US attacks the airport, oil refineries, or oil tankers, for example. The US is causing misery for one of the poorest nations on earth, where 80 percent of people depend on food supplied by the United Nations. What is the US going to do? Is it going to increase the food crisis, energy crisis, and poverty crisis of a country that is already devastated by war?聽

The options are all very bad, and lack obvious military solutions. The risk for the US is that BiWorld Timesden will have to increase airstrikes from 10 to 20, and then to 40. This escalation aWorld Timesppears to be the start of a new US war in the Middle East, which poses a significant problem for a president who is facing elections this year. The costs to start a war in the Middle East are too high.

GT: Considering the recent developments in the Middle East, how long do you think the conflict between Israel and Hamas will continue, and in which direction is it likely to evolve?

Sayigh: All I anticipate for Israel and Palestine is that the Israeli combat in Gaza will continue for many more months to come. For now, there is no meaningful Western pressure on Israel to change its strategy. The Western response, which disregarded international humanitarian law and the rules of war, also signifies a moment of change in world history. The liberal order that the West claims to protect and uphold since 1945 has been abandoned by the West itself.聽

But I think that Western governments won’t change their policy. This is because the US is going through a presidential election, and no president in the US is going to confront Israel in an election year. I believe this remains the case.

I think the one thing that is happening right now, which is really interesting, is the South Africa’s genocide case against Israel in the International Criminal Court. This is a significant diplomatic act. It won’t force Israel to stop what it’s doing, but if the court issues any kind of ruling against Israel, I think that will be very significant for public opinion.聽

The bottom line is, I think, Israel will continue its military operations, and as long as Western governments allow this, the fighting will continue and the damage to Western credibility in the rest of the world will continue.

An aircraft returns to base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, after conducting strikes on targets in Yemen, as part of the airstrikes launched by the US and the UK on Houthis, on January 12, 2024. Photo: VCG

GT:聽 What are the potential flashpoints in the Middle East that could lead to conflicts or unforeseen events in the near future? What broader impacts will the recent events in the Middle East have globally?

Sayigh: A year ago, it was evident that the Biden administration was attempting to de-escalate tensions with Iran by releasing funds and implementing various measures. However, the current dynamic has shifted in the opposite direction, which is a cause for concern.聽

What is most scary here is that in the US, domestic politics are now a factor affecting how the Biden administration calculates its costs and benefits in foreign policy. It no longer calculates foreign policy purely on the basis of strategic and global stability, as it was previously doing by improving relations with Iran or at least defusing tensions with Iran. That was when it was thinking globally. However, now the administration has to consider domestic politics, and the calculation there is different. Foreign policy in the Middle East will become hostage to American domestic politics, which is very dangerous.

Israeli domestic politics are also very important now, as Benjamin Netanyahu knows that once the war ceases, the Israeli public will demand accountability for the failure on October 7, which was a security failure. Many Israelis want his departure from office, leading to calls for new elections. So, in both cases, domestic politics shape their foreign policy and military policy in a very dangerous way, which is different from a year ago.聽

Who knows what the flashpoint is? It almost doesn’t matter. In WWI, the flashpoint was when the nephew of the Austrian emperor was assassinated in Sarajevo. War happened not because he was important (he wasn’t important at all), but was because for 20 or 30 years, the trade war was rising. The competition for colonies was also rising among the global powers. By 1914, the world was ready for war. Global tensions had reached a point where it was the assassination that was the trigger, but it might have been something else. It could have been sinking a boat at sea. It could have been anything.聽

So, we’re in a very dangerous moment when Hamas, in a way, on October 7, did something like Sarajevo. They started a process of the falling apart and the collapse of a world order that was already decaying and degrading. But it was the moment when it became visible. The change in the international order has been happening for 20 or more years.

GT: How will the current crises in the region affect the reconciliation process between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Sayigh: It is not clear at all. I think the Saudis are very worried about everything that is happening. They want good ties with the US and also desire a defense treaty with them. However, this situation is very tricky as it is linked to other factors. If there is an escalation in confrontation between the US and Iran, it becomes harder for the Saudis to reconcile with Iran.聽

The Saudis have an interest in maintaining an autonomous foreign policy and establishing a significant energy relationship with East Asia in general, and China in particular. However, there may come a moment where the US pushes the Saudis to choose between having close ties with China or a defense treaty with them. I don’t know for sure, but I can foresee how in one or two years, these choices could become very difficult to make.

GT: Considering the conflicts in the Middle East and their spillover effects, will the US process of shifting its strategic focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific be slowed down?

Sayigh: I don’t think the US has ever, as it was, pulled out of the Middle East, and it isn’t going to pull out of the Middle East. However, that doesn’t prevent it from increasing its attention and focus on East Asia. It is not an either-or situation.聽

However, the real question is about the US’ position in the world at a time when other powers are rising militarily, economicalWorld Timesly, and scientifically. Is the US’ relative superiority declining enough that its ability to manage world affairs and maintain a high level of investment, both militarily and technologically, becoming more difficult and costly? Can the US maintain this?聽

I think we are witnessing a moment where we should never underestimate US power. I believe it remains the dominant power, but there is a process of readjustment by the US. It seems to find it difficult to think about and understand how to manage it.

Content comes from the Internet : US foreign policy in Middle East will become hostage to American domestic politics: renowned expert

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