The United States Abdicates Its Responsibilities in the Middle East

Imad K. Harb

It is impossible to see how the massacre of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza or the moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem will help chart a way out of the morass of instability in Palestine and Israel, or in the larger Middle East. As the region nurses wounds of civil war and destruction, witnesses the ongoing war in and on Yemen, frets about the continuing GCC crisis, and contemplates the possibility of the collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement, May 14, 2018—the date of the embassy move—will likely be recorded as the day when hope for an American-brokered regional peace finally ended. It will also signal the moment in history when many in the region understood that the United States may have abdicated its role in helping to resolve a number of intractable conflicts.

The Trump Administration seems to be digging in its heels in defending Israel’s killing of Palestinians, saying that Hamas effectively pushed people––including an eight-month-old infant––to demonstrate at the Gaza fence and serve as targets for Israeli military snipers.  With hardly any evidence that the organization or its fighters have indeed mobilized thousands of Palestinians demanding to return to their rightful homeland, Trump’s White House has adopted a racist Israeli narrative that represents an assault on truth and good sense. According to this accusation, Palestinians are no more than robots to be turned on and off by a villainous manipulator. That Hamas rules the Gaza Strip is known; but to insinuate that it controls how Palestinians respond to their dispossession is delusional and accords no rightful agency and self-determination to the Palestinian people.

While Israeli snipers were deliberately gunning down 60 Palestinians and maiming over 2,000, a delegation of American officials and members of Congress, headed by the indefatigable Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, sported jubilant smiles at the dedication of the American embassy in Jerusalem. Israel’s violation of the fundamental and international human right to life was juxtaposed with an American defilement of international law that prohibits the acquisition of territory by force. Indeed, buying into the Israeli narrative about Gaza and gifting Jerusalem––one of the “final status” issues in a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement––to Israel are signs that the United States has finally shed the last appearances of neutrality that an honest broker needs to resolve the 70-year-old conflict.

With such a biased track record on display, how will the United States approach other conflicts in the Arab world with a clear, informed, credible, or sober intent? As Syria runs headlong into its eighth year of civil war, Washington does not appear to understand the gravity of not having a plan for influencing events or of the problems of ceding the upper hand to Russia and Iran there. The Pentagon may have finally put to rest President Donald Trump’s nonchalant announcement about withdrawing American troops from Syria “very soon,” but that development is meaningless if a political transition away from Assad’s authoritarian rule is not negotiated with American assistance. Assad’s remaining in office threatens more bloodshed, prevents the return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes, and adds uncertainty to Lebanese and Iraqi politics.

Neither is the United States dedicated to finding a solution for the civil war in Yemen and the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in it. There are those who refuse to accept American responsibility for resolving the conflict in Yemen for reasons having to do with not getting enmeshed in the intricacies of decades-old frictions. But the United States is already a party to the carnage in the country since it is involved in fighting al-Qaeda. It also serves as the supplier of much of the weaponry that is sometimes used indiscriminately against civilian targets. Moreover, American neglect of Yemeni affairs is diverting attention from restoring the legitimate government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to Sanaa and is increasing threats to the unity of the country.

Finally, the Trump Administration’s coupling of American and Israeli foreign policy threatens to engulf the United States in unwarranted and open-ended disasters. Ignoring the evidence gathered by inspectors, the informed opinion of scientists and strategic thinkers, and the advice of old allies, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which had been painstakingly negotiated and implemented. Having reneged on an international agreement that was consecrated in a United Nations Security Council resolution, the United States now may not be able to defend itself against charges of acting as a rogue state—an accusation it has levied on many other countries over the years. Therefore, it should not be surprising if the international community avoids giving the United States a say, let alone a leading role, in setting a well-thought out agenda for global peace.

Buying into the Israeli narrative on Gaza, according Israel recognition of Jerusalem as its capital without anything in return, and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem have forced the United States to finally shed the last pretenses of serving as a neutral actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Added to the dangerous shift in American foreign policy is the abdication of the duty to staff the US Department of State with personnel deeply knowledgeable in Middle Eastern and other regional affairs. The Trump Administration may be paving the way to drastically reduced influence in the region, at best, or to complete irrelevance, at worst, in many of the important struggles and contests around the world.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here