To some observers, President Obama's decision to sign off on an interim deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program sends an unmistakable message to the Middle East: The U.S. is backing away from the region, and in a big way.
"Obama has now announced that the United States cannot be relied upon to stand up to Iran," says Michael Doran, a Middle East adviser to President George W. Bush. "Therefore, Israel and our Arab allies will be forced to live by their wits."
These concerns, while a tad overblown, aren't based on nothing. Obama has made it plain that he thought his predecessor was far too fixated on the Middle East and its surrounding hot spots, to the detriment of U.S. national security interests. Since Obama came into office, the U.S. military has all but vacated Iraq, and Obama is threatening to similarly pull the U.S. out of Afghanistan if President Hamid Karzai doesn't sign a bilateral security agreement by January 1.
Then there's Syria: Instead of bombing the government of President Bashar al-Assad over its use of chemical weapons, or even sending much military aid to the anti-Assad rebels, Obama leapt at the chance to turn the conflict over to the United Nations. In Libya — Obama's sole non-drone military campaign in the Arab world — the U.S. purposefully adopted a we-don't-own-this stance.
And with Iran, the White House has highly prioritized a diplomatic solution, an indication to Israel and others that the U.S. will disengage from the Middle East as soon as the nuclear threat is neutralized.
By all indications, the American public is on board. Probably the main reason Obama didn't lob missiles into Syria was strong opposition from Congress and the broader war-weary public. And voters approve of the Iran deal by a 44 to 22 percent margin, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week. They also agreed, 65 to 21 percent, that the U.S. "should not become involved in any military action in the Middle East unless America is directly threatened."
"This absolutely speaks to war fatigue, where the American appetite for intervention — anywhere — is extremely low," says Ipsos pollster Julia Clark.
The Obama administration's stop-and-start pivot toward containing China also implies a turning away from the Levant. If Obama gets rid of Iran's nuclear threat, says Mark Landler at The New York Times, that will free him "to reduce America's preoccupation with the Middle East and turn to another of his foreign-policy priorities, Asia."
Finally, with increased automobile fuel efficiency and the boom in America's natural gas production, the U.S. is less reliant on foreign — read "Middle East" — oil. "The shale oil and gas boom is transforming energy markets, with the U.S. likely to emerge as the world's biggest combined oil and gas producer this year," says Harsh V. Pant at India's DNA. "American imports of natural gas and crude oil have fallen 32 percent and 15 percent since 2008."
Not everyone is buying the disengagement theory: The U.S. is almost certainly not going to abandon Israel or Saudi Arabia, for example. But the U.S. wouldn't be the first world power to cede its outsize influence in the Middle East — the Russians were active players during the Cold War and for decades earlier, and the contours of the modern Middle East were largely drawn by Great Britain and France in 1915 and 1916.
But what would happen if the U.S. scaled back its overarching presence in the Middle East?
Israel and the Sunni Arab governments of the Persian Gulf are concerned that Shia Iran will fill the vacuum. The U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein turned Iraq from a mortal enemy of Iran to an ally, and Syria's civil war has pushed Assad much closer to Iran.
Also, if Saudi Arabia and Israel feel they can no longer rely on the U.S. for protection, they might act on their own. "Saudi officials intimate that they can procure a nuclear weapon for themselves from Pakistan," says Shashank Joshi at BBC News, and "if a longer-term settlement does not follow, and Iran renews its nuclear expansion, then the risk of Israeli air strikes will grow significantly."
As a result, instability in the region could very well be exacerbated. "Saudi-Iranian tensions and [tensions in] the broader Gulf region will increase," says Nadim Shehadeh at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
If there's a vacuum, other outside nations could step in, too. Russia is the obvious first responder. "Moscow, more so than Washington, has been more effective in these Geneva negotiations in advancing and protecting its interests in the wider Middle East," says Andrew Bowen at London's pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat.
Disengagement may inconvenience several countries, and it would certainly shake up the region. But that doesn't mean it would be bad for the U.S. — or the Middle East for that matter. The core complaint and founding impetus of Al Qaeda, for example, was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, Islam's holy land.
"Apart from the direct costs, extensive U.S. interference had two obvious negative effects: It helped fuel anti-American terrorism, and it gave some regional powers additional incentives to pursue weapons of mass destruction," says Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy. When we talk about U.S. strategy in the Middle East, "we need to start by recognizing that the United States is in very good shape, and a lot of what happens in that part of the world may not matter very much to the country in the long run."
As the French ambassador to the United States said in 1910: "The United States was blessed among nations. On the north, she had a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east, fish, and on the west, fish." Today, the United States possesses the world's most capable conventional military forces and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, giving Washington a deterrent power that others can only envy. Indeed, the main reason the United States can roam around concerning itself with other countries' business (and interfering in various ways) is because it doesn't have to worry about defending itself against foreign invasions, blockades, and the like. [Foreign Policy]
The U.S. has several moral and strategic reasons to remain actively involved in the Middle East, Walt continues, but "the last thing the United States should do is try to play referee or try to impose its preferred political formula on these event." That doesn't mean the U.S. should disengage, only that "it should not be overly eager to interfere."